No one was there to hear him on that cool spring day. School had ended more than an hour ago and all the learners had headed off to community service time. It was one in the afternoon, and Mr. Paddle wondered what he should do with his day. Birthdays bothered him. They didn’t always. Once upon a time he made a point of doing something fun – and usually by himself – every year, but these last two years had changed that. Mr. Paddle had had plenty of friends once upon a time, but these days he didn’t do much but teach his classes, sit at this or that café, and read poetry – which he only became interested in over the last two years. Mr. Paddle took part in a few other activities: some he enjoyed, while others were just things he did. He wasn’t sad. He was just trying to make sense of, and get comfortable with where he was.
Mr. Paddle took a seat on one of the bean bags in his silent high school classroom. The round room looked more like the interior of a log cabin than it did a classroom. Mr. Paddle closed his eyes and remembered the off-white linoleum of the classrooms where he had been a student. He remembered the mass produced posters that reminded him to “Read because it makes us whole,” and to “Stay off drugs.” The rooms were square, and had large windows which were never opened. The teacher’s desk was at the front of the room and there was a chalk board which was, at all times, the center of attention. When Mr. Paddle had entered teacher’s college he had expected to have a similar classroom one day, but that year was the year that everything changed.
The room that Mr. Paddle now sat in was round and it had no center. The teacher had no desk. There were wood chairs, and bean bags, a few tables and the walls were lined with games, books, and audio/video media. Where there was no wood wall, there was window so that the natural light of the rural exterior could “become one with the interior learning environment,” Howard, the school guide had said. The campus was just outside the urban core in what had been a large park. The new council had thought to experiment with the idea that school ought to be a place where learners can build their own community to reflect their needs and dreams. Howard had explained to Mr. Paddle that placing the school outside of the urban core gave these learners the opportunity to depart from the buzz of the city and build something themselves with the careful guidance of their educators.
On his first day here at hooks high, Mr. Paddle had been told that much of what he had learned about teaching would not be necessary. No matter how he felt about the whole situation, Mr. Paddle couldn’t complain about the living conditions; the educator’s village on the campus was beautiful, almost spa like. The entire faculty lived there. It was comfortable and Mr. Paddle’s single room afforded him more privacy than he had thought he would have. The point of this separation, of course, was to give the learners a bit of freedom to create their own culture in their own space.
The biggest contributor to his decision to embark on this life path was that he couldn’t imagine life outside of school. Having grown up in a suburban, middle class home, Mr. Paddle couldn’t quite wrap his head around blue collar work, nor could he imagine having ten days of vacation a year, as most office jobs afforded. Teaching was a happy medium for him. The vacations were good, and the job was something he could understand well enough.
There was a new paradigm in education that had begun with the massive shift that took place while Mr. Paddle was learning to be a teacher, just two years before. A new party had come into power in the city and began to reorganize things on a platform of radical democratic and participatory values. Over half a century earlier the city had become a center of poverty. Businesses had left, people with money moved to distant suburbs and the sky over the city seemed to have turned greyer with every passing year. Eventually, there were so few people in the city that was once the home of millions that the city elections were not hard to win for anyone who wanted it. Most of the corporate support for candidates had left with the money, so no one cared much about the city of the poor by the time the new party came in. The Right had taken the country, but in this city, the Left was free to experiment with new ways of living.
Mr. Paddle remembered his first day as an educator. It was just about two years before; almost the same time as the massive shift. Jerry, one of his learners, had walked up to him after class and said, “I’m really happy with this new school, Mr. Paddle. What’s your real name?”
Jerry was about five feet eight, and was just a bit overweight. His tan skin and dark hair left some question as to his ethnic background, but Mr. Paddle didn’t even think to wonder about that. Jerry was talkative in class and excited to be living at school, not because he loved school, but because he liked being surrounded by people all the time. He liked eating, sleeping, studying, and relaxing with friends around.
Mr. Paddle answered, “Umm, Jerry. I am going to stick with Mr. Paddle. I know that most of the other teachers, I mean ‘educators,’ are going by first names now, but I think it’s important to have a bit of order. Okay?” Mr. Paddle didn’t really believe what he had said to Jerry that day, but he had decided that it was a good idea to keep some distance and had to decide how to justify it. Mr. Paddle wasn’t aware enough to know why he preferred it that way in those days, but he did. The truth was that Mr. Paddle was afraid of forming real relationships with his students. He had never given much thought to his own teachers outside of school, so he didn’t see why his students – he often forgot to call them learners in the early days – should want to know him.
Jerry thought for a moment and responded, “I guess. I’m not sure I ever really felt like I was learning at Woodward, but hooks is different somehow.” Jerry was very talkative, even early on. He wasn’t a particularly talented student in the former sense of the word, but he was a brilliant learner. He loved to discuss the things that they were learning whether it was in class, during community service time, or during meals with other learners.
Mr. Paddle was both impressed and annoyed by this. It was clear that the new system was better for more learners than was the old system. It allowed them to talk issues out in class, and “get past mental roadblocks” – as Mr. Paddle would always say. At the same time, Mr. Paddle felt that there was something wrong in this system. It was something he couldn’t quite understand, but he felt it anyhow. The truth was that Mr. Paddle was one of the many that the new system might have helped if he had been a few years younger, but as it was he had grown up in the old, mechanized, hierarchical system. He had been subjected to paper and pencil tests, detentions, tardy slips, and twelve grades of boredom, but to him and millions of others, it was just normal. One might have looked at Mr. Paddle and known right away that he was jealous of his learners for getting to experience this kind of education, but Mr. Paddle only knew that he felt strange and sometimes annoyed.
“Hmmm.” Mr. Paddle was trying his best to listen to Jerry, but he was sweating and he wasn’t sure why. He wondered if he was allowed to talk about politics with a student. “Jerry, shouldn’t you be getting off to your C.S. orientation?” Mr. Paddle’s face was without expression. He was now thinking about what made him decide to teach in the first place.
His disinterest must have been apparent to Jerry because he asked, “Are you happy, Mr. Paddle?”
“I’m not sad… Community Service, Jerry.
“Oh ya. Sorry, I guess you are as new to this as I am, huh, Mr. Paddle? Well, I’ll see ya tomorrow.”
Mr. Paddle thought about what Jerry had said. They were both “new to this.” Everyone was new to this. Maybe this new system could work. Maybe it couldn’t. Mr. Paddle wasn’t happy, that much was true, but for some reason he allowed himself to smile, however slightly, as Jerry left the room. It wasn’t a happy smile. It was just an involuntary reaction to a talkative kid.
The only element of the old education that Mr. Paddle was allowed to hang on to was the choice to be called Mr. Paddle rather than his first name. Howard told him on that first day, “You can choose to keep some distance from your learning group by giving them your formal title, but I tend to go by Howard since we all live together on the campus here for most of the year anyhow. And we only keep them in here for half the day, which means that we are only one half of their educators. Their community service guides spend more time with them over the course of a year than we do!”
The new system seemed just as flawed as the old one to Mr. Paddle, but everyone else seemed to love it. Mr. Paddle remembered working with his learners on the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s not too long ago.
One of his learners named Margot said, “Mr. Paddle,why didn’t we learn this stuff before?”
“I think it must not have been in the curriculum before, Margot” he replied.
“So why are we learning it now?” she asked.
“Maybe it was just the grade you were in.” Mr. Paddle answered.
Jerry cut in, “It’s the new system. I mean, everything is different. We are learning cooler things in cooler ways. I remember being so bored at Woodward. I mean it was nice just going to class and then blanking out, but Mr. Paddle, you changed all that. You and the council.” The rest of the class nodded and smiled in agreement.
Mr. Paddle looked around the circle at each of the learners in the class and gave a half-hearted grin. He was incredibly uncomfortable at that moment, but the kids seemed to like this kind of discussion. Without another word he moved on to the next phase of the discussion. “Abe, why do you think that the Civil Rights movement happened when it happened?”
For a long time, Mr. Paddle couldn’t figure out how these students were going to learn anything solid if everything was a conversation. Instead of learning the important dates and events of the Civil War, the new curriculum called for in-depth discussions about how slaves might have felt in such a situation, how each learner felt when they learned that slavery was very legal and very present in the United States for much of its history, and whether they understood the reasons that each side gave for the war. Instead of simply learning science, learners were asked to teach one another about the theory of evolution and then to compare and contrast that with various religious doctrines. Instead of teaching math through repetitive practice, they played math games. How could they grasp anything solid if dialogue is the basis for learning? Who is the authority in a world like that?
The answer, of course, was etched into the walls of every learning cabin at hooks high, and even carved into some of the tree trunks in the forested area between the campus and the city. The words of bell hooks: “Critical thinking is an interactive process, one that demands participation on the part of the teacher and students alike.” The school was named after her, and Mr. Paddle had remembered learning about her in his undergraduate course on alternative models of education, but it was just a course about alternatives. At the time, it was taught as if it were a nice idea for teachers to learn about, but nothing more. Mr. Paddle recalled one professor telling him that dialogue in the classroom was a pipe dream. “Kids just want to play videogames and talk on facebook,” he had said. Because of this, Mr. Paddle wondered then, as he wondered now, about whether these alternatives could truly form the basis of this school system, or if they were better as add-ons in the classroom. Certainly his professors had not taken these ideas very seriously.
Mr. Paddle had thought that his professors had had good reason to dismiss dialogue as any sort of basis for education, but now he understood that the learners were at least more engaged than he had been at that age. Perhaps they were actually learning. Still, Mr. Paddle felt that there was some tension that needed to be worked out in all of this. How could they know things if they weren’t told? Mr. Paddle was uncomfortable with it.
The massive shift had happened such a short time ago that it was hard to tell if things were getting better. There was much to work out. The idealized utopia that the council had painted in its campaign was still a long way off, and to its credit it always reminded the city of that fact. There were still learners who dropped out, there were still budget issues, there were still ideological debates in the community about what should be taught. The new system forced people to work these things out through the micro-councils of the many workplaces and communities, rather than being limited to criticizing from the sidelines and leaving others to deal with these issues. Every now and then Mr. Paddle allowed the thought that he would be happy at some point in the future to creep into his head, but he quickly dismissed it. Mr. Paddle, like the rest of the city, was taking his time getting used to the new system.
Mr. Paddle’s area of expertise was history, so he had to take courses in math and other areas so that he could teach all the vital learning subjects. After the massive shift, it was essential that the learners have one educator who taught all the subjects, and who knew each of the learners intimately. This meant that all the other educators were in the same boat as he was in the beginning. He had wanted to be a teacher so he could enjoy his summers and have his evenings to himself, and so he could at least feel like he was doing something a little bit constructive in the world. His parents had at least instilled a sense of responsibility to do something good in the world, even if it was a small something. For Mr. Paddle, it was through what he perceived to be the path of least resistance that he figured he would take that challenge on. He didn’t ever think that he would be particularly good at teaching, but he knew he wouldn’t be very bad at it.
Now he felt like more of a camp counselor than anything else, but he remembered Howard’s so called wise words at one of their learning sessions, “…and remember, Mr. Paddle, the goal of education is to build community identity and individual identity in that order. The knowledge of all things is the basis for identity building and empowerment throughout life, but without identity we cannot act in the world.”
“I get the reasoning,” Mr. Paddle said. “I get it. I just think there ought to be a little bit of the old in the new, right?” Mr. Paddle was surprised that he had said this. He was more interested in getting out of the conversation than arguing the point, but for a moment he couldn’t help himself.
“Very true. Very true. Of course there needs to be some level of instruction in the learning circle, but that’s exactly why you are there. You are there to guide them, as I am here to guide you. It’s not the traditional style you may have learned about and experienced, as I did, but it is going to work. When learners are free to grow through dialogue on important subjects, interactive games, and experiences like community service, they will begin to feel as though learning is something that ought to be done everywhere and all the time. They will feel responsible for their communities and themselves. When you ask them hard questions and allow them to do the same, you are developing their critical thinking skills. The goal is not to churn out an army of machines. We are now in the process of growing human beings.”
To this Mr. Paddle responded, “I guess I can get used to it, but I just don’t see how this is supposed to lift the city out of half a century of poverty.”
“If our minds are free to think critically about the world, we can rebuild our city in any number of ways. Education is the foundation of that. Remember, Paulo says that without the ability to think critically about our world, we can’t hope to have the democracy we purport to lead the world toward,” Howard said with a smile.
Mr. Paddle gazed off at nothing in particular and said, “I get it. I just need to get used to it, I guess.” He walked off feeling disappointed about something; maybe everything. Of course, he didn’t show it.
Mr. Paddle sat in the Campbell Café in the center of the city and stared at one of the campaign posters that had been framed and set behind the counter. The coffee shop had undergone just a few minor changes, and looked suspiciously like it had been a Starbucks not too long ago. The walls and furniture were still beige and green, and the music was still adult contemporary – though it was a local artist. One of the immediate changes was that all large franchises within the city limits such as Starbucks, McDonalds, and Walmart were bought by the city and either kept, sold to local business people, or sold to community councils with the means to make such a purchase. This coffee shop was owned by Annie Campbell, a young woman who had made some money on the stock market and subsequently decided to move back to the city after the massive shift. Mr. Paddle was sipping his once-a-year free birthday coffee.
The poster, which Mr. Paddle was staring at declared, “Real Change Comes Locally. Real Change Comes from You.” After the disappointment of the first national change campaign, the city had fallen back into its default position of emptiness, crime, and poverty. The Radical Democratic Party had risen in a whirlwind just a few months after the Tea Party had taken the White House. The city was a new place after the RDP came to city hall. The hall itself was made into a community center with space for arts, sports, and debate where representatives from each neighborhood formed a new city council. The new council had put new by-laws in place that made it illegal to sell anything within the municipality without taking into account the price of the environmental impact that a product had. It was also illegal to sell or do anything if the workers involved weren’t represented by a council or one of the old unions.
Some people said it was the beginning of paradise. A few people started moving to the city from all over the country after it became apparent that the new city council was actually making changes. Some wanted to escape the ultra-Right in the rest of the country, while others just wanted to try something new. Still others moved because they were the types of people who enjoyed long meetings about politics, budgets and other governance issues. This kind of society would be perfect for them.
The vast majority of the city’s current population had been there before the shift and many were silent and went about their day to day lives, as it had been before the massive shift. They weren’t interested in politics; they had just been living in the city all along. The massive shift had changed things for them, but they weren’t very concerned with the change. If their neighborhood had a new council they went to the meetings now and then, if their jobs had become cooperatives they enjoyed taking some time from their everyday workload to meet about some management issue. It was a refreshing shift for some of these people, and just another way of operating for others. A few people left when the change came, but they were the few who saw the shift as a departure from the individualism that made America great in their eyes.
For Mr. Paddle, it was just another way of operating. He didn’t know where else to go. He didn’t know what else to do but teach, so he did it in his home town.
Mr. Paddle didn’t think of himself as a guru or anything like that. He liked the idea of helping kids out. After all, he had not been the greatest student and always thought that if he had had teachers who cared he would have at least made the effort to do better in school. But all of that was an afterthought for him, more of a justification for getting into education, which was a good way to alleviate his minor concern for taking responsibility for making the world better in some small way, as his parents had told him was important. A few years down the road, Mr. Paddle would find considerable passion for what he was doing, but not yet.
All his life Mr. Paddle had felt indifferent about most things. School was not hard, but he didn’t do well at it. Sports were boring. Music was nice to listen to, but playing it was a challenge for him. Now, Mr. Paddle listened to poetry at cafes, he watched movies, and he tended to cook a new dish every week. These were things he kind of liked to do. They were activities which could take his mind off himself. They were ways to spend time. Teaching was just something he fell into because nothing else really fit him. Still, having been forced to enter the system at the earliest stage of the shift, Mr. Paddle had become rather good at conducting classroom discussions on history and philosophy, and creating games out of science and math. He had begun to understand that his students really liked each other and that they learned from each other as they worked together. In these two years, school had gone from being a chore to being the center of their lives. Because he was forced to live at hooks high, just outside of the city, Mr. Paddle had found that it was, by default, the center of his life too. None of this really changed the way he felt about it. He was almost too stubborn to realize it. He knew these things were good, but remained uncomfortable.
Jerry reminded Mr. Paddle of himself, but he dismissed this thought as something that most teachers sometimes think about their students. Despite disregarding his feeling about Jerry, he felt that Jerry was his favorite learner. It may have developed because of the many times that Jerry would come and see him later in the day, or the way Jerry would push classroom conversations forward by being so talkative, which eased Mr. Paddle’s responsibility to be active in the circle. Some time later, Mr. Paddle would realize that this feeling had developed because he cared about this learner. He cared about all his learners. He wouldn’t express it then, and he tried to dampen the feeling as best he could, but that could only last for so long. Eventually Mr. Paddle would love his role as an educator in the new system, but that was a long way off.
It was now Jerry’s last year with Mr. Paddle. Lying in bed, as his birthday ended, Mr. Paddle wondered what Jerry would do after he went on to another phase when high school ended for him. Most of his learners talked about setting up new cooperative workplaces, traveling, or teaching. The last two years had had an impact on them, their visions for their lives, and their visions for what was possible in their society.
Mr. Paddle had been affected too. He liked the idea of local ownership and even went to non-mandatory educator general meetings. He never spoke, but now and then he listened to what kinds of collective decisions were being made. His day-to-day life still consisted of watching movies alone, listening to poetry in the city, and cooking once a week, but he felt a little more comfortable now with his role as an educator.
In the end, it was time and practice that had the greatest impact on Mr. Paddle. At this point in his life he was not totally convinced that he was living the right kind of life, but he didn’t have any better ideas. More time and more practice in the new system would prove to Mr. Paddle that he was living the right life, and he was an important person in the lives of his learners, but he wasn’t there yet.
Mr. Paddle, still lying in bed, felt that there was something in Jerry that struck a chord, however slightly, in him. He wondered what he would do when Jerry moved on.
Was it the system in particular, or was it their relationship that had forced Mr. Paddle to care, even just a little bit? He was more comfortable now with the dialogical classroom toward which Howard had guided him. He was used to having very little vacation. He was used to the idea that his classroom was a circle. He was used to Jerry and Margot, and all twelve others who he spent his mornings learning with.
It struck Mr. Paddle that his choice to become a teacher was not borne out of a love for young people, or the educational process. These things just developed over time and through practice. Mr. Paddle did not have some agenda; no deep wisdom to impart. He had chosen to teach because it was something to do. It was a profession that he thought he understood, because he had spent all those years in school himself. Mr. Paddle had chosen to be a teacher because he didn’t take an interest in searching for the perfect job. He just wanted – and like everyone, needed - to do something.
All of that was changing, but the change was slow.
Some years later, Jerry would return to hooks high to be an educator, and eventually replace Howard as the hooks high guide. Later still, Jerry would serve as the education chair on the city council. Jerry always credited Mr. Paddle with giving him that direction, and would even tell that to Mr. Paddle, but it would be many years before Mr. Paddle would take it to heart.
At some point Mr. Paddle would know, admit, and understand that education was a human process. Howard had told him that day in and day out for two years, but it was remembering Jerry years later that actually helped him to understand. Here was a kid who was learning just about everything from a guy who was just trying to get comfortable with something and live. But Jerry had learned. Jerry had grown. Jerry and the others had grown into real, thinking people. Mr. Paddle had been there as it happened. There would be more Jerry’s, he thought to himself. There would be more groups for Mr. Paddle to learn with. Mr. Paddle didn’t feel tired of being at hooks high at all. He was learning too.
Mr. Paddle had found something to do with his life. He wasn’t happy, nor was he sad about it. He just had a feeling, which he buried deep inside that night, that he would be doing this for a long time.
As he lay in bed at the end of his birthday, Mr. Paddle thought about the next day’s learner conversation. The truth was that he felt satisfied, but he certainly didn’t know it yet.