Tuesday, September 30, 2008


"Beneath blank surfaces, young minds absorb the world." 
~Mary Lowenthal Felstiner, To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era (26)

As the Jewish world celebrated Rosh Hashanah today, I was reading about the Holocaust.  I'm still not quite sure if that is apropos or if it is somehow wrong.  I came across the above quote in the midst of a historical biography of a young German Jewish artist who created an amazing 765-painting exhibit of her life in the midst of life in Nazi Germany and in exile.  

It made me stop.  I - and all those who teach, I suspect - know the image of blank, glazed stares quite well.  There is something that happens when students enter our classrooms at times.  I'm not entirely sure what occurs, but you can point out the ones whom you just know will get nothing out of the class.  Their bodies are present, but you look into their eyes and it's evident that they are far away.  Perhaps they're in dreams, perhaps in last night's party, perhaps in tomorrow's date, or perhaps in utter oblivion.  But they are assuredly not here.  Not now.  

What struck me about the quote above is the admonition it implies - an admonition not to give up on those 'space cadets' as one colleague calls them.  It is an admonition to remember that minds can take in information even if on the surface they are blank.  

I have this picture forming in my head of a sponge that on one side looks totally dry, but on the underside is slowly seeping in water - water that will eventually overtake the whole sponge and ooze back out.  Perhaps some of these students are like those sponges.  It takes time, but perhaps they can eventually produce results.  

Among some of my colleagues, I am unusually optimistic concerning students.  Thanks in large part to my undergraduate advisor, I approach students with a fundamental belief that they can understand, they can grow, and they can achieve whatever goals are placed before them.  But I must confess that these blank students often frustrate me.  I want so much for them to engage me, each other, and the material, that I get frustrated when they do none of these.  

But tonight I've been reminded of those fundamental beliefs, of that basic faith that students are not a lost cause.  So on Friday, when I see my students again, when I see those blank stares and the admissions that they have done absolutely no work to prepare for my class, may I remember Charlotte Salomon and her biographer's assurance that there is hope even those students.  To quote Winston Churchill, "Never give up.  Never give up.  Never give up."

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