Thursday, September 11, 2008

lil' education

Teaching is difficult. Writing is difficult. Writing about teaching is very difficult. Writing something about teaching that isn't entirely pessimistic, riddled with cliches, sentimental, tendentious, or just a thinly veiled list of complaints, AND, at the same time, is actually interesting to read, is nearly an impossible task. Too often, essays about teaching--even by excellent teachers and writers--fall into the same traps. Even if one is sympathetic to the overarching argument (standardized testing is undermining education; inner-city schools don't receive enough funding, etc, etc), pity and hopelessness overwhelm the reader and whatever vitality the teacher or students ever possessed--as characters, as people--is lost.

Yet, somehow, David Ramsey has managed to avoid any predictable pitfall in his wonderful essay about teaching in a partially reconstructed New Orleans school. But don't let that scare you away. As Sasha Frere-Jones puts it, the essay is "a tonic"--the main ingredient of which is, somewhat improbably, Lil' Wayne. Since his students loved Lil' Wayne so much, Ramsey started listening to him almost non-stop. It's this connection around which Ramsey builds his fine essay, and judging by his students' fervor, the choice seems inevitable:

Once I witnessed a group of students huddled around a speaker listening to Lil Wayne. They had heard these songs before, but were nonetheless gushing and guffawing over nearly every line. One of them, bored and quiet in my classroom, was enthusiastically, if vaguely, parsing each lyric for his classmates: “You hear that? Cleaner than a virgin in detergent. Think on that.”

Pulling out the go-to insult of high schoolers everywhere, a girl nearby questioned their sexuality. “Y’all be in to Lil Wayne so much you sound like girls,” she said.

They just kept listening. Then one of the boys was simply overtaken by a lyrical turn. He stood up, threw up his hands, and began hollering. “I don’t care!” he shouted. “No homo, no homo, but that boy is cute!”

(via SFJ at The New Yorker)

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