Home > My Favorites > Day Sixty-four: A Teachable Moment

Day Sixty-four: A Teachable Moment

Hannah drew little interconnecting circles in her notebook while Mr. Spalding droned through the last ten minutes of Western civ class. Yes, the cultural effects of French colonization on Africa was probably fascinating and all that, but she had better things to think about. She had to present an idea to the Green Town Club meeting after school, something about how to promote environmental awareness to the rest of the town, and the best she could come up with was a plastic bottle display. She needed something better, something that would really grab people’s attention.

“Are you paying attention, Ms. Bradford?” She looked up sharply and he was standing right in front of her, holding the textbook at his side. He was looking over the rims of his glasses at her – his standard glare at uncooperative students. He turned his head around to look at her notebook and snorted. “Lovely,” he said. “Now perhaps you can tell me what one of the effects of the French occupation of Algeria was?”

She sat up straight and brushed some hair out from in front of her eyes. “Um, well,” she said, “they sure spoke a lot more French!” She tried to laugh, but it died in her throat. Mr. Spalding was utterly unmoved. He kept staring down at her, not blinking. “Well, they did get more European settlers in Algeria, which led to… um… a lot of changes like, in farming. And in infrastructure. And the schools were -”

“Thank you, Ms. Bradford,” Mr. Spalding said. There was a hint of disappointment and anger in his deep voice. “Please see me after class.” He went back up to the board, and Hannah let her head drop to the desk. The girls around her were whispering, like she would have been if it was one of them. She knew how this would play out, too. A lecture. Extra work. Maybe detention. She’d have to bargain, though. No detention today, maybe another day – she could have her dad call Spalding and see if there was anything he could do about it.

The bell rang, Mr. Spalding gave them their reading for the next class, and then looked up at Hannah and crooked a finger. She sighed, making it as theatrical as possible, picked up her books as if they weighed a ton, and lurched up to his desk. “Look, Mister Spalding,” she said, not looking him in the eye. “I’m really sorry I didn’t know the answer, but -”

He held up a hand. “Hannah, that you didn’t know the answer doesn’t bother me. Much.” He sat back. “What bothers me is that you seem to have so very little regard for this class and your own learning.”

This wasn’t going where she thought it was going. “What?”

Mr. Spalding smiled, a tight, quick smile. “Hannah, I know you don’t think the French occupation of Algeria is important to you. And honestly, it probably isn’t.”

Well. That was new.

“But what I’m trying to help you with,” he continued, “is the ability to take in information and reach your own conclusions about things. To take two facts,” he said, holding up his hands like they were carrying bowling balls, “and synthesize them into a new idea.” He smashed the imaginary balls together. “You see what I’m getting at?”

Hannah thought so, but she wasn’t sure. So she just said, “Yeah, Mister Spalding. Yeah, I do.”

He looked at her for a moment and then shook his head. “No, I don’t think you do,” he said. “Detention. Tonight. I’ll give you research to do in the library.”

She dropped the books on his desk and came around to where he was sitting. “But I can’t do it tonight,” she said. “I have to give a presentation for the Green Town Club!”

“You’ve worked on it?” he asked. “You have it ready to go?”

“Well, um… Not really,” she said.

He nodded. “At least I know that it’s no more important to you than my class. No, Hannah, you’ll be in the library at four o’clock and we’ll get you started on your research. I’ll tell Ms. Haslett that you won’t be able to make it.”

“But I -”

“Done, Hannah,” he said. He sat up straight, opened his grade book and started making notes. “I’ll see you at four.”

It was as clear a dismissal as she was going to get. She dragged her feet out of the classroom and dumped her textbooks in her locker. This. Was. A disaster. More work, on top of everything else she had to do before she graduated, there was going to be this, too. And Spalding’s class would be totally insufferable from now on. She grabbed her biology notes out of the locker and then slammed the door shut. The only bright side was that she didn’t have to show up empty-handed to Green Town.

The day’s classes finished at three-thirty, and at five after four Hannah came into the library to find Mr. Spalding leaning against one of the tables, holding a small paper bag in his hand. He glanced up at the clock. “You’re late,” he said.

“Yeah, sorry about that.” She dropped her bag on a chair. “Let’s do this. What do you want me to research?”

He raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms. “You do understand why you’re here, don’t you?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “I wasn’t paying attention in class. You got me, it was fair.” She shrugged. “So what do I have to do?”

“Young lady,” he said. “This isn’t about punishment. If that was all I was after I’d have you alphabetize the science books. Twice.” He stood up, and Hannah realized again how tall he was. When she was sitting, every teacher towered over her, but standing up, she was one of the tallest in her class. Mr. Spalding had at least another foot on her. “Hannah, you come to this school to learn two things: The basic facts that you need to know in order to make informed decisions about your life, and the thinking skills necessary to make those facts useful to you. Your behavior today – and just about every day, come to think of it – suggests that you don’t care about learning either of those things.”

“I care,” Hannah said, and even she didn’t believe herself. “It’s just that I have things on my mind. You know.”

“Like what?”

She shrugged. “Stuff.”

“Ah yes, ‘stuff.’ I had a problem with stuff too when I was in high school.” He smiled and shook his head, then he held out the paper bag. “There are twenty slips of paper in there. Pick two.”

Hannah looked up at him for a moment, and he nodded. She half-expected her hand to come out crawling with spiders or something, but she pulled out two folded pieces of paper, and he put the bag back. She unfolded the first one. It said, “NIGER: MEDIATOR OF THE REPUBLIC” and the other said, “URANIUM”. She looked between them a couple of times and then looked up at Mr. Spalding. He was smiling at her. “Find the link, put the pieces together,” he said. “If you finish tonight, great. If not, we’ll come back here tomorrow.” He went around the table, picked up his satchel and sat down. He took some papers out of the bag, his signature green ballpoint pen out of his pocket and started grading quizzes. After a moment, he looked up at Hannah. “You still here?” he asked.

“What am I supposed to do with these?” she cried.

He put the pen down. “I just told you. Do the research, find the connection. When you’ve done that, come see me and I’ll give you your next set of instructions.” He looked up at the clock again. “Time’s a-wasting,” he said. He flashed the smile again, and went back to grading.

Hannah crumpled the pieces of paper in her hand and stalked off to find a computer. A few minutes on Wikipedia would probably get her everything she needed about stupid uranium and stupid Niger. Ten stupid minutes, tops, and she’d be out of there.

Her hands hovered above the keyboard. She turned around to look at Mr. Spalding. All she could see was the back of his head, close-cut black hair above a bright white shirt collar. “Oh, no,” she muttered. “I know your game.” She could see it all play out – she comes over and hands him Wiki printouts. He shakes his head slowly and says, in that Authority Figure Baritone of his, “I expected better of you, Hannah,” and she spends the next week researching the divorce customs of the Jews of Western Mozambique or something like that.

She called up the two wiki pages and printed them out. Then she walked over and sat at a table near where Mr. Spalding was sitting. She put the printouts on the table, took a pen and a highlighter from her bag, sat down, and started reading. She didn’t see if he looked over or not, but she was pretty sure he did. “Eyu-ranium,” she said, a little louder than necessary.

She’d show him….

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