“Phantomtollbooth” Wikipedia Commons

Fighting the Good Fight for Milo

The last two community college writing classes I taught were Basic Composition (not transferable) and Critical Thinking, a sophomore level class meeting state university transfer requirements in California. Both classes were filled with everything that made me love teaching for the whole 35 years. My Basic Comp class was a group of very nice people who liked each other (and me) and were completely willing to write an entire essay every day we met. My stragedy as a writing teacher was always to take the fear out of writing and make it the completely natural activity it should be for human beings. They thrived.

In my Critical Thinking class I met a few challenges, one of which turned into one of the happiest stories of my teaching career.

Critical thinking is the process of evaluating reality and determining what is REAL and what is NOT. It is logic. It’s an incredibly useful skill. The critical thinking textbook I used, Beyond Feelings by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero, was a perfect complement to my open, spontaneous and enthusiastic teaching style. Ruggiero’s presentation is linear and logical, and he teaches logical fallacies with demonstrations of how they emerge in real life conversations and situations between people. I used this book for twenty years. It was one (expensive) textbook my students didn’t unload at the end of the semester.

Along with Beyond Feelings I taught three novels — Fahrenheit 451, The Phantom Tollbooth and Candide. For many years, I taught Brave New World. I switched to Candide in 2012 when Brave New World had become too complicated for most of my students. (Fix High School.)

My final Critical Thinking class was a pretty typical group of southern California community college kids, all ages, several cultures, a few young veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, recent high school grads, a high school AP student — a wide mix of first languages, attitudes and expectations. One of my students was a 19 year old Iraqi girl who had lived in the US long enough to speak English like a native speaker. She covered her hair and wore appropriate clothes for a young Muslim woman. She was extremely demanding and outspoken, often downright rude.

Anyone experienced with teaching challenging students knows that is where miracles happen. Until then, it’s a difficult dance to keep the situation from descending into a power struggle, but when the miracle occurs? Magic.

“Why are we reading this? It’s boring.”

“Boring? Are you nuts? You might be bored, but that book’s not boring. Maybe you just don’t get it.”

“Well, then you’d better teach it better so I can.”

“How far into it are you?” (They were supposed to be through the first 25 pages.)

”I don’t know. Page 5?”

I smiled. “And you expect to be swept off your feet in five pages? Listen X. That book changed the world. The world you live in is different — better — than it would have been if Bradbury hadn’t written that book. And what it says? Your generation needs that message because you’re headed into the terrible reality Bradbury describes there. You’d better get over being bored and start reading. I know you want an A.”

One thing I learned from teaching business majors (and this girl was planning to be one) is that they are almost always very pronounced extraverts. I’m not. I’m an introvert and comments like that used to hurt me or confuse me or make me want to beat a retreat, but I learned that returning the “rudeness” would probably not be perceived as rude at all. It was a gamble, but it worked.

“Really, professor? This book changed the world?”

“Yes. It’s one of the most important books of the past 100 years. It has EVERYTHING to do with your life and you’d better quit being bored and give that book a chance.”

She did. Then she had to write about it. Her first draft was high school. I said, “This is high school writing. You need to do better if you’re going to get that A you want.”


I showed her.

The next novel was The Phantom Tollbooth. I was given that book 15 years earlier by a student who said, “This is Beyond Feelings!” and it is. I loved teaching The Phantom Tollbooth. Generally, it’s a story about a boy, Milo, who’s bored by everything. He finds himself in an implausible situation and is ultimately challenged to save the strange world in which he’s found himself. In the process he learns how exciting it is to DO something and to LEARN things. He learns that when he asks questions of life, life becomes interesting. At the end he… Well, you read it. ;-)

“Do you think we’re children?”

“Why are we reading a kid’s book? Do you think we’re children?” asked the girl.

“I didn’t read it until I was nearly 50. We’re reading it because it’s a lot of fun and works well with Beyond Feelings.”

She read it. When she came back to class, she said, “Professor! I know the Doldrums!”

“I know you do,” I smiled at her. We were moving toward the best kind of student/teacher relationship — the kind where both work together toward the student’s learning. Then I played a video of that chapter and the class loved it — those who hadn’t started the book (because of students’ tendency to rebel against themselves) went home that day and read it.

Then there was another paper. One topic was to compare Montag (the protagonist of Fahrenheit 451) and Milo (the protagonist of The Phantom Tollbooth) and their journeys toward the Truth. My student chose this topic. I showed her how to make that straightforward thesis statement and how to line up the paragraphs.

“That’s easy!”

“Yeah. See how a writing prompt will tell you WHAT to write?”

“No one ever showed me that before.”

“Maybe you wouldn’t let them? Maybe you thought it was boring?”

She laughed. “Yeah, probably.”

When we got to Candide, the most difficult to read, she was SURE she wouldn’t be bored and she read it in one night. She came to class and told everyone “The language is hard but it’s SO funny and not boring at all!”

“…it’s SO funny and not boring at all!”

The class ended and everyone went their way. I’d enjoyed the class and felt good about the work I’d done in there. Life got really interesting over the summer, and I more or less forgot the girl. Major decisions and an enormous life change pressed for my attention. I’d retired, put my house on the market and I was moving — I didn’t really know where.

Months later, after I’d moved away and started a new life, I got an email from her, thanking me for teaching her and pushing her. She said she’d read my reviews on ratemyprofessor. She thought a lot of students were angry about their grades and said my classes were difficult because they didn’t understand that they needed to be pushed and didn’t know how to learn. “It’s so unfair. You really care about us. You know what we’re going to need and that life isn’t going to be easy.”

I answered that she shouldn’t worry, that normally only unhappy students post on ratemyprofessor, that I’d taught thousands of students so I had lots of reviews but only a handful each semester. I explained that my student evals were always a lot better. She wrote back and said, “Whatever. I will always thank you for changing me.”

I responded that I didn’t change her, that it was probably because she has a powerful personality and is very intelligent that she hadn’t been challenged before. I addressed my email to her, “Dear Milo.”

“You’re right, professor! I AM Milo!” she wrote back.

We are still in touch with each other. Over winter break she returned to Iraq for a visit, her first since she came to the US as a little girl. She wrote me about it, about her expectations, the courage she saw all around her in the people in Baghdad, the contrast between life in Kuwait (where she spent a few days) and in the US, questions about religious tolerance (and intolerance) and her dream to change the mess in which we live, to make a peaceful world. Her thought of majoring in business and making a lot of money had vanished, mostly because, I think, she went through the “toll-booth” in the Critical Thinking class and discovered how interesting the world is. I’m so proud of her and happy I know her.

Teaching classes like these — required skill classes that no one wants to take — often involved struggles like this, but in almost every case, I found it worth it. So often the student who gave me the most shit was the one yearning for a challenge he or she had yet to experience. In such situations I often thought of Rilke’s “Dragon Princess” from Letters to a Young Poet and how the “…dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.”