Friday Photo: Negative Reinforcement
“Is it an emergency? Than you may not use the bathroom during the lecture.”
“The word able actually is functioning as an adjective, not a verb… because really, is able an action you can do? Can you able?”
“Guyyys…” (insert warning tone, and the three boys slapping each other vigorously with rulers will stop, as is what happened today. I’m serious. Seventh grade.)
“No, I have never seen a cannibal — I’m still alive” (the response of my co-worker to an eighth grader’s question)
In teaching, “yes” and “no” are pretty common words, almost as common as “please” and “thank you” — or, what my class seems to be famous for, the requirement to ask permission by saying “may.” I’m used to denying students the privilege to look through my yearbook during study hall or to move an exam a few days in the future. I’d guess that anyone in a position of authority could relate to having to sift through the multitude of positives and negatives that run through a situation, due to the fact that the obligation of an authority is to channel an individual’s need or want into those of a community. Thus, in bringing society toward a collective good, some authorities possess an understanding that the rest of us do not: For example, do my students really know why they must have a topic sentence when writing a composition, even though I’ve told them? (And who determined that 65 miles per hour on Pennsylvanian highways was really the speed of least congestion and least danger? It could at least be a mild 74. Pshaw.)
Today, when walking down an alley that I’d never taken before, Granite Street between 2nd and 3rd Streets, Harrisburg, I found myself facing 4 blood red stop signs, one for each intersection from 2nd to 5th Street. I had chosen to walk down the alley on my way to get a grilled chicken Caesar crepe from Chris’s Crepes and Coffee Co. at the Broad Street Market, and I had picked my path simply because the street was empty and I had needed silence after a day of high school grammar. (“The driving cars zoom past,” because ‘driving’ here is a verbal acting as an adjective but form as a verb with one of the verbal endings -ing….” dang it!!!)
The repetition of the word STOP seemed symbolic: Don’t move forward, do not go, wrong way, wrong path, NO. For my students: “stop” is a denial of freedom, an assertion of my authority. For recent college graduates, “stop” is the denial of a full-ride to a master’s degree or the immediacy of a high-paying job that allows us to change the world as we thought teachers promised we would. Whether the “stops” eventually become “gos” or not, what remains is that life denies us. Often. Maybe more often than we thought.
The “yes” in life is still there, but it’s more complicated because it’s implied. If “no” is the result of a deviation, “yes” the silent converse: you’ve done a good job, you’ve conformed, you’ve succeeded. Good job. You must know, so we don’t need to tell you.
I have to wonder: what would happen if I said thank you to a class who remained quiet during study hall, as they should, instead of assuming it doesn’t need acknowledging? Probably I’d get the same reaction that a cop would get if he gave parking thank-yous on there were no days for parking tickets. (Not only is that awkward, but it’d also be pricy–can you imagine the law book filled with the inverse of every “no”?)
It’s not productive to ask for a “yes” in every area of life, but knowing the “yes” is healthy. “No, this job is not for you, but yes, you’ve done a good job getting that degree and at least some experience, so way to go.” “No, Sylvia, the speed limit is NOT 74, but you haven’t gotten a ticket in 6 months for the first time in three years, and yes, PennDOT has noticed.” (I wish.) Realizing the “yes” seems to involve just lifting our head out of the normal routine and realizing that every action, whether it falls in line or not, is still an individual’s choice.
Yes, I can do that.