Building Card Houses
How I learned to be a teacher
It was the spring of my first year as a high school teacher. I was twenty-three years old, and found myself monitoring a ninth grade study hall.
The classroom was chaos. A group of boys were running a dice game in the corner of the room. Kids were procreating under tables. Pencils and paper were being lit on fire. Pistols were being shot into the middle distance.
My failure as an educator was complete.
I buried my head in a book. Reading was a distraction. I hoped my favorite novel, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, might provide escape. It wasn’t working. Reading couldn’t erase this classroom.
I took another sip of coffee.
The assistant principal assured me that monitoring a study hall would be easy. He convinced me to give up my prep period to accept this duty. Seventy ninth graders were scheduled to come to my drama classroom — a black box theatre rife with distractions — and do their homework during first hour.
“Just tell them to work on something,” he told me.
This study hall was assigned to me on teacher’s workshop day, prior to the start of my second semester as a high school teacher. Changing my schedule so abruptly seemed unprofessional. Still, I didn’t object. I was happy to have a job.
I followed the assistant principal’s sage advice and repeated his instructions to the students.
“Work on something,” I told the ninth graders.
My students didn’t hear me. Or maybe they did. But they chose to ignore me. Instead, they concentrated on the large stage in the classroom, the catwalks, and the black bricks that worked together to form a cavernous ceiling high above our heads.
“Work on something,” I said again.
The students looked at me this time. They eyed me up and down. I was slight in stature — I stood just over five foot three. I wore ripped jeans, a sweater vest, and had spiky, gelled hair. This classroom was racially diverse. I stood out because I was a white kid from the suburbs. Students eyed me with contempt.
The kids considered my directions. Work on something? No. They rioted. Chairs were overturned, profanity was unleashed, and chaos ensued. This contentious process repeated itself each morning.
My students liked me. They thought I was funny. They enjoyed being with me. The feeling was mutual. Despite the adversarial roles we often played, I liked spending time with teenagers. Still, I couldn’t get my students to do much of anything.
My first year as a teacher left me feeling overwhelmed and defeated. I was a glorified babysitter. We weren’t accomplishing anything important. This study hall was an extreme example of my failure, but it was also indicative of my experience teaching English and drama.
I was frustrated. Wasting my time telling high school students when they could or couldn’t go to the bathroom. I wanted to share my skills and talents with people. Instead, I policed them.
“Stop throwing things at him,” I told one student.
“Stop flirting,” I told another.
“Please don’t slap each other!”
Nobody read. Nobody wrote. Art wasn’t being made. What was the point of my presence in these teenagers’ lives? None of my gifts seemed worth a damn.
I was a miserable prison guard.
My mind drifted to other potential career paths. I applied to Master’s programs in creative writing during the fall. I targeted programs in poetry. My applications were naïve. I told The University of Washington in Seattle how much I liked Kurt Cobain. I was drowning in student debt from getting my Master’s of Secondary English Education from the University of Minnesota. There was no money in my family. Going back to school to write poetry wasn’t a viable career move.
I was too short (and untalented) to play point guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves. I was scared of catching a baseball, so playing second base for the Minnesota Twins wasn’t an option. Sure, I was good looking. Male models are usually athletic and (much) taller than five foot three, so that career was out too.
I could sell long-term care insurance like my father. In fact, I wrote insurance policies with him during college. It was lucrative work, but I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life chasing money for the sake of chasing money.
I majored in English during college. Trying to makes sense of and create literature seemed like important work to me, so I was overjoyed when I was offered a position as an English and drama teacher in a school north of Minneapolis.
The luster quickly wore thin as another student howled “f%$@” just to see what would happen if “f%$@” was howled in my classroom. By the spring of my first year teaching, I began to seriously doubt the choices that had led me to this ninth grade study hall.
I was ready to give up when I noticed something out of the corner of my eye.
I sat on the edge of the stage in my classroom, where I positioned myself each morning. The stage offered the perfect place for me to keep an eye on the small microcosm of humanity that played out in front of me each morning.
A girl named Samantha was sitting in a desk near the stage. She had started to build a house of cards.
Samantha was a quiet student. She was harmless. Samantha had not spent the semester productively but, unlike most of the other kids, she didn’t spend fifty-five minutes each morning trying to destroy the universe. Samantha usually occupied herself with some harmless, useless task. Her friend, another mostly quiet girl, sat next to her and did the same.
Samantha’s actions on that morning in the study hall demanded my attention. Her attempt to build something careful, delicate, and fragile in the violent space of the classroom seemed so out of place.
Determined, she went to work building a card house in an enormous, complicated classroom.
Students were not allowed to have cards in the classroom. This was one of the many silly rules that my administrators expected me to enforce. I was too tired to fight, and it seemed wrong to pick on Samantha when other children were probably skinning animals — likely humans, too — in the back of the room.
I turned away and tried to read East of Eden as Samantha worked.
More time passed, and Samantha added cards to her house.
My mind kept drifting away from Steinbeck’s eloquent prose. Samantha’s work reminded me of building my own card houses when visiting my great-grandmother.
We called my great-grandmother Gammy, and the only thing that Gammy had for me to play with were playing cards — she loved solitaire. Solitaire bored me. Instead, I spent hours creating card houses in Gammy’s stuffy living room. I used as many decks as I could find. Gammy was a hoarder, so she had hundreds of decks of cards. My resources were limitless. I challenged myself to create multiple buildings with five or six levels. I built intricate complexes. It was frustrating and difficult work, but it engrossed me as a child.
Building a card house also engrossed Samantha. She patiently added card after card to her structure. The cards were carefully balanced on her wobbly desk. Her friend was quietly encouraging her. I found myself rooting for Samantha. Her project was so ridiculous. Surely her tenuous card house couldn’t exist in such a volatile high school classroom?
Samantha put the final card onto the house. Her friend sat back in awe. I was equally taken aback. Samantha’s miraculous card house was seven stories high.
I grew reflective. It occurred to me that Samantha’s card house was probably the most impressive thing I had seen a student accomplish during the first six months of my teaching career. Despite enormous distractions, a wobbly desk, and the virulent chaos of the classroom, Samantha had built something impressive.
What happened next was tragic.
A group of four boys were sitting at a table on the other side of the room. Mark and his friends often amused themselves by punching each other in the face. These boys were engrossed in some sort of destructive act — perhaps ritualistic cannibalism — when they noticed Samantha’s card house.
Can you guess what the boys did?
I watched with horror as Mark and his friends responded to Samantha’s brave act of creation. None of the boys said a word. They didn’t have a conversation. There was no scheming or plotting. A nanosecond after the boys saw that Samantha had built something worthwhile, they attempted to destroy it. It was instinctive.
Ninth grade boys can be naïve, and so their assault was tragicomedy. Mark stood up from his chair and started blowing at the card house. My classroom was enormous, so there was probably thirty feet between Samantha’s house of cards and Mark. Eventually, these 9th grade boys created spitballs. A perfectly aimed wad of paper took Samantha’s card house down. Destruction.
Impulsive violence destroyed Samantha’s card house twenty seconds after the boys noticed it existed.
Samantha was devastated. She had no relationship with the boys. Samantha had never caused them harm. Their attack wasn’t premeditated.
I was deeply troubled. A group of people saw that somebody else had created something, and their natural response was to destroy it? This was humanity?
What happened next was even worse.
The boys took out their own deck of cards. As previously mentioned, there was a serious gambling racket in this study hall. The boys started to build their own card house.
Mark and his friends were not successful builders. They could barely manage to rest one card against another without punching themselves in the face and knocking the structure over.
Samantha’s response was even worse. Unlike her peers, she had been completely peaceful for the entire semester. Still, Samantha turned to the girl sitting next to her.
“I’m going to knock down their card house,” she said to her friend.
The two previously peaceful girls went to work throwing pencils and pens at the boys’ card house. War had been declared. I watched the violence that played out before me.
Twenty minutes passed and the bell rang. My students were gone. Cards were scattered throughout my classroom.
What had I just witnessed?
If one person creates something, is it instinctual for another to knock it down? If a person knocks down something that another builds, is it natural for that person to retaliate with destruction? Is it intuitive for human beings to destroy each other’s work?
I thought about 9/11. The World Trade Center attack of September 11th had happened two years before I came a teacher. American (and Western) soldiers had occupied the Middle East for hundreds of years before planes crashed into those skyscrapers. Certainly, there was something of the game of card houses in that story.
I thought about being a teacher. I’d spent six months bringing careful lesson plans to my students. My only desire had been to make them better readers, writers, thinkers, performers, humans, etc. Was I not attempting to build careful card houses in front of and, more importantly, with them? Was I not attempting to help them build?
I walked away from the study hall that morning profoundly disturbed. Was this what people are? Do we spend our time playing this stupid game of card houses? Is this what school is?
Education is about adaptation and transformation. The circumstances of my life have forced me to adapt and learn in order to survive. The story of Samantha’s card house began its transformative work within me. The scene in that study hall gave me a tangible event through which to think about my increasing frustration with being a teacher.
Something was changing inside of me.
I survived the rest of that school year by gritting my teeth. I kept my eyes averted from the extreme energetic violence in my classroom and the school. I began to understand the interactions around me in terms of card houses. People were locked in a ruthless game of knocking down each other’s card houses at the expense of building anything worth building in schools. Grades, discipline, and routine were standing in for any real creation.
I spent the following summer trying to make sense of what I was doing with my life. What was I building?
I couldn’t forget the story of card houses. And I couldn’t get a job as a male model or a point guard in the NBA. So I returned to teaching for a second year in the fall.
The first day of class was simple. Each of my classes spent thirty minutes building card houses. First, my students rolled their eyes at me. Why were we building card houses in school? Then they went to work. Inevitably, students became engaged, and then one student would destroy another student’s card house. Violence would ensue. Some conflicts were playful, and others were tense.
Afterward, I told my students the story of Samantha’s card house. I had a very simple statement for them when I finished.
Sure, we could spend the next four months knocking down each other’s card houses. Or we could overcome our instinctual desire to destroy, not waste each other’s time, and build something meaningful together.
Students left our class that day with a simple question.
Will you build something important with me?
*This post is a revision of the opening chapter of Playing with Sharp Objects.