Recently I became much more aware of a significant difference before my classes from years past. When I first started teaching more than twenty-five years ago, after the first few weeks I’d approach the classroom and could hear the noise drifting down the hallway. Students would be talking about the night before or the weekend before, they’d be laughing about something on television or something I said last class. They’d be asking for updates about projects, vacations, families, kids; asking about the new car or talking about some bar on the bay.
They’d ask each other out, some got married, some had kids. They noticed when someone didn’t show up and could tell if someone was upset. They knew each other’s names, jobs, hobbies, backgrounds and plans. At eighteen or twenty-five or even forty, these new students started brand new friendships they’d have for the rest of their lives. There’s nothing like friends you meet in college. As adults they move in new directions, and the complexity of life becomes more manageable because of new relationships with people in the same boat.
You get the point. And I’m sure you see where this is going.
The other day I walked down the hallway toward my one o’clock class, now three weeks into the summer semester, and it was absolutely silent. There might have been no one in the room for the deafening quiet. I turned into the doorway and saw twenty-three students sitting next to each other for no less than six classes by this point, all completely silent looking down at their phones, texting the same friends they’ve been talking to since seventh grade. No one—not a single person—was talking to anyone else in the room.
It is the same all over campus. I walked by the bus stop and no one talked except the homeless guy who is always there to talk to people, but no one was listening. The student center was quieter than the library, and the only noise I found on one of my walks was in the hallways between classes where people were talking on their phones to the people they were texting during class. I am not exaggerating.
So I went into my class and students slowly came out of their Cell-Trance and noticed I was sitting quietly, waiting. Eventually most of them blinked their eyes and shook their heads to break the spell and stretched their bent necks. I asked a young woman the name of the guy next to her. She didn’t know, of course. I asked others. Nothing. I asked if anyone knew what the tall man in the front row did for a living. I asked if anyone knew where the girl with strong foreign accent is from. I asked if anyone knew why the guy in the third row had his arm in a cast. I asked if anyone knew what anyone else’s major is.
I left for a minute and ordered some pizzas. I showed part of Leo Buscaglia’s “The Art of Being Fully Human” lecture, the part where he reads the Haim Ginott letter listing what he saw in a concentration camp. They wanted more.
The pizzas came and we all grabbed a slice and settled down. After a few minutes I asked a guy in the front row to stand up. He wasn’t afraid to answer questions during lessons so I figured he’d be a good start. I asked his name, where he was from, if he worked and where, if he had a family and who. I asked if he had hobbies. I asked his major and why he chose this school and not another in the area. I asked what music was on his radio on the way in. I asked if he drank coffee, if he prefers winter or summer, if he is a morning person or a night owl, what his favorite tv show is, sports team, Peanuts character, Simpson’s episode. It didn’t take long and we moved to the next person. After only ten people it was hard to hear what the “spotlighted” person was saying because everyone else was talking to the already deposed student about things they had in common, places they shared. We were laughing at the noise, but we got through it, finished the pizzas and they left.
It was the best class I ever had. And I figured a few things out: I don’t listen enough. I don’t pay attention enough to those around me. I used to. At one time I was the uninvited guest who overheard their conversations before class and knew which ones were parents, which ones were widowed from war. I used to hear what they were scared of or excited about, and now I really don’t know my students because they’re not talking anymore. But really, I could have asked I suppose. I was probably sitting in my office checking my Facebook posts. Now, every class I teach after the first week or two, this is what we’re going to do. Someone else is going to have to spring for the pizza, though.
I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and killed by high school and college graduates. So I’m suspicious of education. My request is: help your students to be human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, or educated Eichmanns. Reading and Writing and spelling and history and arithmetic are only important if they serve to make our students more human. –Haim Ginott