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Larry Efird: Have understanding, even when there’s no answer

By Larry Efird

Recently, a student asked me a question I have never heard in four decades of teaching.

She innocently inquired, “Mr. Efird, can you read cursive?” I thought that was funny, but then I realized she was being serious. I know that many students today cannot read cursive because they tell me when I make comments on their papers and they don’t know what I’ve written. I figured that out a decade ago, and I’ve made the necessary adjustments — so I now print all my notes to students, honors and otherwise.

Another reason this struck me as humorous was because only a day or two prior to that, another student randomly asked me in the hall if I could read Arabic.  I’ve never heard that one before either. She said someone had told her that I could read Arabic, and I think she wanted me to explain a tattoo design to her. (Not sure about that, but that was my best guess.)  I did have several years of Hebrew in my seminary days, so maybe someone thought Arabic and Hebrew were the same thing, much like the blurred distinction a Southerner has between North and South Dakota.

At any rate, I’m frequently reminded that students often assume things about their instructors that are simply not true.  When teaching over 400 literary devices to AP kids (there are more but we don’t have time to cover them all in one semester), they think I know the definition to all of them on sight and that I can recall them as quickly as Ken Jennings on Jeopardy. I wish.

They also somehow imagine that I’ve read every novel written since the Middle Ages.  To be honest, I do try to read ominously prohibitive titles such  as Moby Dick, Look Homeward Angel and The Brothers Karamazov, despite their incredible length, because I never had time to read them when I was a student myself. I spent a year working through Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov “just for fun,” and I was glad I did. Moby Dick was rather laborious as well, but Look Homeward Angel made me proud once again to be from North Carolina and extol the work of one our most famous sons.

But have I read all the classics? Of course not, much to the disbelief of a few students each year.

Why would students imagine their teachers “know everything” or, at least, desire them to? Maybe it’s because they want to think that someone has all the answers to their questions. It makes them feel secure.

Church people do the same thing to their pastors. They want them to have all the answers to life’s greatest paradoxes and challenges even though that’s not possible.  I guess it’s part of human nature to desire that someone we know and trust can help us make sense of life and all its dilemmas.

In our school family, we experienced another tragic death of a teenager recently. This wasn’t the first school where I’ve been a part of such widespread anguish and bewilderment on the faces of numerous kids wandering the halls with tears coming down their faces.

It always makes me feel so helpless, so inadequate. It also reminds me that I don’t have answers for needless tragedy that will make much sense to me, let alone anyone else. I do know this, however:  it humbles me, and it makes me pray more.

The best advice (but not really an answer) I could give one class was that in times like these, we need to take care of each other.  Americans did that valiantly following Sept. 11. It was amazing to see the unity and the love found on every flag-strewn street corner. It brought a measure of much-needed healing to our often-divided nation.

I am thankful for a school that is a successful model of how to blend a culturally diverse student population into a unified family. I am also thankful that although there are no acceptable answers for many of life’s sufferings and injustices, there are people who try to understand one another in the midst of their perplexing grief. Sometimes we can’t give a definitive answer, but at least we can give a reassuring hug. Everyone understands that.

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.

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