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Mad at ILLC

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Mad at ILLC: Reading Nussbaum's Good Kings Bad Kings through Margaret Price

Margaret Price’s Mad at School looks into the ways academic spaces fail to include or support “neuroatypicality.” She looks not only into the traditionally assumed aspects of academia – writing papers, doing assignments, going to class – but also at spaces integral to success in academia but outside of that: “kairotic spaces.” She defines “kairotic space” as “less formal, often unnoticed, areas of academe where knowledge is produced and power is exchanged” (60) and describes it as characterized by things like a “real-time unfolding of events” and “impromptu communication that is required or encouraged” (61).

In thinking about Price’s conceptions of academic and kairotic spaces, I wondered how this theory could lend itself to supporting students whose mental health brought them into conflict with academia. In particular, I thought about Pierre, an adolescent in Susan Nussbaum’s Good Kings Bad Kings, whose mental health often brought him into conflict with his teachers and peers in educational settings. And I thought about Mia, an adolescent whose mental health and past emotional experiences often left her silent in the classroom. How could Pierre’s and Mia’s challenges in the classroom be understood using Price’s lens of kairiotic space and how could different pedagogical techniques give Pierre and Mia support and comfort in the classroom?

Before I begin, it is important to recognize that Pierre and Mia are not actually in academia in Price’s sense of the word. They are in classroom spaces within their juvenile nursing home, arguably a lower-stakes setting to begin with because they are not pursuing professional development in this context or finding their future career on the line in their everyday interactions with others. They are not yet within higher education. On the other hand, this is a first-step educational setting and the support or lack of support they receive here would impact their future track.


I. Pierre’s “Outbursts”

We first encounter Pierre through the eyes of Ricky Hernandez, as he’s called in to discipline Pierre and bring him to the “time-out room.” Ricky describes the scene as:

“He’s up outta his chair and he’s waving his arms and doing his little jumpy thing. He’s screaming, ‘Gimme my Baby Ruth! Gimme my Baby Ruth!’ The other kids are just sitting there and Mrs. Schmidt looks at me real exasperated…” (16)

In Mad at School, Margaret Price discusses Elizabeth Flynn’s theory of resistance and I would argue both Price and Flynn would categorize this particular act by Pierre as “reactive resistance,” defined by Flynn as, “resistance that is a spontaneous and emotional reaction that may have multiple and conflicting motivations and effects” (80). Price goes on to wonder how to make a constructive and creative space for this kind of resistance.  And she cites Dixon and Archibald with coming up with a similar definition to “reactive resistance” for their use of the word “outbursts.” However, Dixon and Archibald add to the definition, saying, “An emotional display made in a classroom […] might feel good at the moment, feel bad later, advance one’s cause, and set it back simultaneously” (81). This I think is particularly important in analyzing Pierre’s behavior because it seems his outburst certainly accomplishes all of those things at once. Ricky says later that as he’s leaving the classroom with Pierre, “Mrs. Schmidt calls to me, ‘He was eating his crayons! Don’t feed him!’” (17). This indicates that presumably the teacher took Piere’s crayons away from him as a response, and that provoked Pierre’s outburst.

As we learn through the course of the novel, Pierre hasn’t always had access to adequate food and has learnt to hoard food and, it seems, eat non-edible objects as a result of this experience.  What Mrs. Schmidt has failed to do is understand and support this aspect of Pierre’s background and personal experience. In taking away his crayons, she’s placed him back into his precarious food-less position, potentially provoking flashbacks and certainly provoking this anguished outburst from Pierre. Pierre’s outburst in turn provokes the opposite response to what he needs and wants – a delayed lunch. In the language of Dixon and Archibald, Pierre’s response to Mrs. Schmidt both advances his cause by making his emotions known, and sets him back by putting him in time-out and delaying his lunch. Which leads me to wonder, how could Mrs. Schmidt have better responded to the situation? She, of course, needs to think not only of Pierre, but of all the other students, “just sitting there,” whose learning is interrupted by this outburst. How can she hold all of them in the classroom together, allow it to be a space of learning, and still acknowledge the challenges each student is bringing to the space?


II. Mia’s Silence

Mia we encounter quite differently and outside of the classroom. We see Mia first through the eyes of Joanne, who notes that Mia is:

“…planted in this one spot all by herself, can’t move an inch on her own, can’t talk to the other kids, has to wait for a staff person or one of the kids who can walk to notice her so she can get a push. Mia looks about as ready for a power chair as anyone I’ve ever seen” (11-12).

This description of Mia sets her up quite differently from Pierre, whom we first see as immediately active and in motion. In contrast, Mia is extraordinarily disempowered in this viewing. She’s described later in Joanne’s section as, “a bit tired and a little wary” (12). This comes to be reinforced as Mia’s own voice is shared and she describes being raped by Jerry, one of the houseparents (64-67). Her experiences with rape and sexual assault leave her depressed, anxious, and exhausted, and nightmares keep her up at night. After these incidents begin, when it comes to school, she says, “In class I jus’ sleep. I so tire all the time” (132). Her teacher, Mr. Sokolsky, asks why she’s so tired, and suggests she sees the nurse. In fact, according to Mia, he’s the only person to ask how she’s doing (132). Unlike Mrs. Schmidt, Mr. Sokolsky seems attentive and caring. Of course, supporting a silent student in the classroom is very different than supporting a student practicing reactive resistance. In the first case, the student’s silence does not silence others, while in the second, the student’s resistance does come into more direct conflict with the other students of the class and their learning.

Unfortunately, in spite of Mr. Sokalsky’s checking in, Mia is not given space within the classroom to both learn and sit with her trauma. As Price writes, “the hallmarks of approved participation in most classroom spaces […] sets up a space of nearly relentless focus, composure, turn-taking, and rational exchange…” (83) and this expectation does not allow for Mia’s tired body (or Pierre’s for that matter) to succeed in the classroom. In Mrs. Schmidt’s class this becomes apparent when Mia describes how the class is for her:

“I don’ know what she’s talking about mos’ of the time. Like she jus’ say something to me and’ I din’ hear it. She says, ‘Stop daydreaming,’ and I say, ‘Okay,’ but I thinking about Teddy. Maybe he will smile at me again.” (232-3)

 This interaction with Mrs. Schmidt shows both how entirely unengaged by the class Mia is and how little she finds support in the classroom by Mrs. Schmidt. Partially her struggling in the classroom may be due to the fact that Mia simply cannot see much of the board and does not have support for her poor vision. But Mia is also distracted from the content of the lesson – an indication that Mrs. Schmidt’s teaching style is not engaging for Mia, and perhaps not inviting of Mia’s mental presence. Like with Pierre, I’m left questioning: How can Mrs. Schmidt and Mr. Sokalsky better support Mia in the classroom? How can they make an effort to welcome her voice while continuing to hold other students’ voices?  


III. Pedagogical Strategies

Price ends her writing on kairotic spaces and the inhospitality of classroom spaces by looking at strategies for making space in the classroom and academia for different forms of participation and communication. In light of this, I want to explore techniques Mrs. Schmidt and Mr. Sokalsky could have taken up to better support Pierre and Mia’s learning.

Pierre seems to need both movement and security.  In order to balance those, having activities such as barometer discussions – in which students are asked to line up in a spectrum based on their thoughts on a quotation or question – or a silent discussion – in which students write responses to questions or quotations posted around the classroom – might have better supported his learning and more deeply engaged him. In particular, this would have allowed him to be moving continually and would allow a kind of participation with lower risk, because he doesn’t necessarily have to speak aloud his responses to a quotation or question but can still share his opinions in either a physical or written way. Because of his interest and anxiety surrounding food, I wonder what his experience of Mrs. Schmidt’s food-pyramid lecture (233) would have been like. And I wonder whether and how Mrs. Schmidt’s promise of a pizza party at the end of the food-lesson might have engaged Pierre or served as a further distraction. Perhaps a restructuring of that lesson in which students approached the board with cut-outs of food and placed them in the sections of a blank food pyramid that they thought were correct might support his learning and need for activity. Perhaps a verbal listing of examples of good food – as Mrs. Schmidt seemed to be attempting – would have also encouraged his engagement.

Mia, I believe, would also be served by having writing exercises in the classroom. She describes taking notes of her thoughts after her appointment with a counselor so she won’t forget what to talk to the counselor about the following week (282) – and I believe that having time in class to also take notes on her thoughts and to reflect on her learning would really benefit her. A silent discussion would allow her time to put together her thoughts, and give her space to share things she may not feel comfortable with speaking aloud – especially due to the relative anonymity of the activity. She may also be served by having more pauses in the classroom. Mrs. Schmidt or Mr. Sokalsky could leave time after asking a question, or could invite students to write in response to a question for several minutes before sharing. They could follow that activity or do separately a read-around, in which students selected a phrase or sentence of the text that felt impactful or chose a word that described their reaction to a topic or reading and spoke that word, phrase, or sentence aloud, one at a time. This invites everyone to speak and also gives a sense of the range of reactions to a topic or reading.

I think both Pierre and Mia would find comfort and engagement in small group work – in part because their peers also have disabilities and are living and learning with them outside of the classroom in the community of ILLC. The space would also give each of them more focused attention, which in their cases could be more engaging than anxiety producing.


IV. Conclusions

Ultimately, I think forming a relationship between student and teacher is integral to understanding and supporting one another’s needs. And this is echoed throughout Price’s chapter on kairotic spaces. I would argue both Pierre and Mia could have been better supported by teachers who took time to listen to and check in on them, as Mr. Sokalsky did in small part with Mia by asking how she was doing after class. While this does involve more effort, it can pay off in building a stronger learning community that allows smoother and more productive classroom experiences.


Works Cited:

Nussbaum, Susan. Good Kings Bad Kings: A Novel. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 2013. Print.

Price, Margaret. "Ways to Move." Mad at School Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 2011. 58-102. Print