My Ignorance and Me, in Front of a Classroom

What have you learned about teaching?

by Kase Johnstun (Tacoma CC)

I’m a transplant to Tacoma, Wash., like many. Before packing up the truck, loading up the dogs, and leaving behind a stiff mortgage in Salt Lake City, I heard the warnings and rumors about T-Town. “It stinks.” “Tacoma Aroma.” “Full of crack whores, bums, and gangs.” But when the yellow truck dropped down from Snoqualmie Pass, as we traveled along the Green River, and when we pulled into our apartment complex that sat on the edge of rippling waters of Commencement Bay, I knew the complainers, the voices that dominated chat rooms and review boards, had it wrong. Or maybe they just hadn’t seen Tacoma through the eyes of a transplant and his ignorance.

I’d left Salt Lake City to follow my childhood dream of working for a professional baseball team. I’d given up a steady paycheck and a managing-editor position to see if I could make it in the big leagues—or, as was actually the case, the front office of a minor-league team. But I quickly found that I’d much rather be in the stands with my wife and a cold beer than in the press box writing marketing materials. My contract with the Tacoma Rainiers ended and I needed a job, which is how I found myself, one day, entering a classroom at Tacoma Community College to teach English 101.

Unfortunately, my ignorance walked in with me.

That’s the thing about my ignorance—it follows me around and pokes fun at what I think I know. That semester it pushed its way into my classroom, pulled up a chair, and took over.

The first few classes went smoothly. I had researched the Tacoma Community College student body and found it to be diverse, full of students of all ethnicities and varying ages, some with English as their second language. Wow, I thought, this would be a great opportunity to discuss issues of diversity and race—an opportunity I’d never had at Kansas State University or Salt Lake Community College. Lessons on basic grammar and punctuation filled the first week, and get-to-know-you exercises got students talking.

Then, in the second week, I assigned two readings from my trusty college reader about racial profiling in airports. I had outlined arguments on both sides of the issue, intending to engage students in a debate about the necessity, or sham, of targeting ethnic minority groups supposedly to protect our national security. I had highlighted examples of word choice, connotations, and authorial voice to enrich the discussion. I showed how the Canadian writer created a tone of sarcasm and anger by telling the story of how he had begun to yell that he was Pakistani when Americans looked at him with suspicion. I felt for the man’s plight, and I figured my students would too. The pages in my reader had nearly separated from the spine due to my over preparation for my big moment of classroom brilliance. Damn it, I was going to teach these students about racial profiling through the gift of the prose essay. Then I handed the reins to my students.

Things started off well. One bright student gave an exemplary summary of the article, which focused on a Muslim man who was harassed at an airport because of his dark skin. Students raised their hands to contribute to the summary, as if outlining the plot of a movie. They threw out words like “the character” and “the story” and “the mean airport guy.” While those words don’t belong in discussions of personal essays, I was pleased by the students’ enthusiasm, so I didn’t correct them. But at some point during that initial outlining, my ignorance stirred and got up from its chair.

In an attempt to steer the discussion toward our rights as citizens, I told my students about how I, nearly 10 years earlier, had been a victim of profiling. I was pulled out of line in London’s Heathrow Airport and had my stuff searched. It was December 2001, three months after 9/11, and I was heading home after a four-month stint in Dublin writing for the Consumer’s Association of Ireland and Ireland’s consumer-advocate magazine, Consumer Choice. Airport security was quite suspicious of the 25-year-old with the three-inch goatee, especially given the length of time I’d spent away from the United States and the fact that I was standing in the line for first class. (While my mother-in-law, after the first time she met me, described me as a Middle-Eastern-looking young man, I am as mixed-up genealogically as the next Caucasian-looking dude.)

The job was legit, the upgrade a gift, and the goatee just a show of my tempered rebellion. Even as I told the story, I still felt indignant. As I ranted, I waved my arms around and danced around the classroom with teacherly enthusiasm, prodding students with questions like “Has anything like that ever happened to you?” “Can you believe it?” and, sarcastically, “Is anyone else glad they took those extra measures to secure our country?”

My wild gesticulations and verbal eruptions must have seemed out of control to my stunned students. They sat with their mouths closed, looking at me with wide eyes. My ignorance tried more tactics, but nothing worked. They had proved they’d read the essay, so that wasn’t the problem. I had delivered a color­ful introduction and tied it to my life, hadn’t I? So why the silence? I got angry. I told the students they had to participate to pass the class and lectured that this was a college classroom and silence would not work.

After I’d insulted their preparation and motivation, a hand rose from the center of the room. A young African-American student spoke. “I’ve never flown before,” he said. “It’s difficult for me to feel for this man in the essay who got targeted while on his way to some business meeting in another country.” His tone was neither hostile nor timid, just honest. Heads nodded around him and lungs released breaths of relief.

“I can’t go to a 7-Eleven without getting profiled and stopped by the police,” he continued. More heads nodding and bobbing. “That’s why I’m here. If I get the chance to fly someday because I get a degree, they can search me all they want to.”

Murmurs from other students affirmed the young man’s point of view. The conversation turned away from airports and national security to racial profiling on the streets of Tacoma. Students raised their hands and waved their arms, debating intelligently about their rights as citizens and when, or whether, those rights should be sacrificed for the greater good. They made the essay I’d assigned seem trite and elitist. My students opened up a new world, and my ignorance and I did not say a word.

Kase Johnstun teaches English composition and technical writing at Pierce College and Tacoma Community College. He is a former nationally syndicated columnist for Catholic News Service.

This essay was originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 11, 2012.

Author: Brooke Allen

A social entrepreneur and retired Wall Street executive.

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