Friday, September 10, 2010

Classroom Alchemy

The Ancients believed that there was something magical about certain elements.  They believed that given the right scientific formula to follow, and the right ingredients, done under the right circumstances, something mystical could happen.  Gold.  The purest and most brilliant of elements.  Gold could be created from the basest of elements – lead.  The dullest and most mundane of elements.  A skilled alchemist could take the common and transform it into rarity and beauty.  Alchemists would search out their ingredients with fanatical determination.  They would gather the perfect ingredients to combine and create the desired results.  Now most historians believe that alchemy was often used as a metaphor to understand the human spirit, or enlightenment, or spirituality, or even mysticism.  The old alchemical texts weren’t referring to actual lead and gold, but metaphorical Lead and Gold.  How to transform oneself from something mundane to something extraordinary.  But it was the combination of elements, the formula one used, the ingredients that would really make the difference.

If you weren’t a teacher or student at my high school, if you were an outsider, one of the funniest places to hang out would be our faculty room.  At my school we call it the Family Room.  The Family Room is a place where we hang out, get away, hide, and talk.  We talk about all kinds of things, but funnily, while you would think that we wouldn’t talk about students, or our work, or our classrooms, it about all we do talk about.  Sometimes it’s hard for me to go there because that’s ALL we talk about.  But the one thing that remains constant is how we talk about our classes.

Anyone who’s taught for any real length of time knows this sociological fact – every class has its own personality.  There is something mystical, something chemical, or even alchemical, that occurs when elements are combined in order to get something amazing out of the teaching process.  Each class, each period that I teach, is like a person itself.  It has its own sense of humor, its own sensitivities, its own issues.  And all this has to do with the combination of students within that class.  Any one student within a given class might not have a particular sense of humor, but taken together a sense of humor may appear.  Any one student, in a particular class, may not be super curious about a given topic, but taken together a particular class may have an insatiable curiosity.  There is something about putting a group of people together, for a given amount of time, and watching how they form their own particular group, with its own peculiarities and personality.  It’s transformative.  It’s alchemical.  It’s magical.  Take away one or more of the students and it changes the character of the class; its personality shifts.  And where once you had something amazing and brilliant, perhaps even golden, you now have something different.  Then there have to be readjustments made, how you teach that “person” because their personality has changed.

There is nothing like the rush of having a class that just seems to coalesce into something amazing.  Together they form this gigantic learning machine.  There is something about the chemistry of all those particular students coming together that makes them attentive, intelligent, curious and willing to put in the mental effort that is asked of them.  You start with something mundane, and you end up with something truly golden.

And like ancient alchemy, teachers across the world, gather in their own particular Family Rooms and they discuss theories, combinations, ingredients, incantations and processes to get it right.  Unfortunately the one thing teachers don’t have control over are their ingredients.  The major source of our final product is out of our hands.  We, unlike the ancient alchemists, are given our ingredients without any real control for quality.  So some classes are filled with brilliance and intelligence, while other classes are filled with drama and defensiveness.  But we continually strive, sometimes more enthusiastic than others, to create something beautiful and heavenly out of what we’ve been given.  The real question that many of us have is what do we do when our greatest efforts are met with failure?  What do we do when we start with lead and we get lead?

This year my forth period class could have been a sitcom – or maybe a drama of some kind.  It had all the makings of hilarity or disaster.  When you look at the lineup of characters it seems like fiction.  But it was all too real.  There was Darius, the class clown.  He couldn’t stop talking; he joked, laughed and made the class laugh at his crude, sexual, and often offensive humor.  They more they laughed, the more he talked.  There was Trina, the teen mom who was addicted to not only alcohol but drugs as well.  She had two kids, a string of boyfriends, and alternated between identifying with her gang-banging Mexican dad, or her peace-loving alcoholic, Native American mom.   There was Jose, the dedicated gang member.  At sixteen he was already covered in tattoos.  His forearms, belly, ribs and neck clearly identified his gang affiliation and nearly every comment in class referred to his love of gangs.  There was Adam, the drug dealer, who wanted nothing more than a piece of eye-candy on his arm and millions of dollars in his pockets because of the rapper he was sure he was going to be.  He wrote beautiful lyrics about love, loss and loneliness, but he didn’t have the ability to focus in class or to stay with any one girl for longer than a couple of weeks.  There was Darby, the kid genius who’s parents had left him with grandparents, never to be heard from again.  The kid who played video games every waking hour of every day, and who was isolated and lonely because of how smart he was.  Too much time, no intellectual feedback at home, led him to loose himself in video games.  There was Jacob, the sex offender, who’s intelligence was so low that he struggled with even the simplest of instructions.  He was always lost, never understanding, and would laugh when others would laugh because he didn’t want to seem like he didn’t understand, but his eyes always held a kind of wonder at what was going on.  And then I had Andrea, the chola, a Hispanic girl who had been in the system since she was twelve.  She wore baggy pants, tight shirt, painted eyebrows and thick, heavy lipstick and big earrings.  She hangs with the OG’s (original gangsters) not these “youngsters” who didn’t know how to treat a lady.  She was sixteen.  This was my fourth period class. These were the ingredients that I had to work my alchemical magic with.  And I have to say that at the end of it all, this experiment, failed.

I love to teach.  I love it.  There is something about getting in front of a crowd and talking about stuff that I find interesting.  I love making them laugh, making them lean forward with anticipation at my next words.  I love students who are curious and inquisitive about something they may have never considered before.  There are often days when I finish a class and I feel like a rock star.  Arms in the air I silently thank the Teaching Gods for giving me my talents and the class that I just taught.  I shake my head at how cool my job is.  I get paid to do this for a living.  I get paid to teach.  How cool is my life?

Then there are the fourth periods.  These are the periods where the combination of kids leaves me cold and drained and disheartened.  I’ve only had a few of them and each one nearly killed me.  This last fourth period was a combination like I’ve never seen before.  It was the worst of its kind so far.  They were nearly uncontrollable.  Most days they would arrive late, rowdy and full of complaints and profanity.  They resisted all forms of learning.  They talked during even the most modern and contemporary movies.  They balked at the most simple requests or assignments.  Even when asked to color in a design whose lines were already drawn they complained about not knowing what to do.  They were uninterested, disengaged and unwilling to try.  And despite my best efforts most of them got low grades; some didn’t even pass the class.

The thing is, I believe in alchemy.  I believe in the ability to change something mundane into something extraordinary.  I believe in change of the most basic kind.  I believe that despite the personality of a given class, I can still mold and shape and summon something magical from the ingredients that I’ve been given.  Perhaps that makes me an idealist.  Perhaps that makes me, like the alchemists of old, a philosophical fool.  I don’t know if there is a real recipe for success when it comes to teaching.  But I keep thinking of my successes.  I keep thinking about those times when I’ve raised my arms in triumph at having taught and succeeded.  But maybe I’m just like the guy who’s played slots so many times, with a certain drink in his hand and his lucky socks pulled up tight, that I’m sure that was the combination that brought the magical ingredients together.  Maybe there is no recipe.  Maybe it is a crap shoot.  All I know is that there are few things so destructively disturbing to my self-esteem than to watch that fourth period leave my class and have not one of them look back.  Not one of them thank me, or even smile.

I want to believe in what I’m doing.  I want to believe that I have the talent to teach and to change lives.  Not just some, but all.  And maybe that belief is self destructive and even vain – thinking that I can change the world, one classroom at a time, despite the ingredients inside each one.  But I do.  Heaven help me, I do.  And so it’s at times like this, watching those kids leave my classroom, swearing and leering and jeering, that my heart feels like lead.  I feel empty and stupid and full of doubt.  I want to believe that I can make a difference in everyone’s life.  But I think I need to come to grips with the fact that there are some classes that aren’t meant for me.  There are some classes that I can’t transform.  There are some classes, that because of their alchemical combinations, they just aren’t ready to transform into something greater than they started.  I have to have faith.  I have to have faith, that somewhere down the road, there will be a different Alchemist, waiting.  Someone who can change all hearts, who can heal all wounds, who can bring peace to those classes that I couldn’t.  But until then, I’m just sitting here in an empty classroom thinking about the future.


  1. Thats a rough class. But I think as you do, that somewhere down the road there will the the right ingredients at the right time for these kids. Maybe not today, maybe not even in your class, but it will happen. The hard part is accepting that the kid has the be the one to take all the ingredients, mix them, and use them. Good luck teach.

  2. I honestly believe that if anyone can change lives through a classroom, it is you. You definitely changed my life. Perhaps certain combinations don't work, but I believe if you had any ONE of those students mixed in with another class, you would change that student's life. Sometimes there's just too much of a certain type in one place. Sometimes one person can't fight through that. But if anyone can, it's you.