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The Substitute Teacher Who Championed Thinking
Eric Maisel, PhD

Mr. Pearson was the oddest of substitute teachers. Gossip had it that he was a brilliant professor who had left one of the University of California campuses to pursue some unspecified research. Several times a year he appeared out of the blue to teach a History, English, Math, or Chemistry class, and once or twice he had even substituted for Mrs. Gunbacher in German.
Today he appeared in Phoebe's history class. Mr. Teasdale had the flu but was expected back on Monday. As Mr. Pearson was, by his own admission, not especially interested in the subject the class was studying--the economics of Holland during the guild period--he opened the hour by posing a question.
"What is sanity?" Mr. Pearson asked.
After the requisite snickering and rib-jabbing, the class fell totally silent. Mr. Pearson, a mild smile playing on his lips, waited patiently. He looked to be about forty-five and his black hair showed streaks of gray. He wore a checked flannel jacket over a blue denim shirt, tough work pants, and even tougher shoes. Phoebe thought that he looked like a professor at a university for lumberjacks.
"What is sanity?" Mr. Pearson repeated. "Any ideas?"
Phoebe had plenty of ideas but she was tired of being one of the very few students, sometimes the only one, to voice her ideas, so she remained silent. Mr. Pearson had asked a good question and if no one wanted to run with it, well, she would just sit on her hands and hum little French chansons to herself.
Mr. Pearson continued his patient waiting.
"Let me get a show hands," he said after a while. "How many of you are afraid of ideas?"
No hands popped up. But a few students came alive.
"Ideas are stupid," Zachary exclaimed. "We had a man come to our house to clean our carpets and he charged $300. Took him just three hours. If he did two houses a day, five days a week, that's a hundred thousand dollars a year. What you need in life is a good steam-driven rug cleaning machine, not an idea."
"So you agree that you're afraid of ideas?" Mr. Pearson inquired of Zachary.
"No! I'm just saying that ideas are stupid."
Penelope jumped in. "People who think really hard always go crazy," she explained. "All of the famous people we read about were half-nuts. You know that fellow who said that God died--"
"He spent the last ten years of his life on his mom’s sofa, never getting up, just moaning."
"God got him!" someone chortled.
"So," Mr. Pearson said, addressing Penelope. "You would agree that you're afraid of ideas?"
"No! I'm just saying that maybe the brain likes summer vacation and MTV a lot more than it likes calculus or philosophy."
This got many high fives and a rousing round of applause from the class. Phoebe frowned.
"So no one here is afraid of ideas?" Mr. Pearson wondered. "If I trucked out an idea, nobody would run?"
"We might fall asleep!"
"Or get out a video game!"
"But we wouldn't run!"
Mr. Pearson smiled. "That's great! I'm glad you're not a bunch of intellectual cowards, like most people. Customarily you wouldn’t be able to find three people in a town the size of Gold Strike brave enough to think. That we have a whole class of intellectual brave hearts is remarkable!"
Several students laughed. An equal number grumbled. Phoebe raised her hand.
"Why do you think that is?" she asked. "That people are afraid of ideas?"
"Let's let your classmates respond," Mr. Pearson replied. "Since we have a whole class of warriors unafraid of ideas!"
Phoebe shook her head. She knew what Mr. Pearson was doing and she knew what was coming. Of course no one would take his dare. As if they even understood that they were being challenged! She'd been in school long enough, grade after grade and year after year, to know that you only heard two things in a classroom: facts and opinions. She'd never heard a student--or a teacher, for that matter--present a nice, long train of thought, where a juicy question like the one Mr. Pearson began with was held up to the light of day and examined.
"I think it's YOUR responsibility to help us see what thinking looks like!" Phoebe blurted out. "Our teachers don't show us. We don't see it on t.v., in the movies, or anywhere! So of course we don't have a CLUE that thinking might be interesting."
"But you know that thinking is interesting," Mr. Pearson said gently. "Without me needing to tell you."
Phoebe made no reply. What could she say? That she was a full standard deviation brighter than her classmates? That she had better parents, ones who loved ideas? That she was special and that her classmates were ordinary? She bit her lip and gazed downward.
"Let's say that you got to vote for teacher of the year," Mr. Pearson said, addressing the class. "How would you choose?"
"The one who gave no homework!" someone shouted.
"The one who actually taught something!"
"The cutest one!"
"The one who kept being absent!"
Mr. Pearson went to the board. "We call the things you're naming 'criteria of evaluation,'" he said, writing down the phrase. "So the things you think are important in judging or evaluating teachers are, what, 'good looks,' 'amount of homework assigned,' 'teaching ability'--"
"Not 'teaching ability,'" Phoebe corrected. "'Teaching actuality.' Because a teacher might have a lot of teaching ability and still not bother to teach. We've all had THOSE teachers. So that would be two separate criteria, teaching ability and teaching performance."
Mr. Pearson smiled.
"And it would depend on the subject!" someone shouted. "You would never vote for a teacher in a subject that you HATED, even if you liked the teacher."
"What should we call that criterion?" Mr. Pearson wondered, his back to the class, ready to write on the white board.
"Subject taught slash bar personal interest," Zachary offered. Mr. Pearson wrote down "subject taught/personal interest."
"More," Mr. Pearson said.
Within five minutes the class had generated two dozen criteria of evaluation. There were sarcastic criteria, whimsical criteria, silly criteria, brilliant criteria. There were things like "height," "clothes," and "personal hygiene"; things like "kindness," "friendliness," and "patience"; things like "does the best job with an impossible subject" and "doesn't embarrass students."
"Now," Mr. Pearson said, "I'd like you to rank these criteria, from most important to least important. Get out a piece of paper and create your own list. Go!”
There followed a bustle of loose-leaf binders being opened, pieces of paper being extracted, pencils scratching on paper. Phoebe glanced around. Everyone was working! She'd never seen such a thing in her entire academic career. There wasn't the moaning-groaning of an in-class assignment or the despairing dead silence of an exam. It was more like ... genuine excitement! Even the rude boys were writing, thinking, making their lists. Zachary had a dab of ink at his lip from a leaky pen. Phoebe was sure that he'd never before been moved to strike a thinking pose and put a pen to his lips, not once in his life.
"People can be invited to think," Phoebe thought to herself. "This is very interesting. Since so few people actually DO think, that must mean that there are just too few excellent teachers." She shook her head. "And there's no subject in school called 'thinking'! No teacher feels it his or her responsibility to teach it. Remarkable! We've built a whole educational system, all these zillions of subjects from macroeconomics to ethnomusicology, and there's no subject called 'thinking'!"
After about ten minutes, Mr. Pearson called for volunteers to read their lists. Virtually everyone wanted to be heard. Mr. Pearson called on eight students one-by-one and copied their lists side-by-side on the board. Each list was different but also similar. "Doesn't embarrass students" was surprisingly high on every list and was number one of two of them. Phoebe shook her head. "They've taken this seriously!" she murmured in wonder.
"They've really tried to rank these criteria!"
Mr. Pearson stepped back from the board and examined the lists. He was smiling.
"Any observations about these lists or what they signify?" Mr. Pearson said.
Zachary, who half-an-hour previously had supposed that you only needed a good rug-cleaning machine to make it in life, raised his hand. Mr. Pearson nodded. Zachary cleared his throat. "It looks like criteria of evaluation are necessarily subjective and not objective, but there also seems to be some rough general agreement about what's important."
Phoebe was certain that a sentence of that sort had never before been uttered in any class at Lincoln Middle School. Incredible! The class was thinking!
Phoebe raised her hand. When Mr. Pearson nodded, Phoebe said, "I think Mr. Pearson should be voted teacher of the year. Unless a substitute teacher is ineligible." This met with rousing applause that turned into a standing ovation. Mr. Pearson smiled and said, "Since we are making up the rules, consider me eligible."
So it came to pass that Mr. Pearson became Lincoln Middle School's first teacher of the year, if only for a few minutes toward the end of one history class.

Copyright 2014.  Eric Maisel.  All rights reserved.

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