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Teaching and Learning in Darkness and Light

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Larry Strauss Headshot

Teaching and Learning in Darkness and Light

Posted: Updated:

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

I think that the greatest compliment a teacher can pay a colleague is to say that he would want his or her own child in that other teacher's classroom.

That is the yard stick by which we should all probably measure our own teaching.

Enlighten and engage every child. Build emotional connections, as Rita Pierson urges us, with each of them. Make them believe they are all seen and understood and appreciated.

It's virtually impossible, of course, to really do that. In that way, the most effective teaching is the work of an illusionist.

Sometimes there are a dozen or more students who want our undivided attention -- usually because no one else in their lives is willing to ever give them that.

And you don't have to be a math teacher to understand the absurdity of giving undivided attention to twelve students at once.

But when you are looking at those twelve students, and when you see the desperation in some of that need, the numbers no longer matter so much.

And then sometimes it's the student who seems beyond needing you who most need some undivided attention.

Sadly, the first thing I remember about Arthur Ben Owens was his effeminate manner. It meant I'd have to monitor whether he was being picked on by any of the other boys in the class.

Ben sat in the back row and daydreamed whenever he had the slightest chance, perhaps about living in a world in which teachers didn't have to worry about gay bashing and might see him as more than a potential victim.

He was the only openly gay student I'd ever taught, and I admired him for having the courage to stand up to what seems to be a pretty homophobic culture in South Los Angeles, but otherwise he made no impression on me. He seemed, not surprisingly, content to be invisible -- and I'm ashamed to say that I was content to let him be. He wasn't one of those super-hard-workers or one of those against-all-odds successes who make a teacher believe he's really got it going on. Ben wasn't one of the players on the basketball team I coach. Nor was he one of the fatherless boys at school who try to adopt me as a temporary paternal figure. But actually, although Ben had a father living with him, he was as fatherless as any of the boys in his classes. And the truth is that I just wasn't comfortable with his manner and, like many fathers who have gay sons, I turned away from his need.

Until, near the end of his senior year, he broke his leg and I was asked to (and paid to) home-school him after 3:00 p.m. five hours a week.

He lived on Century near Avalon Boulevard in a bungalow of stucco under asphalt shingles. Add-on rooms joined the original two bedrooms with the converted garage. His mother met me at the chain-link fence along the back door to the kitchen. She was cheerful and gushed with gratitude that I'd come all this way for her son. She showed me to the living room where Ben was asleep in a recliner surrounded by thick curtains.

He seemed, not surprisingly, content to be invisible -- and I'm ashamed to say that I was content to let him be. -- Larry Strauss

I roused him and then tried to find a light switch somewhere. Ben offered no assistance and was only half-conscious on his pain meds so I sat there trying to teach him in the dark. When that got too frustrating, I pulled open one of the curtains and let in the sunlight and woke up his father who, I hadn't realized, had been sleeping on one of the dark leather sofas just a few feet behind us. He rose out of the shadows and turned on a lamp propped on a wooden table. He stuck out his hand and gave me a crushing grip. He apologized for his appearance -- undershirt and trousers, the belt uncoupled.

From the neck up he was Ben Jr., about 35 years older, pudgy cheeks and piercing brown eyes but without the slight wonder of Ben Junior's. I'd met the man before about a year before on a rainy afternoon after a girl named Aisha got hit in the mouth with a softball on the PE field. I had treated her wounds from a first aid kid, gave her water, and tried to calm her. I handed her my phone and told her to call whoever could come get her. She'd said she was calling her father but the man she'd called was Ben Owens's father.

I had admired Ben Sr. in his old red pickup truck for being the father she needed in that moment -- a man (her neighbor, it turned out) to drive her home while she wept quietly in the front seat. Now, standing over me in his home, the man seemed nervous, avoided eye contact.

I felt bad for him. I understood his embarrassment and wished there was a way to reassure him -- but what would I have said? Don't worry, your son's voice and mannerisms are no reflection on your manhood?

What I should have said was: "Get over it, sir. Love your son for who he is. There's your manhood!"

And perhaps saying that would have been my manhood.

I suppose Ben Jr. was the only real man in the room.

It was a frustrating five hours each week trying to get Ben interested in Algebra II and AP Literature. What Ben was interested in was taking his boyfriend to the prom. He whispered that to me the day before the prom while his father snored in the next room and his tux hung from a light fixture above us. Ben's mother had only rented it after he'd promised to take a girl. Ben's father did not know Ben was gay. Or didn't want to know. The man had gone to great lengths to influence his son. He'd used the psychological warfare of withholding love and occasionally used his fists. He'd dragged Ben along on road trips with his friends and had tried to indoctrinate him into the world of men with fishing rods and car parts and skin magazines and misogynistic diatribes that insulted his wife for the sake of their only son.

Ben told me he couldn't wait to get out of that house. He'd been accepted to a local state university but his parents couldn't afford to pay for him to live on campus so his plan was to forgo college and get a job so that he could move out.

Ben asked me what I would do if I found out my son was gay. I gave him the right answer and I was sincere about it, but I couldn't help remembering all the times I'd made gay jokes in front of the class -- giving in to the prevailing insensitivity -- or the times I'd completely lost my mind during a basketball game and told my team they were rebounding "like a bunch of faggots!"

I think Ben knew that about me -- that I was not above insensitivity or even homophobia. Maybe that is why my acceptance meant so much to him.

I told Ben that things would get better for him. I said that in college his openness would no longer be an anomaly. In college he would meet more people his own age who would accept him for who he is.

At graduation, a few months later, he hobbled over on his crutches to thank me. He said that he never would have survived the three months stuck in that house, day and night, with his parents without my visits. He was all set to go to college.

It is four years later now and he's applying to graduate schools. We still talk. A lot of things have changed for both of us. He is proud of the fact that I now pay more attention to the students who try to remain invisible in my classroom. What a shame that he had to break his leg in order to teach me.

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