Classroom Questions: Novel Excerpt

here is another excerpt of the novel(la) I’m working on, written from the perspective of a science teacher whose fiancé just died.

As a teacher, I’m confronted by endless questions. Most of the time, they are monotonous at best. No, you can’t go to the bathroom, not even during a fire (I guess you have to go in your pants). Yes, you can sharpen your pencil. Lunch is when class is over and class is over when the bell rings. Snarky quips become rehearsed and automatic – after all, the key to managing the punk students is to act, not react. These are what I consider first tier questions, brain not necessary.

Second tier questions are slightly more complex, if not remarkably more awkward to answer. They wear different hats depending on the age of the student, but they are all the same in essence. That is, these are personal questions. Questions of burgeoning adolescence, musings and confusings of growth in motion. I’ve learned deference can be a powerful tool in these situations. If you want to know where babies come from, go ask your mom and dad (I don’t have any, so I wouldn’t know). I’ve never seen an alien/ghost/tooth fairy, so I can’t say for sure. I’m sure there is a girl out there for you, just be patient and focus on schoolwork. And so on. To avoid controversy, anything to do with sex, God or Santa Clause is redirected to the parents, or bounced back to them through ignorance (never heard of Santa, God doesn’t ring a bell, what’s a blowjob?). These kinds of questions require a little more of your brain than tier 1, if for nothing more than navigating answers that won’t upset parents or admin.

Then there are the third tier questions, those annoyingly sharp revelations when students realize there are questions that extend beyond even teacher comprehension. Questions that demand as much of your brain as anything else in teaching. These are frustrating because my classroom operates on the mantra that “I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer. This may strike you as odd, since not knowing is the primary velocity behind science, but with kids it becomes an escape route more often than not. So you can imagine the backpedaling I have to do when I face third tier questions. I do my best to turn these into discussions, using the age-old teacher trick of Socratic answers to encourage their own arrivals and conclusions. But sometimes it backfires, and after getting grilled enough by my students, I’m forced to capitulate. I don’t know what happens after you die. I don’t know how the universe came into existence, I don’t know if there is purpose or meaning in all things. I don’t know. I can’t know.

Then the fourth tier questions, where students unknowingly breach your most sacred defense mechanisms, where their youthful curiosity infiltrate your denial with such a scathing, painfully jolting question they may very well have stood up and thrown a book at you. It’s not that the answers are difficult to arrive at, but they are difficult to swallow. Even worse to admit. Brain not applicable; matters of the heart are so much more complex than matters of the mind.

“Were you sad when your fiancé died?”

“Weren’t you excited to marry her?”

“Do you think you could have helped her?”

“Is it weird not seeing her anymore?”

But even those, cruel in their adolescent innocence, can at least be blunted by intellect. The worst, hardest question I was asked, the question that has me reeling every time I see our classroom mantra:

“Mr. Luke, are you ok?”