“Alright everyone, take your seats.” It’s said with a certain level of gravity Mr. Bryson seldom uses.
The kids wiggle into their seats as a quick hush descends over the classroom. There’s an unending pause that lingers in the air -; it’s the same weightiness found in churches when members of a congregation perched on wooden benches wait for an inspirational sermon to be given by a priest or a minister.
“Tom,” Mr. Bryson says. “Are you on your phone?”
“No, Mr. Bryson,” Tom lies as he casually scoops his phone into his Under Armour sweatshirt pocket.
“Well, if it’s already away, there’s no point getting it out for this exercise. Everyone else, get your phones out.”
The students wonder: is this a joke? They glance around at each other waiting for someone else to make the first move. After a few moments, someone grabs their knapsack, and there’s an echo of rustling bags being shuffled around as other kids slowly reach for their cell phones. Once found, twitching fingers are poised and rest lightly on their telephone keypads as they wait for further instructions.
Tom casually removes his mobile phone from his pocket. Mr. Bryson stares at him. There’s an exchange of glances between them. After he can’t handle it anymore, the boy averts his eyes and focuses on the desktop in front of him.
“I can’t believe he’s letting us use our phones!” Jenna whispers to her friend Beth who’s seated in the desk beside her.
“Yes, I am,” Mr. Bryson answers. His voice cracks through the noise that consumed the air with the movement of books, bags, and low murmuring of voices. Everything halts instantly.
“We were going to continue to talk about The Giver today. But I’ve decided to do something different.”
The tranquility returns. It lasts so long a buzzing fly’s zzzz is loud and long enough several children spin their heads around in search of the annoying insect.
“As everyone knows, I was a monitor in the schoolyard at break today. When I was outside, I heard a word that I feel should never be used. The word was…”
Mr. Bryson’s arms were protectively folded in front of him as he casually leaned against a wall in conservative “teacher dress” of beige dress pants, and a short-sleeved plaid shirt. But he breaks away from the standard dress code with his funky red tie with Rubik’s Cubes on it. His attire is a reflection of his teaching style: strict when required, but otherwise, cool and jovial.
With the incomplete, unspoken word that hangs on tethers in space, he turns his back towards the class and grabs a piece of chalk. He scribbles STUPID on the chalkboard. Once he’s finished writing the word, he tosses the chalk and it hits the ledge with a gentle thud. The sound ricochets throughout the room. It’s louder than Mr. Bryson intended.
“Okay, that’s the word that was used in the schoolyard. Does anyone know the meaning of it?” Mr. Bryson asks as he paces back and forth with uneasiness like a caged lion at a zoo.
Sixty-two dilated pupils stare at him. Heads begin to turn in all directions. A low-level whisper begins as everyone poses the same question, “was it you?”
Mr. Bryson nods his head in answer to the question no one will ask him directly. He leans backwards and adjusts his tie. Quietly he says, “It was no one in this room. Thank goodness.”
There’s a small cough.
Otherwise, nothing else is said.
Not one child raises their hand.
Finally, Mr. Bryson says, “If you don’t know the exact definition, that’s okay. Let’s brainstorm together.” He spins on his heel and snatches up a piece of chalk. With impatient fingers, he stands ready to write.
Hailey’s hand shoots up into the air.
Mr. Bryson points at her and says, “Okay, Hailey. What am I writing?”
“People say it when you’ve done something wrong.”
Done something wrong, Mr. Bryson writes, “such as?” He asks Hailey.
“If you… Spill your drink!” She offers.
“Well, that sounds like an accident to me. But we’ll put it down. Because you’re right – people say it in those situations.”
“Okay class, let’s go! You can just shout out your answers. Better yet…” He faces the students. Placing the piece of calcite down he continues, “I’ll give you five minutes. Just come up and write on the board what you think the word means. Or, you can also provide examples of where you’ve heard it said before. The examples might help us figure out the definition. ”
A line forms and the students write:
When another person in a car cuts you off in traffic.
When you don’t know the answer to a question.
When you chase your ball into the street, and forget to look both ways for cars.
When you forget your gym clothes.
It’s a name that’s called.
They call you stupid when you talk about becoming an Olympic Figure Skater when you grow up.
Stupid is the opposite of smart.
When you tell somebody something, like a fact, and it’s wrong.
When you wake up late for school.
When you fail a test.
When you trip on a curb…
Mr. Bryson quietly skims some of the sentences written on the chalkboard. It’s obvious to him these were things either said to the kids, or that they’ve heard.
“Wow,” Mr. Bryson says as the last student places the chalk down and returns to his seat. “We’ve filled up the board. Okay Tom, do you have your phone out?”
Tom stares out the window for a second. When he faces Mr. Bryson again, his cheeks are crimson. With a snort of laughter, Tom answers, “yeah.”
“Okay, can you look up the definition of the word for us?”
“Already, did it,” Tom says raising his chin proudly.
“Great!” Mr. Bryson’s head is bent downwards as he grins at Tom. “Can you read it to us?”
“It says, having or showing a great lack of intelligence or common sense,”[i] with hands over his mouth he says in a muffled voice.
“Okay,” Mr. Bryson responds. He quietly stands in front of the chalkboard and writes the words Tom said.
Mr. Bryson walks to the middle of the room with rows of desks on each side. He turns to the right, waves his arms at the students seated there and says, “You guys, google the definition for intelligence. And you guys,” he says turning to the left and motions to them, “look up the definition of common sense. As soon as you find it, raise your hands.”
Tap, tap, tap…..
There’s a steady clicking sound of buttons being punched into phones. Moments later, several hands rise up into the air.
“Brianna, give us the definition of intelligence!” Mr. Bryson shouts.
“It says the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.”[ii]
Mr. Bryson races to the board and scratches the words onto it. “Okay,” he says with his back to the room as he casually spins his white flaky writing instrument around between his fingers reminiscent of baton-twirling girls at parades. Without turning around, Mr. Bryson says, “Liam, I think you were first? What’s the definition of common sense?”
Liam nearly drops his phone when he hears his name. The poor kid stutters, “ah sorry….okay, it says, good sense and sound judgement in practical matters.”[iii]
“Excellent!” Mr. Bryson says. He scrawls the definition onto the board. When he’s done, Mr. Bryson drops his white scribbling stick on the ledge. Facing his students he asks, “Does anyone see a problem with the definition of stupid?”
There’s no sound except for the steady hum of lights above them. Everyone holds their breath as they wait for the answer.
Mr. Bryson stares at the sea of wide-eyed blank faces.
“Intelligence is something you acquire over time. Some people have a natural ability in certain areas such as art, mathematics, or maybe science. But in order to develop a natural ability,” Mr. Bryson starts to walk up and down the rows of desks and continues, “you need to have access to education and the right teachers. Any ideas where this might not happen? Where kids might not get a chance to learn?”
“Third world countries,” James announces.
“Right again! Third world countries! Do you think it’s fair to use that word to describe people in those situations?” Mr. Bryson asks.
Each student’s head moves from right to left, signalling, no.
“Good. We all agree to that.” Mr. Bryson’s words are slower now as he considers each one carefully. He places his hands in his pockets and calmly strolls the wooden floor of the room as if he’s in a park on a warm summer’s day and says, “but what about when someone can’t learn because they’ve had a terrible teacher?”
Small snorts of snickering reverberate throughout the room.
Mr. Bryson’s eyes glisten in recognition of his joke. He waits to see if anyone is brave enough to answer the question.
No one says a word.
Finally he says, “No, it’s true. Just like in any job, we have some mediocre teachers. I try not to be one of those.”
A low chuckling sound quietly sweeps across the room. Some kids nod their heads in Mr. Bryson’s direction. The students are thankful for Mr. Bryson’s honesty: no one else, not another teacher, principal or parent – has ever admitted such a thing before.
After everyone stops laughing, Mr. Bryson says, “Here’s something else for you to consider… What happens when a good teacher who’s used a method for a long time, still can’t teach a kid something? Any ideas?”
Samuel says, “You need to change your teaching methods.”
“We sure do. Sometimes teachers don’t realize how they’re teaching might be wrong for a particular student. So we need to adapt our methods in order to help those kids. Is it fair to use that word to describe someone, when the person may learn things differently?”
“No,” the kids whisper together.
Mr. Bryson calmly walks back to the chalkboard and places a hand underneath the word saying, “words matter.”
He states it as a fact. It’s not a point to be debated.
He waits a second and adds, “This word – is a value-based judgement word. It’s dependent on any number of factors. Who taught the person? Where the person lived? What kind of teacher they had?”
“Even the common sense factor in the definition of the word can be argued. It might be common sense in North America to look both ways before you cross the street, so you don’t get hit by a car. But in some countries, where there are few cars, maybe you need to be more aware of hippos hiding in lakes that want to trample you.”
Laughter bounces across the room.
Mr. Bryson waits a moment, and then continues, “I’m being somewhat funny. But I’m serious too. What you think is common sense and matters here, might not be important if you live somewhere else.”
“As for this one,” Mr. Bryson says pointing to the figure skating line, “sometimes people will use name-calling as a way to force another person to conform. They want the person to pick a reasonable career because the chance of success might be low, and if they do succeed, they will have done something that seemed impossible. But you can’t let their negative comments stop you. People dreamed of travelling to the moon, and wrote about it, way before it happened and were ridiculed for it. Without those dreams, without those books, without those scientists – we as a world may never have gone to space, to the moon, and now we’re looking at going further into the universe.”
Mr. Bryson gingerly picks up a chalkboard brush, and using his other hand he places a finger beneath the word and quietly says, “This word… is a word…that should be erased from our vocabulary.”
With a slow wipe of the brush, Mr. Bryson, makes stupid disappear.
[i] Stupid. Retrieved October 5th 2017, from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/stupid
[ii] Intelligence. Retrieved October 5th, 2017, from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/intelligence
[iii] Common Sense. Retrieved October 5th, 2017, from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/common_sense