The Teacher Makes a Mistake

One of the most difficult things to do as a teacher is to say, “I don’t know.” To see how hard it is, let’s start with an exercise. For one week whenever you don’t know the answer and regardless of who else is in the room, say it. Practice it. Get used to it. It won’t come easily. You’ll find yourself tempted into stories and detail which may have nothing to do with the topic. Few of us are encyclopedic, much less potently resourceful in incredible numbers of fields. But when a teen asks us, well you get the point. Daddy used to know best? Even when daddy didn’t know at all.

When I was in Tenth grade, I took biology. One unit was about genetics. The teacher explained with perfect confidence that since the gender of the newborn would have two chromosomes and the woman always contributed one which looked like an X while the man contributed either an X or a Y, it must be that the man determined the gender of the child. It sounds reasonable. doesn’t it?

This played right into the long hailed narrative that the man was inserting the seed, and the seed would determined lots of stuff. Many were fooled by it. It took a while before we knew better, but even back then I couldn’t get on board. For generations my family on my mother”s side were birthing girls. There were many different fathers but the girls kept coming. They were brilliant, and they were girls. Something in me was suspicious.

Eventually, we found out that what the biology teacher taught was only a small part of the story. Acidity counts; many different variables count. I won’t pretend to be a science geek. I don’t know. So I’ll let Fritz Perls express my suspicion better than I could:

I take for granted that the sperm that wins the race of a million sperms might not be chosen. The ovum might select its mate. (Mechanics don’t apply to life). Life is awareness of its needs, its self-supporting feelings. Each cell selects, assimilates nutrition from the plasma. It uses stuff from which to make the bile, the hormones or the thoughts,, It has a mind, it knows it’s job. It has a social conscience. Its own survival is in tune and serves the total organism. . . .The cells know much more than what we think in arrogant computing. Awareness sensing that we lost is still intact, if we let be. The ovum thus might not accept the most ambitious suitor.

[From In and Out the Garbage Pail by Frederick Perls] Note: for another excerpt see One-Space: Birth in this blog from the same book.

Teachers make mistakes. This was one of mine. I was teaching an upper-level English course at the University. A student sat in the center of the room directly in front of my desk. I sat on the desk and gave my opening presentation. I noticed at one point that she was energetically engaged in sketching two large breasts. She seemed to be concerned about the freedom of her wrist as she drew and went over and over her sketch. There was a break in the presentation as the class was preparing for a follow up activity. I said to the student in front of me: “Nice.”

I knew at once that I had made a mistake. I had invaded her space. She must have assumed that it was as if she were surrounded by a translucent bubble which made her and what she was doing invisible to me. She didn’t change her seat or alter it throughout the rest of the classes, but the relationship between us was dented at that moment and would never be repaired.

Teachers make mistakes. What can we do about them? For one thing we have to forgive ourselves, rather than playing them back in our mind again and again. We have to learn from them. And go on.

Though you are a teacher, you too will make mistakes. Learn from them. Forgive yourself. Go on.

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