Over a year ago, on my first day on the job as a teaching assistant, a pseudo-scholarly Sancho Panza, I struggled to adjust to a bustling school environment, and one interaction with a second-grade student set the tone for the months to come.
“Hello, what’s your name, little man?” I asked.
He pointed at my face and yelled, “Penis!”
His enthusiasm undoubtedly was derived from the lessons at the time (human reproduction), and obviously his actual location of anatomy was slightly off. And although I had held a somewhat similar one-sided conversation with at least two people, who may or may not have been angry women with justified reactions to my selfishness and oblivious meanderings, I was not offended. This is just a kid, learning language and body parts.
I walked away and left him in his giggling fit, and I figured it was going to be a long year.
Fast-forward to last month, to our class of 6th graders who were studying, you guessed it, human anatomy and reproduction, and vocabulary like testicles, ovaries, copulation, and asexual were being thrown around recklessly, as if the recipients of this new knowledge were not in fact discovering for the first time said body objects and functions, fueling countless adolescent jokes and in-class snickers. This class is fortunate enough to have at its disposal a plastic model of a human, complete with removable organs and layers of muscle and skin. It’s a great teaching tool, but no one really cares about the 238 parts of the ear, and it is all too difficult to maintain composure when one is actually handling a plastic breast or a section of large intestine with mock feces inside it, cut open in cross-section, smartly painted brown for realistic effect. The bladder is yellow, too. (Have you ever, for example, held a penis made of plastic, (stay with me here), pointing to its individual parts, while adhering to a strictly objective lesson on the process of sexual reproduction? And to a small crowd of hormone-inundated adolescents? If you answered yes, then I owe you at least one bottle of wine). Once, in our class, as the teacher nobly attempted to show the class the lungs and rib cage on our plastic model, the penis kept falling off, shattering into three distinctly labeled parts, to which the class would roar OOOOHHH! in a chorus of sympathy. Most of the class got that section correct on the exam.
In the linguistic department, gaffes and accidental faux pas never cease in the classroom. Just this week, we had been studying the use of “have to” in an expression of obligation. Naturally, when the time came for experimentation and practical use, the most eager volunteer in the class (also the one most likely to learn a second language fastest) blurted out his version of a spontaneous and creative utterance.
“Do you have titty in your room?” he yelled. (Not for a while, you little bastard. And thanks for reminding me).
“Do you mean ‘Do you have to tidy your room?” I asked.
“That’s what I said.”
He’ll make it far, no doubt. His career in politics is already set in stone. This is the same word-spelunker who previously instructed the class that you get catties on your teeth when you have a lot of Germans in your mouth; and a young man, by the way, far ahead of my own sixth-grade self, who struggled to fathom even basic fractions and just couldn’t understand how 800-numbers were actually free of charge.
What’s even more fascinating was to watch this young student of mine, suddenly blinded by some sort of Darwinian defense-reflex, afraid of looking silly in front of his peers, actually begin to rationalize (albeit jokingly) how German-speaking people of the Holy Roman Empire can in fact infect a mouth and cause exorbitant dentist bills. This, in my opinion, is a moment of true creativity—someone blindly go for it, trying to express a spontaneous thought, piecing together phrases, clauses, organizing syntax without fear of ridicule. It is a shame that we adults rarely do this and almost never instruct our children to do the same. I am reminded of a TED lecture with Ken Robinson, a sort of progressive thinker on education, who mentions a child who commits a brilliant slip of the tongue that typifies the beautiful, if not rare, recklessness of children and their accidental experimentation with language.
In a reenactment of the nativity scene at Christmas, children are dressed in robes to deliver their own dialogue in front of giddy parents and teachers. The three boys come in, dressed as the three wise men, with tea-towels on their heads, and began to recite the famous statements made to the baby Jesus.
The first boy said, “I bring you gold.”
And the second boy said, “I bring you Myrrh.”
Then the third boy, unfazed by the possible inaccuracy of his memory said, “Frank sent this.”
My contention is that moments like this should happen every day in school. But they do not.