Teaching with a Twist: Dykstra's Law and Mr. Spittal's Magnificent Mustache
Mr. Spittal was my 8th grade history teacher.
He had wavy red hair and a handlebar mustache. If you believe in past lives, I’m certain he was a general in the Civil War. Mr. Spittal was funny, eccentric, loved history, and knew how to handle this left-handed focally challenged Rochelle rug rat in spades.
Mr. Spittal would often let me know he’d had his fill of my disruptions, which I of course viewed as essential color and commentary sprinkled into the day's lecture. His not-so-subtle cue was a pinching and then twisting of the corners of his well-managed 'stache, followed by:
“Cluuuuuuuuuuuuuuuue, you’re doing it again! And you know, kiddo, that I likes ya, but don’t make me ruin the 'stache.”
Twist twist, glare, nod, a beat of uncertainty ... followed by what I was pretty sure was a smile. Yep, it had to be.
Soon the class would giggle, I would desist, and the lecture would roll on. And just in case Mr. Spittal is on Facebook somewhere, let me be clear: He was one of those teachers who knew how to bring history to life, telling great stories that could keep up with any Ken Burns DVD box set. But despite his talent, there wasn’t a week that went by when I didn’t give him cause to issue some variation of the lyrical mantra quoted above. Although some days, all that was required was a quick twist of the 'stache and the inevitable glance of that mystery smile. Eventually it became a kind of shorthand. I knew what it meant.
For the non-educators following along here, on the surface this might seem like it's merely a funny classroom anecdote, rather than a masterstroke delivered by a true artist. But we should take a minute to admire the sheer skill and sophistication of Mr. Spittal's teacherly technique.
At first glance, we have a teacher who seems to be at his tipping point — but instead of tipping over, he is instead wielding a well-honed tool to keep control of his classroom and a prepubescent Clue boy who is once again incapable of withholding one of the two hundred most recent brain farts emitted by the hyperactive hamster that is frantically wheel-running inside that poor little brain of his. Oh god, can you imagine?
Bill Murray, in a film called Broken Flowers, visits past girlfriends in search of a certain truth and to apologize. At times I feel the urge to take a similar journey with all the teachers who survived our relationship. A relationship, mind you, they didn’t specifically choose and were randomly assigned to. But I digress now ... as I did so often back then.
No doubt about it, Mr. Spittal executed that mustachio-twisting move as gracefully as any samurai handles a sword. But there was something even more important embedded in those moments: the words, "You know, I like you."
You know, I like you. And I did know. Always.
I knew he liked me even when he didn’t. I knew he thought I was funny and weird and that I wanted to play Stan to his Ollie whenever the moment allowed — and even when it didn’t. Judgment was never my strong suit then or even much now. One thing I know for certain is that before students can learn, they need to belong. And the more we are capable of welcoming the arbitrarily and irrationally assigned strangest-among-us into the club of self-acceptance ... well, the better off classrooms, learning, and society will be.
One of the many great teachers I recently spent the day with in Panama, New York came up to me and thanked me for the mid-school year reboot I was brought in for by the Panama School District. He was sure that given this story, and others I tell, that I would know about something called Dykstra's Law. I assured him that if I did, my brain had misfiled it somewhere.
So he shared it with me. Here is Dykstra's Law: "Everybody is somebody else's weirdo."
Let's pause for a moment to admire the simple brilliance of that.
The teacher told me, "I make sure all my students know that: everybody is somebody else's weirdo." We both nod, and I thank him for giving me this great new line as well as for his own service in the classroom. I can’t tell you the boost I get from knowing that there are compassionate, mindful, and skilled practitioners out there, ready to influence minds for the better.
I recall, oddly enough, some kids in my 8th grade history class not liking Mr. Spittal because they thought his attire, and mustache, were "weird." I thought they were weird for not appreciating the fact that Mr. Spittal didn’t care what they thought.
And I felt lucky to have a teacher who thought this particular weirdo was pretty funny and pretty cool. And I can assure you that even when I pushed poor Mr. Spittal to the brink, causing him to twist his 'stache and call on his breath-taking teacherly power to stay calm, I always knew the moment would end up with a smile.
I think it was a smile. It had to be, didn't it?