Category Archives: Pedagogy

Tutoring is more than child’s play

Since I retired and moved to Arkansas five years ago, I’ve been doing a little tutoring. Yes, I tutor kids and adults too in reading, writing, and language.

The word “tutor” comes from the Latin for protector, so a tutor has a privileged and responsible position vis-a-vis his tutees, a position of trust and confidence. In the case of children, the parents entrust the child to the tutor so he or she can grow in knowledge and critical thinking abilities. He will know how to take on the world on his own.

lar, lares
The Wikipedia article on lares, a type of Roman tutelary spirit, shows a “Lar holding a cornucopia from Lora del Rio (Axatiana) in Roman Spain, early 1st century AD (National Archaeological Museum of Spain).”

In ancient Rome, tutelary spirits guarded the household, protecting and defending the inhabitants. They cast a protective shade over the huddle of family. They acted almost like a talisman, or charm, and so too the tutor can provide such magic to ward off the dangers of the world at large.

With kids, it’s great fun to see them develop as readers, thinkers, and writers. They are naturally curious and fidgety, and so our lessons may at first resemble squirrel chases inside a cage. I get them to sit down and read a bit, and they do. But pretty soon they are fidgeting, cracking knuckles or looking at the ceiling. I put a pen in their hand, and they resist its power. Oh, the pain of this business of thinking and translating thoughts into words!  They can talk bushels, but writing is a different monster altogether.

What’s most difficult is to convert all the diffuse energies of childish play into something logical, linear, disciplined, of course. It’s a conversion that most adults have not yet made, if we can judge by such phenomena as our recent presidential election. Who needs logic and reason when we can have games and carnival? When creepy clowns beckon in the guise of wise men?

For man doth not live by bread alone. Nor do we protect ourselves, and stand our ground, with guns alone. It’s ideas that protect and transform us. It’s the ability to digest, combine, and reformulate others’ ideas — and to make of them some kind of intellectual and spiritual life of our own.  Woodworking and flower arranging are great hobbies and talents. Soulmaking is of another order.

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The Mastery of James Joyce

James Joyce
James Joyce, about the time of the publication of Dubliners in 1914.

Have started re-reading Joyce’s book of short stories, Dubliners. Never studied these in a class or taught them, as far as I remember, with the possible exception of the great last story in the book, “The Dead.”

But even the first two stories, “The Sisters” and “An Encounter,” are great in their own way. With a few deft strokes, they nail the relation of a young boy growing up in a country, Ireland, paralyzed by the church (Catholic) and the state (England).

The first is about an old priest, Father Flynn, who has had several strokes and then dies. Told from the point of view of a young boy, his protege, the story offers one of Joyce’s typically sly and elliptical looks into the church. A powerfully Catholic country, early 20th century Ireland was rich in catechismal instruction, in other words, rote learning and unquestioning belief. The priest, retired from his duties after a stroke or two, catechizes the young boy, on the distinctions among mortal and venial sins and “only imperfections.” The boy sees him as a dying old man, in offputting physical terms:

  • heavy grey face of the paralytic
  • lips … moist with spittle
  • pushing huge pinches of snuff up each nostril alternately
  • big discoloured teeth
  • tongue lie upon his lower lip

And yet the boy’s aunt remarks, talking to the priests’s sisters, “No one would think he’d make such a beautiful corpse.”

Of course, Joyce is putting his finger up his nose and thumbing it, too, at the Catholic Church, which already by his day was as good as a corpse.

In the second story, “An Encounter,” the boy encounters another creepy old man. This one is not a priest but some kind of pederast or pervert whom the boy and his pal meet while playing hooky one day. The boys are sitting in a field, when an old man with “ashen-grey” mustache,” bids them good day. He talks about the weather, then the writers Moore, Scott, and Lytton. He suggests that Lytton is not suitable fare for young boys, and then, from “the great gaps in his mouth between his yellow teeth,” interrogates them on how many “sweethearts” they have.

There was nothing he liked better, he said, so much as looking at a nice young girl, at her nice white hands and her beautiful soft hair [though] all girls were not so good as they seemed to be if one only knew.

After which, “the queer old josser,” as the boy’s friend calls him, moves to the other side of the field and evidently masturbates (no description provided). Then comes back and regales the boy if not his friend (who’s run off after a stray cat) with talk about how bad boys should be whipped.

He said that if he ever found a boy talking to girls or having a girl for a sweetheart he would whip him and whip him; and that would teach him not to be talking to girls.

The boy has played truant in order to have an “adventure.” Though he thought, naively, at first — like most of us, of whatever age, today — that having an adventure meant going to foreign lands, like the sailors on their ships at the quay, he finds out that the “queer old josser” was an adventure in his own right. The kind of adventure that we may not be seeking but that, however darkly or perversely, opens new vistas to us.

Stanky Legg

Stanky Legg
Thanks (I guess) to the GS Boyz for their rousing performance of “Stanky Legg.”

No, they didn’t perform that one when I was in Catholic school. They didn’t twerk to that one back in the day. This morning, at the start of the day, I attended a school convocation at Happy Hollow Elementary School, where my granddaughter Ruby is enrolled in second grade. We thought she’d be dancing for this gig; she might have thought so and so communicated to Gabe and Heidi, her parents. But, no, she sat in the middle of a sea of kids on the floor of the cafeteria, gyring a bit, while up on stage a select group of maybe six or eight skinny kids twitched and jerked to Stanky Legg.

By god, I feel cheated by the good priests and nuns back in Catholic school (St Peter’s, then St Dick’s: no comment). They taught us the Latin hymns, by god. We could do a mean rendition of Tantum Ergo Sacramentum, but we didn’t shake our asses to that one. And how about the Kyrie and Gloria of the mass? The mass was all Latin, in those faraway days, and attendance was all decorum.

I guess they think these days that shaking your stanky leg will loosen you up, blast away your inhibitions, and ready you for the school day.

Maybe it did make the kids more attentive to the propaganda that followed: the Pledge of Allegiance, the class pledge, the pep talk about recycling. And for the work of the classroom. I can’t vouch, directly, for the effect. Just know that shaking one’s leg (legg), stanky (skanky) or otherwise, makes some sense.

A friend who teaches at the University of Arkansas told me yesterday he’s doing some tag-team teaching this year in a class where the kids get to click a remote device to answer or maybe ask questions. This makes sense. They have something in their hands, palpable, pushable, with which to participate, instead of merely sitting on their asses and thinking idle thoughts (hmmm, what’s for lunch, yo where can I get me some pussy).

In the same way, I once had tremendous luck, teaching, when I threw around a small rubber ball to anyone with his or her hand up. Boy, did I get participation that day.

Whatever the dubious merits of “Stanky Legg” in itself (it’s way passé by now, boyz, don’t you know, trashed soon after it appeared in 2009, I see online, by many connoisseurs of the sewers of pop music), shaking your leg, or your bottom, or your finger, before class, or work, may have tremendous salubrious effects. You gotta remember, brothers, sisters, you are creatures of flesh and blood and spirit and intellect, and how to separate and appropriate them? You can’t do it, any more than you can separate Humpty Dumpty’s parts, post-fall. You certainly can’t do it by setting people down and nailing ’em to their desks.