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Beyond the Fourth Wall

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I entered Room 333 with a mild trepidation. Great, I had thought. Just what I need right now. A former third grade classroom full of broken computers, projectors, a SmartBoard, and a poster on how to choose a “just right” book. Not exactly the ideal place to teach a seminar to a class of ten 8th graders. But it was hard to deny the fact that I was just a bit relieved.

My principal, Ms. Lugo, had just hired an intern who was on the verge of getting her degree so that she could become an administrator, as well. Her name was Ms. Simmonds. Ms. Lugo asked Ms. Simmonds to be a surrogate English teacher for the on-level/ advanced 8th graders because the majority of our school’s test scores were low. We needed an opportunity to actually learn something, considering the fact that our other “classmates” were so disruptive that any engaging lessons that were ever taught to us were always put on hold. It’s hard to talk about poetry and prose when your students are screaming and throwing broken pencils at each other. Needless to say, I was grateful. I wanted things to change, I just never thought it would happen.

To tell you the truth, at first, we didn’t like Ms. Simmonds. On the first day of her seminar, she yelled at us for not being very engaged in reading the syllabus for her course, English 900, out loud. She laid down the law, clearly the kind of all-business, don’t-take-any-BS-from-nobody kind of teacher. And to top it all off, her work was difficult. She gave high school and college level work; some “critical analysis” crap. One time, she gave us an analysis of The Tell-Tale Heart to annotate. All we could think was, “How do you annotate an analysis?” We all complained and mumbled under our breaths.

Ms. Simmonds wasn’t having that. “Look,” she snapped. “It makes no difference to me whether you do this work or not. I’m not actually your teacher; I don’t have to be here. And neither do any of you. So, if you don’t like what I’m doing, you can all just leave.”

That was enough for some of us. From that point on, whenever the name “Ms. Simmonds” was mentioned, the reply would usually be “that b****.” Just goes to show how much we disliked her at first. As time went on, three kids had already dropped the seminar. Raysa had quit because the work was too hard; Jeremy got kicked out because of his attitude; Robert also got the boot because he was always too busy playing around to even pay attention to the lessons. It was all too much for me. I figured that if I went back to our original class, at least the work would be easy. I was on the verge of joining the rejects.

Whoa, I thought. Where did that come from? I usually set myself on a much higher pedestal than my “classmates”. We were polar opposites. I valued education; their idea of learning was running amok through the streets and figuring out how to avoid being jumped. I was an Honor Student; all of their averages combined couldn’t even add up to a 55. They acted as though everything was a big joke, especially school. There would be times when our teacher would be conducting a lesson, they would act up (their favorite tactic was throwing things every five minutes), and the teacher would literally stop the lesson for the rest of the class period. My friends and I would always get angry. This was the ghetto, you know. Kids such as ourselves needed all of the content we could get. I always felt that I, as a minority, needed education to surpass the stereotypes that the world has placed on us. But my “classmates” didn’t see that. They thought that “school” was just a place where they could waste time until they were old enough to buy drugs, alcohol, and lottery tickets. This is why they would mock me whenever a lesson was withheld.

“Freakin’ morons,” I would always say. “ I’ve met retards smarter than you.”

They would suck their teeth and mumble apathetically. “Who cares?”

I rolled my eyes. Man, I hated those assholes.

Some of the remaining kids and I were talking about it one day as we prepared to leave our original English class for the latest seminar.

“Ugh,” I remember grunting as I picked up my bookbag. “I hate that woman. I’m not going.”

“C’mon,” my friend, Cassandra, had said. “We have to.”

“But, it’s not fair.” I rebutted. “She’s too hard on us and the work she makes us do is freakin’ crazy.”

She shrugged. “So what? It may be hard, but it’s going to prepare us for high school this fall. And besides, do you really wanna be stuck here with these idiots and not learn a thing for the rest of the year?”

I looked toward the back of the room. Robert and his goons were watching Wiz Khalifa videos on his cell phone and throwing balled up pieces of paper at each other. Ms. Jones was furious, storming over to intervene.

I sighed. “Let’s go.” At least it’s better than this, I thought.

We went to 333, or as I had dubbed it, “Halfway to Hell” (get it?) and took our usual seats. Ms. Simmonds’ new teaching material was a short philosophical story called The Allegory of the Cave. It was written by the philosopher Socrates and was re-told by his mentee, Plato. It was about these prisoners who had been shackled within the depths of a dark cave since childhood. They were bound to the floor, chains wrapped around their arms, legs and necks, unable to escape or even turn their heads to look behind them. Behind them was a raised walkway, and behind that was a blazing log fire. People would walk in front of that fire, carrying large objects on their heads, like vases and potted plants. The light from the fire caused the shadows of the people to be cast out onto the wall that the prisoners were facing. Since the people were carrying things on their heads, the shadows looked monstrous. The prisoners thought they were monsters because they had been in this dark cave their entire lives; they had never seen actual people or sunlight before. The objects made the shadows look different from what the people actually looked like. The shapes of the shadows that they saw on the walls was all they ever knew. They thought that what they saw in the shadows was what people actually looked like. Eventually, one of the prisoners gets released by his master and is taken outside into the real world. He is now among real people, strange creatures he has never seen before. The sun blinds him and causes him to fear looking up at the sky.

Ms. Simmonds told us that the moral of the allegory was to not be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and help yourself improve your circumstances. The prisoner was miserable in that cave; he wanted to leave. But, as soon as he left and saw something that scared him, he wanted to run back to where he came from. This story reminded me so much of my friends and, especially, myself. I was so desperate for a way out of Ms. Jones’ class, but as soon as I was finally free, I was presented with the challenge of being challenged and wanted to run back and hide. I began to see that even though I was stuck with with ignoramuses as classmates, I wouldn’t be stuck with them forever. They just seemed as though they were the only thing in existence because I had been with these same kids since 3rd grade. There was more to the world than them. I needed to get away from them and allow myself to expand my mental horizons by exposing myself to Ms. Simmonds’ teaching techniques. I needed a change, it was my only hope. I realized that if I had quit on Ms. Simmonds, I would really be quitting on myself. This advanced work was the only way I was going to be advanced in the future. Change helps you evolve as a person. I would not be a prisoner of my own mind. I knew what I had to do.

I stuck with Simmonds (we all did), and eventually we got used to the work and grew to love her. She loved us, as well. She encouraged us to rise above the idiots in our class and show them what we could do. I must say that we proved ourselves; that year at graduation, I was Salutatorian and Cassandra was Valedictorian. We all got high 2’s, 3’s, and possibly 4’s on the State Exams and got accepted into prestigious high schools. I couldn’t thank her enough.

Ms. Simmonds inspired me to keep striving, even when the going got tough. She made me see that a middle school full of pea-brains was no match for me. When I become a success, I will make sure to mention her first and foremost if anyone asks me what my inspiration was when I was younger. Ms. Simmonds made me see struggling as a process, not something permanent. If I know anything now that I did not know before meeting her, it’s this: I will never be the same again.




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