Teachable Moments: The Fragility of Manhood


I’m roughly a third of the way through my TEFL Certification course with ITA. The course is designed to prepare students to teach English in a variety of classrooms, both traditional and nontraditional, as well as to work as a private tutor. As I read about different teaching philosophies and method, I can’t help but think about my own experiences as a student.

This particular story isn’t about how a teacher inspired me, or about an innovative teaching style. This is a story about a teacher speaking to his class in an unexpected and, ultimately, sad moment.

(Warning: There is use of a particular slur in this story that some will find offensive.)

When we entered after lunch, Mr. Capp* was at the front of the class as usual, standing straight up in pressed slacks, a button-up shirt, and a solid green tie. He neither dressed formally in suits like Mr. Harkins, the civics teacher, or casually in short-sleeved polos like Mr. Wells who taught English and coached girls’ tennis; he taught Senior Psychology. Having entered into his 30s with an unassuming handsomeness, he watched us in silence.

Of my non-Humanities classes. Psychology was by far my favorite, an interest that would carry on into college. Two sections were of particular interest, the first on human sexuality and the other Depression-related disorders. Mr. Capp approached both subjects with professional nonchalance, covering subjects like homosexuality and suicide – delicate topics in any high school, let alone in the Midwest – with the same matter-of-factness as Ms. Pohl explaining vectors.  As his sartorial choices suggested, Mr. Capp straddled the line between Student’s Buddy and Strict Mentor. He knew how to engage with students, but he would commonly remind us that we were seniors and that meant we needed to act like upperclassmen. He had no patience for laziness or entitled students.

This particular Tuesday, he was uncharacteristically tightlipped as we streamed in.

Two weeks prior, in a discussion on gender norms, Mr. Capp had given a remarkably sympathetic and forward-thinking lecture, espousing the potentially controversial stance that one’s biological sex must not necessarily determine one’s gender or how one expressed it. To illustrate this theme, he split the class up into a male and female group and then had the groups compete in a series of stereotypically gender-specific tasks, such as running in heels and throwing a football. The catch was that the teams picked which member from the other team would compete in each activity.

Being a mostly anonymous student at the school, I assumed (and hoped) I would be able to ride out the whole competition in the background. To my great chagrin, I was chosen to participate in one event: I had to fasten a hinge between two blocks of wood. Apparently the ladies had figured I might not be the “manliest” kid in the class – perceptive, these ones. Their astute observation paid off as I was defeated handily by my female competitor. If it was any consolation to my team, the guys did win the high heels race.

Despite my embarrassment – and I was still young and insecure enough for the loss to feel deeply shameful – I enjoyed the section and found the topic to be reassuring.

This is what made the strange occurrence in Mr. Capp’s class that Tuesday all the more confusing. With all the students settled into their seats, Mr. Capp remained briefly silent. This was already an odd start since he was not one to waste any of the class period. We had just started the section on Bipolar Disorder, but when he finally did speak, it was not to begin the lecture.

“Last night, after school let out, I went to visit my mother.” I think most of us assumed Mr. Capp was telling us a story to illustrate the lesson. We quickly realized that wasn’t the case. “While I was in her house, some coward vandalized her property.” I don’t recall now if he actually said the word or merely suggested it, but either way, we all knew what had happened: Someone spray-painted the word ‘faggot’ on his mother’s driveway. “We know it was a student and the police will be thoroughly investigating.”

He continued through contained rage on the subject of respect and maturity. The entire class listened with the kind of rapt attention most teachers could only dream of. The speech Mr. Capp delivered probably only lasted five minutes, but it felt like it took up the whole class. There was undeniable fury seething behind Mr. Capp’s stony expression, his commitment to total professionalism losing out to filial devotion. He tried to focus his anger through derision, mocking the perpetrator for being dumb enough to not even graffiti the right house, but there was no mirth in his tone.

Then the venting took an unexpected turn.

“If there’s anyone here who questions whether I’m a man, we can go outside right now and I’ll prove it. Are you man enough to fight me? Or just a coward vandalizing an old woman’s house in the dark?” It would have been laughable if it hadn’t been stated with such virulence.

What were we supposed to make of this bizarre presentation? How could someone who had just weeks earlier taught us that gender norms were a societal construct now face us and insist that he would defend his manhood through the most banal display of machismo?

The simplest answer is that sometimes we can know something intellectually but not internalize that knowledge. In heightened emotional states, in those moments when we need them the most, we rarely maintain our grasp on our ideals. The whole display – his anger, his barely maintained façade, his hypocrisy – was in its own way one of the most profound lessons I’ve ever received.

It didn’t take long for someone to find the ID of a student in the lawn of Mr. Capp’s mother. It belonged to Brady, a rich kid who no one seemed to actually like yet who occupied the center of the most popular social circle, an argument for class privilege if you ever needed one. One of those seniors who intended to ride out his final year in pud classes, it’s no surprise that Brady ran afoul of Mr. Capp and bristled at being asked to put in actual effort. 

As Seniors, we thought of ourselves as the elder statesmen, but Brady proved, we were still just kids.

I have no idea if Mr. Capp still teaches or whether anyone ever took him up on his challenge. I also don’t know what happened to Brady, though I suspect very little in terms of punishment or lasting consequence. Despite the disheartening display that Tuesday afternoon, I still think of Mr. Capp’s class as one of the most influential factors in my educational path, one that included many more psychology courses and has continued well beyond the formal classroom.

I wonder if Mr. Capp still thinks back on that day; if so, does he regrets his words? Maybe he’s ashamed, or maybe he feels it was justified.  Perhaps, due to cognitive dissonance – a concept I’d only study later in my college psych courses – he has somehow mentally rearranged the incident into something heroic or even noble, crafting a personal narrative in which he stood before his classroom and displayed the model of an enlightened, post-gender male. I’ll never know. It doesn’t matter.

It might be strange to say this but, I actually did learn a lot from this experience. It was the beginning of a long arc for me, coming to terms with my own idea of masculinity and strength. It’s a lesson we continue to learn every day, as Mr. Capp proved.

It’s also a reminder that, whether in front of a classroom or tutoring a student one-on-one, any moment as a teacher can be significant.

*All names are made up.

[“Calvin and Hobbes” created by Bill Watterson.]

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