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If you want to learn it, teach it (Dec. 1997)

Expectant eyes focused on me, deciding whether I was friend or prey. None of my notes or preparation had readied me for this test. My director had told me that class was fun—a priceless experience—but my nerves told me my decision had been a mistake.

My first-day jitters, if understatement may be used, passed quickly. In fact, my outlook brightened within minutes of presenting the material. The students dove into the work. I didn’t even have to lecture; their discussion took off immediately, and I followed warily, emphasizing salient themes when they appeared. When class came to a close, the students’ smiles showed that I had met their challenge—I was a friend, and a fellow student.

This summer found me living in graduate housing with 14 other Yalies teaching New Haven junior high schoolers. I worked for the Ulysses S. Grant Foundation, an entirely undergraduate-run supplementary education program that brings low-income students from New Haven to the Yale campus. We teachers design the courses to enrich the students’ public-school curriculum. This freedom makes for a wonderful array of subject matter, particularly in the electives. Students this summer took such classes as advertising, urban history, and playwriting. My English class centered on alienation in literature, and I taught jazz history as an elective.

Every morning I waited at Phelps Gate for the students to arrive. Walking my 18 groggy kids to class, I played the role of a big brother, chatting about their passions and concerns. Once class began at 8:30, it was down to business: two sessions on Catcher in the Rye, followed by an hour showing jazz’s influence on hip-hop. After lunch, I became a camp counselor, shuffling kids in and out of the YMCA pool or refereeing games on Old Campus. When the day ended at 4:30, I returned to my dorm room and sank into the couch, my limbs aching.

There were failures over the course of the summer, to be sure. An inability to connect with one student in particular left me frustrated and disturbed. We would square off in class, her will pitted against mine, and I often felt she was just trying to see how much I could take. Several students, for reasons unclear, chose to be absent on a regular basis. When they did show up, the time spent catching them up with the rest of the class meant sacrificing the other students’ learning.

All in all, however, the summer was a remarkable success. Rewards came constantly, whether it was a student likening a rap group’s phrasing to that of John Coltrane, or one cautioning me against being a “phony” as we read Catcher.

I’m continuing to teach this fall, albeit less often. Twice a week, my students from this summer return to campus, weary after the long day. Although I can’t wait for next summer, I treasure the time I get with my students. It’s the perfect supplement to a liberal education: Every lesson taught is a lesson learned.

Loren Goldman ’00, a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College, is also a member of the Viola Question improvisational comedy group [see  “The ‘Improv’ Scene”].

Filed under 1990s
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