February 2006

Higher education

By David Feela

Every professional sport and every athlete suffers the indignity of being under suspicion for using performance- enhancing drugs, whether they use them or not. I’ve got no problem with that. Professional athletes make serious money, enough for the entire pro-athlete union to put up with the inconvenience of being tested. What bugs me is they actually have these drugs available, that drug laboratories spend good money developing drugs so dumbbells can be lifted off the floor, the mile can be run in record time, a baseball keeps getting blasted out of the park, or basketball players don’t dribble on their shoelaces.

As if games weren’t enough, the pharmaceutical industry also decided to declare sexual dysfunction a major health issue. After years of laboratory research it now produces $2.5 billion worth of drugs designed to enhance man’s locker-room reputation. Congratulations on a major breakthrough, scientists of America. I hope you can keep it up.

For the classroom, however, little progress has been made in finding the right combination of chemicals to produce an energized teacher and student population, a climate where everyone wants to learn and refuses to take its education lying down – that is, unless it’s kindergarten nap time.

I can envision a future where athletes won’t get all the glory, where teachers will be able to confidentially purchase enough pills to last a semester, pills guaranteed to reduce correction fatigue, transform frustration into creative energy, and make standing before a class full of students an experience as rewarding as playing in the World Series before a packed stadium.

Let’s imagine it’s the first class of the morning. A teacher having swallowed a couple tablets of, let’s call it Instructa, suddenly feels indestructible. He totes bags full of notebooks back to school from a grading all-nighter. Better yet, let’s give him a shopping cart on loan from a local retail store. Held between his teeth flutters a single sheet of paper: a new lesson plan, one that occurred to him at 4 in the morning.

As the students wander into the classroom with their usual lack of eye contact, they sense that something is different; they can’t help glancing toward the teacher, wondering why the air around him feels supercharged. When the tardy bell rings the teacher snatches a wandering student out of the hallway from near his doorway and points her toward an empty seat. She’s not even assigned to this class, but already she feels like she belongs. The hands on the clock move too quickly. He talks to his students, not at them, and he shows them how to spark ideas they’ve never encountered before. As the class period ends students ask if they can stay longer, skip the next hour, but he ushers them out the door, assuring them that things will be better, everywhere, now that teachers have what it takes.

In his pocket he fiddles with a bottle of pills. His students having exited, he takes out a couple more tablets, pops them into his mouth. “Education,” he can’t help saying aloud, “has never been like this.”

The warning on the side of the bottle is explicit: In the event that lecturing continues for over two hours, seek medical help. But he doesn’t lecture. And again, he says this out loud: “Parents lecture, teachers instruct. There’s a difference, you know.” Meanwhile, in the hallway a few students have gathered by a water fountain.

One of them pulls pills from a pocket, the same pills the teacher has been taking. He got them by sneaking into his mother’s dresser drawer; she’s another teacher in the district. They each swallow a tablet, bang their knuckles together, and head to class before the tardy bell rings. For a full week no one has ignored his homework, forgotten his pencil or textbook, or picked up the wrong notebook. In class they’re surprised by an uncanny ability to stay focused, participate, listen, practice, and learn. Their grades improve steadily – almost dramatically – since the one boy decided to experiment with performance- enhancing drugs.

I know it’s probably wrong to even think these thoughts – to suggest that it may take something more than mere lip service to the ideals of dedication, discipline, and hard work to get above that plateau where our performance is at best patently proficient. Readers might start complaining that I’m putting ideas into our children’s minds. I just hope they’re right.

David Feela is a teacher at Montezuma-Cortez High School.