A Soft Answer

Take one apprehensive student-teacher in 1963, bred and raised in the almost all-white, at the time, Christian day-school system in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Place him in the first public school that he had ever been in longer than the four quarters of a high school city league basketball game. Add the cultural unfamiliarity of a racially and ethnically diverse educational, day-to-day reality. Mix these cultural and personal variables into a small, inflexibly configured classroom for twenty-five students sitting behind two rows of tables stretched without a break from one end of the room to the other, with two short tables alongside the teacher’s desk with seats for the potentially more unruly, keep-them-close-for-control students. And then teach them the Romantic poets, Wordsworth and Keats and Coleridge, because the curriculum was the traditional, chronological one: no black American lit (it’s 1963)—maybe World lit, American lit, and British lit, from Beowulf to Auden.

It was time for the students to test the student-teacher. The class consisted of seniors. I don’t remember what I was teaching at the time, something from British literature. I don’t think it was Hamlet yet. I was “lecturing,” providing some kind of information, historical or authorial or contextual, for some concept or other. As I was talking, from under the table alongside my desk a shoe appeared in the hand of the closest student—we’ll call him Willie—and settled on my desk. It was accompanied by a mischievously coy, now-what-are-you-going-to-do smile as Willie peered up from under his questioningly raised eyebrows.

I asked whose shoe it was. One of the best students in the class, sitting in the middle of the back row, tentatively, with some embarrassment, raised his hand. I picked up the shoe and, without interrupting what I had been talking about, carried the shoe around the end of the tables and behind the back row and placed it on the table next to him. “You want to hold onto your shoe,” I said and returned to the front of the room, still teaching the class.

After that, discipline was never an issue in the class.

Dan Diephouse is professor emeritus of English at Trinity Christian College. He is currently part-time photographer, part-time gardener, all-around housekeeper, and gives poetry readings for the Hope Christian Reformed Church adult Sunday school.