Well, most of them still call me Maestro. Mr Weird is an appellation given to me by one specific student, Helen, whose pretty dark eyes and long curly hair accentuate her larger-than-life sassy personality. As I’ve developed my teaching style, though, I’ve embraced it, and I think that most, if not all, of my students would agree with Helen that it certainly applies.
It all started on the Outdoor Leadership Adventure. I was determined to make a memorable first impression, and I’m naturally a goofball anyway, so the students were all amused and a little thrown by my shenanigans. For instance, the girls would sing while they cooked and did dishes and during any other brief instances of downtime. Their repertoire varied pretty widely, featuring popular tunes from each of the last four decades in both English and Spanish. I have a head for song lyrics, at least in my native tongue, so I was able to keep up with them pretty well. (Though there was one instance where I started singing a Spanish song I knew. Leonardi was having an animated conversation with some of the girls, and cried “AY AY AY AY!” in feigned dismay for reasons I never bothered to figure out. I seized the opportunity and replied with “Canta y no llores!”, which was swiftly followed up with the rest of the chorus to “Cielito Lindo” and a peal of laughter.) I also have a predilection for certain female artists and a remarkable lack of shame when it comes to singing lines that are awkward coming from a guy. One night, the students were singing Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” while sitting around the fire pit, and were a bit stunned when they finished the verse and I launched into the bridge. (“Boys only want love if it’s torture…”) Helen, in particular, wasn’t quite sure what to make of me. In her (slightly paraphrased) words: “Mister, I have all the other teachers pretty much figured out, but I dunno about you… You’re just weird!” And thus it was.
Fortunately for my students, my weirdness is of the enduring variety, and is able to transcend such drastic context changes as the shift from a once-in-a-lifetime camping adventure to the everyday reality of the classroom. Usually, it just manifests as a tendency to make snarky jokes and asides during my lecture. Sometimes, it comes in handy when I’m trying to make an abstract concept memorable. My philosophy class was reading Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy alongside Plato’s Crito last week, and I was trying to illustrate divine providence. We spent a while wrestling with the idea of predestination and free will, with me trying to string the class along with little tidbits of information about the nature of God while suppressing my two seminarians from giving it all away to the detriment of the others’ reasoning process (and the runtime of my lecture). Eventually, someone blurted out that God is outside of time. In my typical fashion, I woke everyone up (some more literally than others) to the importance of that insight by lunging forward at the knees, pointing at the contributor with my marker, and announcing “Ah-HA!” before writing the key idea in block capitals on the board. I then proceeded to draw a timeline of all creation on the board, with just a few important highlights. At the far left, I drew a large irregular red and blue starburst and the words “LET THERE BE LIGHT!” At the far right, I drew a small stick-person, to which I added a ponytail and the name Hun-Nayi. (Hun-Nayi sits in the front row of my class and likes to ask borderline-relevant questions to amuse herself and let me know she’s paying attention. When I described the Socratic method in brief as “asking annoying questions to make people analyze their assumptions”, she asked “Why?” and then repeated the question as many times as I cared to indulge her. This went on longer than I should’ve allowed it to and frustrated me more than I care to admit. So basically, we’re kindred spirits and we get along famously.) (Also, “Hun-Nayi” means “a dream” in one of the Mayan languages native to the area. I can’t get over how cool that is.) In between the two ends of my timeline, I put a cross, for the redemptive act of Christ, and a hastily drawn Tyrannosaurus with an over-sized and under-detailed head that immediately spurred half the students to denounce it as creepy and exhort me to erase it (I didn’t). Over it all, to demonstrate the point that God sees all of Time as one Eternal Now and so can be omniscient and will everything into existence without dictating every single human act before it happens, I drew God the Father as He is typically represented, as a wise and peaceful old man with a long beard. (Picture a smiley face with a mass of curly loops around and beneath the mouth.) To emphasize His role as observer of human action, I drew a tub of popcorn next to him. This was greeted with enthusiasm by the students, who informed me that the Principle of Perfect Unity needed a Pepsi to wash His extra-temporal popcorn down with. So I spent the next minute or so drawing a soda can and making sure I had the logo right. It’s the little things that make lessons memorable.
I’ve had a few opportunities outside of class since school started to exercise my weirdness, too. September 21 is Belize’s Independence Day, and Benque had a parade including most of the town’s important organizations and institutions that wound through the streets for two hours before ending in a large party. The ever-resourceful and artistically gifted Miss Natalie dressed up our smoke-belching old Mitsubishi van to look like the Junior College’s campus, complete with paper columns down the sides and a plywood-and-plastic dome on the roof. A few of the teachers and students present rode in the van and waved flags out the windows, while the rest of us walked in front or behind. A parade in which one is representing a new school that’s trying to become a community fixture is one scenario in which it pays to be uninhibited and energetic. We also seriously lucked out in that we had a marching band right behind us that gave us music to dance to for the duration of the parade. I spent the parade alternately taking pictures, dancing like the gawky gringo that I am, and exhorting the students to wave their Belizean flags with vigor instead of shyness. I distinctly remember Merly sitting in the van window and giggling shyly as I gently grabbed her hands, swung her flag back and forth, and threw my head back, shouting “WAVE IT, MERLY!” The float made an impression on those watching the parade; there were a number of expressions of gradual recognition as the similarities between the van’s decor and the architecture of the college became apparent. Hopefully, my antics accentuated and cemented that impression. (Even if they think I’m a dork. Any publicity is good publicity, right?)
Sometimes weird occurrences take place that are in no way my fault. Miss Joan, who’s teaching the first-year biology course and is at least as weird as I am in her own way, is requiring all of her students to collect insects and kill them by placing them in a sealed container with an alcohol-soaked napkin. Almost all of my philosophy students are in that class, and they do most of their bug hunting on campus, so it’s not uncommon for them to bring little (usually dead) friends in to keep them company while they take notes. Florinda, who’s very reserved but has expressive eyes that make it very clear that there’s a lot going on behind them, caught perhaps the largest cockroach I’ve ever laid eyes on and had it in a little Tupperware container one day. While I was facing the white board, it escaped alive somehow. I didn’t realize what was going on initially, and didn’t even notice until Nayeli, who was sitting next to Flori, tensed up from head to toe and started emitting strangled shrieks of horror. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or spring into action of some kind until I saw the roach crawling down her leg toward the floor. Maria, three or four seats away at the end of the table, saw this about the same time I did and immediately sprinted away toward the wall. Flori, meanwhile, was a little embarrassed at being the center of attention, and began matter-of-factly trying to collect her prize. The roach got out away from the table, seizing the attention of the entire room, and stopped to collect itself. With Flori’s permission, I loudly stomped on it so all the students would know the threat had been neutralized and then kicked it out the door and over the railing on the second-floor walkway. It took a couple of minutes after that to get everyone’s mind back on philosophy.
Doubtless these will not be the last episodes of my strangeness in the classroom. In the future, I will do my best to report them with greater consistency (3+ weeks is too long to go between posts; sorry).