art by nacrowe
in a previous life i was a high school english teacher straight out of graduate school looking for work and somehow found myself at STUYVESANT presenting what they call in the education field a "demo lesson." essentially you were supposed to present a demonstration lesson in front of students, faculty and (sometimes) administration so that they could see how you perform in a real-life situation with actual students. needless to say its pretty intense, only more so because this was STUYVESANT. for those who don't know, STUYVESANT HIGH SCHOOL is the top public high school (arguably top high school period) in new york state. the alumni list at that place is insane, filled with nobel laureates and famous writers, politicians, artists, business leaders, etc. as you can imagine.
but all i had to worry about was giving a lesson to a bunch of graduating AP English students. now what was funny is that i was one of 5 prospects presenting that day, i believe another 5 went the next day, all of them with multiple years experience. i had just completed a single semester teaching at BROOKLYN TECHNICAL HIGH SCHOOL. these other teachers came out of their demo lesson utterly dejected by their performance as the students had figured out their lesson in the first 5 minutes of a 30 minute lesson. that is the worst situation possible and to do it in front of potential peers and admin is gut-wrenching.
which brings me to WOLE SOYINKA. having lived in nigeria during my middle school years, i knew about SOYINKA given that him and CHINUA ACHEBE are their two most famous writers. i chose one of his poems entitled "Telephone Convesation" which was essentially his retelling of a conversation he had in England with a potential landlady over an apartment he wanted to occupy during an extended residency at a university as a lecturer. the poem basically showcases how the landlady was attempting to figure out how BLACK he was, and all the racist connotations that such entails.
the beauty of the poem is that it is written in a hyper-literate fashion basically showing off his vocabulary, use of complex meter schemes and complexity of thought. essentially to showcase on multiple levels how bankrupt of a human being this landlady was and the worldview that she more broadly represents. it is a challenging poem and i knew from presenting it that i could take it several ways depending on what the students threw back at me. essentially i started a tennis match of ideas and just ignored the other teachers and admin in the back. i think i may have gotten too comfortable and even made a stupid joke or two.
setting up a tennis match based on analysis and disciplined thought is what i loved about teaching. the idea that students come with their own angle on things and giving them the lexicon and background to help define and present their ideas effectively is what i lived for. i do miss teaching. here was the website from a previous class for any educators out there. feel free to steal anything i did in myanmar.
oh yeah, about STUYVESANT. didn't get the job initially, somebody wayyyyyy better than me got it. i did teach their eventually and learned that this SOYINKA poem got added to their curriculum at the time. which is still pretty cool.