My Journey with Jellison
Going into my senior year of high school, I was very excited about my English class. I was eligible to take the highest level English my school offered and I thought things were going to be great. I would finally be challenged by an English class! We would be doing more than just a report on Animal Farm! The class would be writing every day! Yes, I was thinking in exclamation points! The buzz I was feeling was a palpable thing as I waited that first day in first period AP English for the arrival of our instructor, a formidable character named Elizabeth Jellison. She was not only the legendarily tough teacher who still seemed to figure in the nightmares of many graduates of my school, she was also the head of the English Department. This woman, I felt, would know her shit.
I was ready for what Sir Ken Robinson would label a full-on “aesthetic experience”. In a TED talk he gave in 2010 called “Changing Education Paradigms”, he vividly contrasts the aesthetic experience against the anaesthetic experience. Robinson defines the aesthetic experience as one in which all of our senses are engaged and “operating at their peak”. Unfortunately, the current system of schooling works more on the factory model and tends to be an anaesthetic experience for the majority of students which makes them “shut their senses off.” This is absolutely the worst way to reach students. Robinson insists that instead of deadening our kids’ senses in the attempt to make them focus on “boring stuff”, we need to “be waking them up to what they have inside of themselves.”
I thought I was invulnerable to such a thing. I was way too smart and full of my own power to be anaesthetized. I knew school was largely just a way to keep the animals(kids) all caged up(zoolike) until they were ready to get a real job. But despite that, I had big plans and was set on making the best out of the situation that I could. If I’d heard Robinson’s speech back then, I would have agreed but thought “So what?” I already knew what was up, and I was sure I could rise above it.
Back to senior English: the period bell rings and we’re waiting for our teacher to arrive. And waiting. And waiting. Finally, in she strolls in all her glory. The Jellison was at least six feet tall with a husky build; not really fat, but immense. She had very dark, thick hair and palish skin. The colors she predominantly wore were red, black and white. If you picture her as the Queen of Hearts from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, you’re not far off. The woman was a very impressive presence. But more than that, she was fifteen minutes late. Oh, she apologized (sort of) and explained she’d been in conference. I figured this would just be a once-in-a-while occurrence, and since she was department head I would cut her some slack.
Quickly we were to learn that this would be the norm rather than a rarity. Nearly everyday we would come to first period to find a writing prompt on the board and no Jellison to be seen. Even when we started the period with her, she would usually leave after a time. One of my assumptions was being met, though; we were writing every day. But only for our own amusement. She didn’t even collect most of it. Eventually, people ended up just chatting with each other when she was out, not even bothering to pretend to write until the Jellison swept back into class. I think we felt that if the Jellison didn’t care, why should we? It doesn’t take much to disengage the teenage mind.
As for the engagement of said mind, I don’t think that was what the Jellison was after. I think she might have been one of those instructors who seem to feel that in an AP class the students will motivate themselves. That’s all fine, but it doesn’t go very far. Sure most of us were capable of policing ourselves and getting the work done, but what about feedback? How about inspiration? She offered very little of that. When Robinson talks about the factory model of school and just pushing kids out like on a production line, it’s teachers like the Jellison I’m sure he has in mind.
At first, it was the Jellison’s chronic excursions out of class that irritated me the most. I began to keep track of all of her late arrivals and expeditions under the heading “Jellison’s Journies”. I also, being the person I was, started leaving class whenever she did. In the interest of journalistic integrity, since I was on the school paper and all, I logged my forays as well. Patterns and formulae soon came to light: for example, the Jellison was always gone for at least seven minutes. Bank on it. But if the time stretched to ten minutes, she was about fifty percent likely to be gone twenty minutes or more. Discovering things like this was just about the only engagement I was getting from her class. In short, I had the Jellison timed out so well that I always made it back before she did.
Until one day a couple of months into the semester. I came back in to find the Jellison laying in wait for me like a queen spider in her web. How had this happened? I thought with my heart pounding. As the Jellison pierced me with those darksaber eyes, I felt I held my ground well, though. She boomed “Where have you been?”, which I thought was a stupid question. The point to me wasn’t the “where” but the “why”. I knew she had to get that my actions were not merely simple ditching but were meant as a criticism of her methods. So I retorted something like “Where have you been?”, which she ignored. The class was mostly silent except for the supportive snickering of my friend in the back of the room.
It occurred to me as I took my seat that I had been ratted out by one of my classmates. The thing is, it took the Jellison a while to lay a trap for me then. She had to leave class, watch me leave after her, and then come back to spring the trap. I really didn’t think if someone was going to inform on me that they would wait weeks to do so. I figured the Jellison just couldn’t be bothered to deal with me until a day when she would have more time in class to do it. And of course, after we had our little confrontation, she had to go out for real and was gone for the remainder of the period.
I had to meet with the vice-principal and I tried to share how I felt about the Jellison’s absences from class, but he just wasn’t interested. She was a busy woman, running the department and the AP curriculum and blah blah blah. I mean, I understood all that, but it didn’t change the fact that I was still feeling cheated. My way of critiquing was not going to fly with the school though, so I stopped leaving class. I was just going to get suspended if I kept doing that.
War had been openly declared between me and the Jellison now. She was still out of class a bit more than she was in it, but when she did present a lesson I openly mocked her. And though I know she tried to stay professional, she couldn’t help but send the occasional scathing comment my way. I firmly believe the Jellison was now unable to view me objectively as a student, and yes, that was largely my fault because of my disrespectful behavior. I was a jackass kid. What was her excuse?
This was primarily a creative writing class and we submitted weekly papers on anything we wanted. They could be rants, stories, or anything. What I wanted more than anything was feedback. I thought I wanted to be a writer even back then, and I wanted to get good. I had believed going into this class that I would finally get some of the feedback that I really needed. In other words, I was still gung-ho for that aesthetic experience. But the Jellison seemed to have completely written me off and I was getting nothing. She would just write comments like “interesting” or “needs more..”. Needs more what?
Because of “Jellison’s Journies”, she never allotted much time for us to get one-on-one input, or quality face time as we call it today. What she splattered on our returned papers was all we would usually get. I remember one story in particular I really agonized over and I felt I’d really nailed the terms of the assignment which was something like “fashion a story in the manner of a descriptive dream”. When I got my story back, I found she’d just wrote a big “What?” on it. I asked her “Jellison, what’s up with this ‘what’”? And, yes, I talked to her like that. Not acceptable, I know. Anyway, then she just said “What ‘what’?” Then I was like “This ‘what’”! It was like a psychotic comedy bit! But this was important to me and she would just throw stuff back in my face like that all the time. It was beyond belief to me. The professional teacher was unable to get over her (somewhat understandable) bias against a student.
When Paul Tough brings up the idea of grit in his article “What if the Key to Success is Failure?”, it’s as if he entered my mind for the next part of my tale. Because I showed no grit whatsoever. This situation with the Jellison grew so toxic that eventually I just ended up not going to her class at all. In fact, a combination of factors occurred in my life during this span which culminated in my not graduating with my class. What happened was that I quit going to school entirely with about one month to go in my senior year. Was this all the Jellison’s fault? No. But I believe it was her class and its unpleasantness that began my brief downward spiral. I wonder now whether things would have happened differently if I had got the English class that I had envisioned. It’s “tough” (haha) to say if success happened out of this failure because I haven’t had a great success in my writing career yet. I’m still working towards that, though, so I can say that at least the Jellison didn’t ruin me for life.
Honestly, the eighteen-year-old me would probably have shredded Mr. Tough’s essay and smoked it in a bong. But it’s been very interesting to view this Jellison incident through the perspective lens of both Tough and Robinson. I have the feeling they would have been on my side, and maybe they would have been able to counsel me against some of the self-destructive behaviors I answered Jellison’s attitude with. Who knows, though? I think, unfortunately, the jackass kid that I was would not have listened to those guys, either. Some lessons we just have to learn, and later apply, on our own. Every experience has value in the fact that we grow from all of them, especially the harsh experiences.
The real tragedy here is the Jellison. I wonder sometimes if she even remembers me. At best, I was probably just a large blip on her radar. The reason I got so disappointed in the Jellison when, technically, I had many teachers more dubious than her, was because she clearly had the intellect and the drive to really inspire a student. The woman did indeed know her shit. She just didn’t seem to want to channel her energies completely in our direction, even for a stinking hour a day. A person like that shouldn’t be teaching if they’re not really committed to it, so that’s why I have to rank the Jellison as the worst teacher I ever had. I like to imagine now that if she thought about our relationship with a cooler head later on, maybe she learned something from her own failure. Ironically, it’s completely possible that I might have been the best teacher she ever had.
Yeah, I kind of doubt that, too.