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Unanswered Questions

By Karen McKnight

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE your classroom management . . . philosophy?” I asked her awkwardly, trying to read my own handwriting.

“Love and logic,” she spat out just as casually as if I’d asked her what time it was. She was mostly occupied with gently pushing away the four-year-old tugging on her sweater sleeve.

Great, I thought to myself. This is perfect. I’m supposed to write a three-page paper on a real English teacher’s comprehensive answer to a single question, and all she’s got for me is a four-syllable slogan. On the other hand, she did use alliteration. Maybe I could take up a couple of doublespaced paragraphs by analyzing that.

“Oh, interesting,” I inserted as a verbal filler. I was grasping for a way to get her to explain without letting her know how clueless I was, “and . . . ”

“Maddy, go find your shoes, please. We’ll go home in just a couple minutes.”

“. . . and how does that philosophy literally . . . play out in your classroom?” That would have to do, I sighed.

Carrie Jones was soon to become my beacon of light to guide me through the valley of the shadow of student teaching. Apparently “love and logic” is a commonly used term in the field of education—one I should have known. Logic, as I discovered later, means that a teacher uses negative consequences that not only logically relate to the behavior, but also keep everyone’s focus on learning. Logic in Carrie’s classroom also meant that you by golly wouldn’t get away with a darned fool moment of failing to contribute positively to the learning environment unless you wanted “to get smacked.”

Love, on the other hand, means treating students with understanding and allowing for exceptions.

“But really, the key to love and logic,” Carrie was wrapping things up now, “is consistency.”

“Consistency . . . OK, well, great. Thanks so much for taking time for this today.” I finished my scribbling and stood up. “I really appreciate it.” How could the logic of no-nonsense strictness and the principle of loving exceptions be stirred around to yield consistency?

In retrospect, I guess the one who helped me make the most sense of love and logic was Matias Valdez, one of Carrie’s students. He should be in tenth grade this fall. Is he still giving his teachers hell, or has he moved to back to Tijuana to street-vend pretzels to the tourists?

I.

As I drove home after my classroom management interview, my mind threw its own curveball—into Leon High School, my alma mater. Capital “C” Consistency reminded me of Mrs. Parker and predestination. Like many tenth-grade English teachers, Mrs. Parker knew of the great calamity that would ensue if we didn’t spend two thirds of the school year studying the great classics of Puritan historical fiction. I felt, however, that hours of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stuffy writing was God’s judgment on me for getting a particular scarlet letter (not an A) in algebra the previous year. But the most memorable part of tenth-grade English was Mrs. Parker’s explanation of Puritan practice and belief.

“Predestination is pretty simple,” she said one fateful day. “Imagine that I am God,” she paused there with a small, omnipotent smile, “and all of you are people in the world classroom. The goal in this life is to get a good grade, but I have already pre-determined which of you will get As, and which of you will not.”

“But,” interrupted the girl in the seat behind me, “if our grades are already determined, then why should we bother to do the work?”

“Good question, Giselle. In predestination, the A students always do good work, because that’s just how they are. In fact, the way a Puritan would know if he or she was chosen would be to take a look at their lives. If they were obedient, doing good works, and receiving the blessings of God, then they could be fairly confident that they had been chosen.”

“But what about mercy for people who aren’t perfect?”

“Puritans believed that God’s mercy meant saving His chosen few. They knew there was too much evil in the world to save everyone. To them, predestination was the most logical answer.”

When my friend Caitlin and I saw that we were both consistently getting good scores on Mrs. Parker’s assignments, we joked that we had been “chosen.” This joke became less funny when Mrs. Parker accidentally gave me an A on the final exam.

“Mrs. Parker,” I interrupted her deskwork. “I think you made a mistake.” What follows here might sound like an episode of Leave it to Beaver, but it was characteristic of my guileless youth.

“What’s that, Karen?” She was obviously very busy.

“Well, I was a little slow during the timed essay part of the test, and I just didn’t finish it,” I explained, showing her the last half of the test booklet, three blank pages.

“Oh!” she laughed, “Well, I know you know how to do all of this anyway, right?” Without looking up for an answer, she changed my A to a B. My final grade for the class rounded up to an A. I remember thinking about Giselle, whom I had overheard complaining of consistent Cs. I wondered, would Mrs. Parker be as merciful to her?

II.

If Mrs. Parker’s class was the apostasy, Carrie Jones’s ninth grade class was the Restoration. As Carrie’s student teacher I was soon to discover that consistency was really a magic something that kept her students (not to mention myself) on their toes. She was powerful, she was fun, she was strict, she was a tease, but when she proclaimed that she was gonna call your mother to talk about your behavior, she was serious. She also instructed me very specifically about exception making.

“Never let anyone use the restroom or get a drink without a hall pass. Never. Except Ryan Mackles. He can go whenever he asks.

“Never let any students turn in their weekly reading logs more than two days late. Except Justin, David, and Tyler. They can have as much time as they need. In fact, if Lani does poorly on in-class tests, let her retake them at home. And grade easy on her class work, she’s still learning English.

“Never let any student talk back to you without calling home afterwards. Except for James—he has bipolar disorder and it doesn’t mean anything. You just have to let him go into the hallway sometimes to cool off.

“Never let students get away with failing. You can always help them catch up. Call their parents if they’re not getting their work in.” In Carrie’s classroom every student was predestined for salvation. As a result, they both respected and trusted her.

In my clumsy daily attempts to emulate Carrie’s wisdom, I was waiting for a rule book to appear. I wanted a more comprehensive set of dos and don’ts. I wanted a magic set of stone tablets or maybe a teleprompter to float in front of my face every time I had to make a decision about discipline or grades. I was afraid to trust my own judgment.

It finally occurred to me that in the classroom the best way to be fair was to be unfair, and the magic of inconsistency is that it creates a consistency. But this, of course, was just a poetic simplification. It didn’t answer all my questions about love and logic.

How did Carrie (or God for that matter) always know where to find the truth that lay somewhere between justice and mercy?

If I was doing such a good job of keeping a consistent temperament, what did Matias mean by telling me that my smile was creepy?

Why was it that some students responded best to stern discipline and strict deadlines, while others froze up unless coaxed with gentleness and patience?

Why didn’t Chris’s mother come to pick up his packet of missing work, my mercy gift, when it could have saved him from failing?

I remember a particular headache when Carrie suggested I ask Matias (failing that term) to make up an assignment overdue enough that other students could no longer make it up. I thought of two A-hungry students in the class who had Bs because they missed the due date, and their rage should they ever find out about the exception made for Matias. This meant inequality—that one student could have a privilege that others could not. While Matias had been making mistakes all along (skipping class, tearing up erasers instead of studying his vocabulary list, etc.), and his friends had been relatively responsible in their studies, he’d be the one getting amnesty.

I felt like the prodigal son’s father. The demands of perfect, equal, justice beckoned, but mercy seemed more comfortable. I followed Carrie’s suggestion.

III.

A similar justice-versus-mercy headache occurred later when I overheard part of a teacher’s lounge conversation: “My brother-in-law had to wait seven years to get in from Scotland the legal way. So I say these Mexicans can just go back home and get in the back of the line. It’s only fair.”

Although many of my students came from Spanish-speaking homes, Matias seemed to be the most affected by his minority status. Every day he slipped into class muttering more than a couple of Spanish profanities, and something about being tormented by “the white kids.” I remember at first being ignorant enough to think that racism couldn’t really be a major problem there in Spanish Fork, Utah. But it was. Many young American-born students even confided in me at various times great disgust for other students they suspected to be illegal immigrants. I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked.

My thoughts often turned to Matias as we read the novel I taught to the class, To Kill a Mockingbird. My tornado of feelings about justice and mercy didn’t touch down into tangible thoughts until Harper Lee did it for me. Toward the end of the novel, Atticus, an attorney determined to defend an innocent African-American man before a racist jury, says this about equality:

“We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe.” He explains that some are created with greater talents or are born into situations of greater opportunity. Then Atticus comes to his main point:

“But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal—there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court

. . . Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.”

No, I thought to myself, glancing at Matias, as the class read this passage together. There is at least one group in our country without equality in the law. The families of many of my students don’t have equal claim to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They are not among the chosen few who were predestined to have the basic salvation of education and economic opportunity by virtue of being born in the United States. I was thinking about the Puritans again, and the Salem witch trials. Deportation seemed painfully congruent. In my imagination, the Wicked Witch of the West and Dorothy (also an illegal immigrant) were arguing:

“They are criminals, after all.”

“Yes, and so was Rosa Parks.”

“But if you give them amnesty, then where is justice?”

IV.

One of the most patient women I know is a Taiwanese friend, Mary. She is the epitome of peace. I should probably prescribe for myself a visit to her home. She’d be just the person to talk me through my conflicted feelings about consistency, justice, and mercy. She’d invite me in, and as her smooth, consistent voice would remind me to replace my shoes with guest slippers, I’d sink into the soft carpet. Then she’d offer me a seat on her couch and a cup of hot water. I’d begin to share my questions with her while the water steamed and I stirred.

“Shouldn’t the management of a nation be somewhat like the management of a classroom? Shouldn’t making things fair mean making exceptions? Where is the love and logic? What should consistency mean in government?”

“Yes, yes, I see.” Then, “Please continue.”

“Well, in a public school classroom mercy makes sense, because the curriculum standards of the state focus on learning, rather than on protocols like the due-date system. Therefore, teachers can and should cast judgment on their students based on godlike, intuitive understanding. Maybe I did deserve an A in Mrs. Parker’s class after all . . . ”

Mary would then inhale slowly and upwards, leaving wideness between her eyes and brows, a space open for another level of thought. I’d go on.

“Is it possible for a government to see past the end of its nose, to look beyond ‘the system’ and see the higher principles that existed before its creation? Surely immigration is a story that’s more complex than law-broken-and-punishment- granted. Surely we shouldn’t cast judgment until we have a greater understanding.”

“Uh-huh, uh-huh—oh,” she’d grunt and nod.

“Who are these immigrants? What are their stories? What do they value? What do they contribute? Do they deserve what they are seeking here? And how long would it take to synthesize a comprehensive answer to these questions? And even after years of sociology, would research convey truth?”

And when her listening finally calmed the swirling in my cup she’d know it was time to say, “Yes, yes, very good questions. Good, good questions.” Then she’d sit back in her chair and smile.

Once Mary told me that to the Taiwanese, the traditional Western style of logical reasoning is laughable. “Because,” she explained, “a list of supporting arguments and examples to prove a linear thesis is superficial; life doesn’t really work in this manner. In reality, thoughts have the logic of an uncoiling spiral—some of the questions go unanswered.”

About Karen McKnight

Karen McKnight completed her BA in English teaching at BYU in the spring of 2008. She recently started her dream job: teaching English at Independence High School in Provo, Utah. Her classroom is decorated to replicate ancient Greece. Sometimes she thinks she is Socrates.

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