The adolescent brain is a manifestation of God’s grandeur - as the Victorian Era Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. might have said - as well as an indicator of His sense of humor - as any high school teacher could affirm. During our professional learning day this past Monday I had the opportunity to focus on that most incredible organ, guided by science teacher Doug Emancipator ’96 and Thomas Yarcusko ’12 of the English faculty. They were a one-two punch of information and insight into what makes our students tick and why.
A common colloquial definition of insanity is “performing the same action over and over again while expecting a different result.” Without the proper understanding of the brains inside the heads of students, a teacher is about as good an example of that definition as one could find. Such a teacher is performing the educational version of “if you speak loudly and slowly enough then people who don’t know English will understand what you are saying.”
As we were being given information about the state of the adolescent brain and how to best educate it my mind went back 40 years to the beginning of the 1981-82 school year. I was in a classroom as a teacher for the very first time and I unwittingly did my best to prove that a pretty sound background in philosophy and classical languages is no guarantee for pedagogical success.
Proof of my lack of understanding of the freshmen, and their brains, was my choice of reading for their first foray into the realm of theology at Saint Ignatius: a cheery little story by Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
There is a possibility of those who were the best and brightest among those students - people like my theology colleague Jim Brennan ’85 or the class valedictorian Fr. Chris Kulig ’85 - being able to understand the book at the time, but there were a lot of blank stares as I tried to explain the themes of this 100-page novella. Any story that begins with the sentence,
One morning as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous, verminous bug.
is not the type of work with which one usually opens up a course in freshman theology, and to be quite honest, I have absolutely no memory of why I chose that book or what my point was in having my students read it. I do not doubt that Mr. Brennan and Fr. Kulig would know better than I.
It is no small irony that down the hall from where I was torturing freshmen with a man-bug, stood Jim Skerl ‘74, The Little Prince
in hand, expounding on the virtues of purity of heart and being responsible for one’s rose. As has happened so many times in my teaching career and in my life, Jim Skerl showed me the way.
I learned from Jim, and from Doug and Thomas on Monday, that the adolescent brain isn’t something that can be dragged into higher-order thinking by offering it existentialist, nihilist readings with which to wrestle.
My teaching life is much easier today than it was in the fall of 1981, and I am sure that my students in the Class of 2022 are much less intimidated by their required reading than those poor freshmen in the Class of 1985. They are also the beneficiaries of the insights of people like Doug, Thomas, and so many of my colleagues who on Monday and on numerous other occasions over the years have taught me how to be a teacher and how not to be a monstrous, verminous bug in my students’ anxious dreams.