Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.
— Nelson Mandela
“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust…”
Trailing off into dramatic silence, Peter looked up from the book. Wide-eyed, blank faces greeted his own. One had a finger up her nose. Disguising his sigh by standing up from where he had been perched on his desk, Peter crossed over to the whiteboard.
“See, this second speaker is talking about a vision he’s having. One where nothing exists. There is a tree, but it’s dead. There is a cricket, but it doesn’t chirp. It’s a wasteland!” He wrote the last word in red marker and underlined it several times. Turning back to the class, Peter noticed two more kids had fingers up their noses.
“Wasteland. That’s the name of the book, and the meaning and symbolism of the whole text begins here,” he tried again. “Well, it continues on after this. Actually, the real wasteland is the modern city, as explained in the fourth part, so I suppose this is a red herring in a way, but—”
The students were saved from Peter’s further explanations by the school bell ringing for recess. With a clamor of chairs and joyous yells, the classroom emptied, leaving their teacher alone by the whiteboard, marker still in hand.
Peter gazed at what he had written, all red and feverish scribbles, and was still staring when he heard a voice at the door.
“Knock, knock. Hey, you busy?”
It was Veronica. “No,” Peter said, trying to keep his voice light and neutral, not at all filled with bitter disappointment.
He was clearly unsuccessful, for she came over to him quickly, looking concerned. “What’s the matter?” When he didn’t answer, she looked at the whiteboard. “Oh, Peter, not again.”
“I thought they might get it this time. You know, if I explained it . . . better,” he finished weakly.
“The Wasteland, really?”
“One stanza at a time—”
“Peter, they’re first graders.”
“One sentence at a time—”
“First graders, Peter.”
“Your marker’s drying out.”
Veronica took it out of his slack hand and capped it firmly before setting it on the holder. Then, taking hold of Peter’s shoulders, she directed him away from the whiteboard and into his chair. Peter immediately slumped forward, burying his head in his arms. She leaned against the desk, watching him.
“You can’t keep doing this. They’re supposed to be learning basic addition and how to color in the lines and memorizing cutesy poems. Not analyzing 20th century modernist literature.”
“It’s a great disservice to children that we insist on feeding them watered down media,” he said, voice muffled. “The implication that they can’t understand complex themes is simply insulting—”
“Not the point.”
Peter threw his hands up in the air, making Veronica step back in surprise. “Well, what is the point? I’m doing my job, aren’t I? I’m teaching, right? I’m doing my job!”
Veronica frowned. “What’s this really about? You’ve been teaching for three years now, and this is the first time you’ve put the writings of T.S. Eliot in your curriculum.”
Her reaction wasn’t the one he had been expecting, and his arms hung foolishly in the air for a moment before he sheepishly put them down.
“I . . . I don’t know,” Peter said, sighing and avoiding Veronica’s gaze. “I wish . . . I mean, I love my job, but I wish I was making more of a difference, I guess.” He ran his fingers through his hair, making it stick up wildly. “I don’t know.”
There was a small pause, then Veronica pulled up one of the children’s chairs to sit next to him, looking ridiculously over-sized in the tiny seat. “But you love kids,” she said softly.
Peter winced. “I do. Really. But—”
“What more of a difference could you possibly be making than helping them now, at this age, when they’re just beginning their learning journey?
He looked at her.
“You are the first step on the wonderful path of education and knowledge and understanding,” Veronica went on. “You are the person who shows them how amazing it is to learn new things and to never, ever stop.”
She picked up The Wasteland. “What, you want to teach college kids?”
Peter didn’t say anything.
“Kids who don’t get that spark, that first taste of the joy of newfound knowledge and discovery probably won’t even make it to college, or at least won’t really appreciate it.”
Peter stared at her, as if seeing her for the first time. He had quite forgotten she was also a teacher of young children, a teacher who also must’ve had doubts . . .
Veronica seemed to sense what he was thinking. “We are like gatekeepers. We let kids in to a whole new world—if we do it right. If we do our job.”
She pulled a Dr. Seuss book out from under a pile of ungraded tests on the desk and placed it in front of Peter, who glanced at the colorful cover before returning his gaze to Veronica.
“Everybody’s gotta start somewhere.”
When the class filed in fifteen minutes later, the whiteboard had been wiped clean of the red scribbles, replaced by large, round blue letters spelling out, “THE CAT IN THE HAT.”
Peter stood in the corner by the classroom mirror, watching his students get settled. A couple of them—the nosepickers, he noticed—eyed the board suspiciously.
“Is this another book?” Jessie asked, having spotted their teacher and waving her hand in the air.
He smiled and—after glancing in the mirror to make sure there was no more lipstick on his face—walked to the front of the room.
“Yes, it is.” Their faces fell. “But it won’t be as hard as the last one, I promise. Cross my heart and hope to eat cheese.” Tentative smiles.
Peter held up the Dr. Seuss book so the whole class could see. “It’s about a silly cat who wears a really silly hat.”
Slowly, everyone started to grin. And Peter began to read.
Not at all sure how or when or why I wrote this. Well, that’s not entirely true. The file said November 2014, and it was in a folder called “NaNoWriMo” – the only file in that entire folder. So . . . giant shrug? I vaguely recall the spark of this idea – teaching college-level texts to elementary schoolers – but that’s about it. I quite like it, though, if I may be so bold as to praise myself. ;P This year’s NaNoWriMo isn’t exactly off to a great start, but I’m working on it!