swim, chem, baseball, I talk with my hands
On most days I feel as though I am a complete idiot. This is not because I don’t know “stuff” or because I don’t occasionally have success at my chosen profession or that I never “win” at anything. This feeling results from saying what I think and expanding on that thought, sometimes regardless of context. The common term for this is “verbal diarrhea” or “foot-in-mouth-disease” and I often refer to students who suffer from this affliction as lacking a proper valve to shut off the flow of incoherencies that teenagers utter. Here I am, three times that age, suffering from the same disease. Sometimes this works for me.
I have this habit of assigning nicknames to my students. Never mean-spirited and always intended to be fun, I enjoy the wordsmithing that is required of such an endeavor. It also results from reaching a point where I think I know my students to some extent, at least what is visible in the classroom. I start every year telling myself that I will keep these custom monikers a secret and many times I am able do that. I remind myself that students don’t like to be labeled, and certainly not by the big, scary man teaching chemistry. As a teacher my words can have great power.
This year it all started when a student during the third week of class wasn’t sure I knew his name. To this I replied, “Of course I do, Joe!” As you might guess, his name is certainly not Joe, but I have used it ever since. Next to develop was the label I assigned to a gymnast in the class, combining it with my love of social media and web tools: “Tumblr.” Well from there it took off. “Spike” is the volleyball player and “Growly” the sometimes glaring senior who visually disagreed with my class decisions. Eventually I needed to come up with one for everyone, so as not to leave out anyone. Some of those were that were initially based upon initials have evolved over the year: what started as “CHO” (a reference to student initials) became “aldehyde.” “AB” became “Bravo” and “MP” became “DQ” (drama queen, an accomplished thespian).
The title of this post refers to a student that I taught over 20 years ago. I had a very bad experience a couple of years into my career which caused me to rethink my classroom disposition: I was physically threatened and almost beat up by a student who thought that I had continually put him down and that I had impeded his emotional development. Since that point I have been hesitant, or at least aware, of the power of joking in the classroom. I was Facebook contacted by a different student a few years later whom I was happy to see thriving in a medical career. Thinking back on my new awareness I apologized for her class nickname, “Mel-Mel” or Mel2 (Melanie), to which she replied that she liked it and helped her feel more included. So to Mel I say a heartfelt “thank you” for appreciating my attempts to connect, as imperfect as they may have been.
And to this year’s amazing AP Chemistry crew, you will not be forgotten…