Boredom baffles me. My mind churns full throttle with ideas and plans, avoiding the idle stage even at bedtime, when it would serve me well. When I’m stuck at a train crossing because the railroad once again is violating the time limit for freights, I start designing the next garment or glass sculpture in my head. When time creeps too slowly as I sit in a doctor or dentist’s waiting room, I find myself people-watching, developing verbal sketches of those around me. On line at the grocery store, I work through my next piece of writing in my head. I can’t imagine being bored.
One prominent banner in my classroom announced, “Boring is in the eye of the beholder.” My students loved to challenge that premise, and whenever I passed a classroom filled with teacher talk, compassion filled me. I remember all too well my high school American History teacher’s stultifying speech as he recounted endless lists of seemingly disconnected dates without apparent purpose. His soporific Southern drawl provided an effective cure for my insomnia, though sleeping through class did not endear me to the teacher or help my grade. Even in the most boring classes, though, I managed to occupy my mind with doodles and notes to friends. Sketched flowers wallpapered my notebooks, and I kept my mind engaged.
Of course, I preferred that my students busy their minds with the task at hand. When they complained that Shakespeare was irrelevant, I urged them to see Romeo and Juliet as two kids so “hot to trot” that they’d sneak around behind their parents’ backs. When Dickens felt too dated, I challenged them to remember times when they felt powerless and manipulated like poor young Pip in Great Expectations. And when I had the opportunity to bring in more current literature, like Fahreheit 451, my co-teacher and I got their library books “banned” so they’d connect to the experience.
I wanted to believe that the inherent stimulation of my classroom banished boredom, but my students, too often truth-tellers, demolished that fantasy. In the Spring of 1991 I ran a poetry writing workshop in my sophomore remedial English class. We drew literal interpretations of figures of speech – imagine the visual for you’re “driving me up a wall.” We all wrote our own poems using a series of prompts. Surely this was more fun than reading the classics?
Foolishly, I said as much. One of the girls looked at me in disdain. “Mrs. Ljung, you know you ain’t fooling no one.”
Wisely I chose not to correct her grammar and syntax. Instead I challenged her to write a poem about boredom. Her classmates clamored to help, and our first collaborative poem was born. Their ownership did more to banish boredom than I’d ever accomplished. They worked and reworked the piece until they finally agreed on a final product.
I urged them to submit it to our Fine Arts magazine, where it was published, and to “Page to Stage,” our annual performance of student writing.
“Oh, no, no way I’m gonna get up there in front of all those people,” exclaimed my original complainant.
“She’s right – that’s crazy,” another chimed in.
“What are ya’ thinking anyway, Mrs. Ljung?” queried a third.
I’d learn a bit about reverse psychology from my own mother, who’d used it to get me to take over cooking for our household when she’d questioned my ability to do so.
I smiled. “Okay, if you want someone else to read your work, you know we can arrange that. If you don’t think you can do it justice, I’ll just assign it to some theater students. Of course, they won’t feel it the way you do, but if you aren’t ready…”
Their subsequent huddle proved successful when a spokesperson told me they weren’t giving it away to “just anybody.”
Once the poem juried in to the performance, we allocated pieces of it to solo voices and made other lines choral. We practiced every day. On the day of the performance, their journey to the stage resembled a death march. As they read, though, they stood taller and spoke louder, all of us discovering just how much more potential they had than they or I had known.
The next day disappeared to a debriefing full of justifiable pride. Boredom didn’t disappear in that class, but their sense of ownership and ability to articulate their boredom did steal its power.
Dorothy Parker wrote, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” Effective teachers need to nurture curiosity, allowing students to replace boredom with meaningful exploration. The focus of schools on finding the right answers curtails that sense of possibility and turns classroom work into acts of duty. Creating opportunities for students to own their learning helps to banish boredom. Finding that poem from twenty-six years ago reminds me of that lesson.