I learned this idea from a mentor of mine, and thus I can’t give proper credit to whoever thought it up. Perhaps it’s one of those pieces of lore that’s been floating around between teachers forever and belongs to no one. In any case.
Anyone who’s been a teacher for long enough has probably encountered a student that displays a certain degree of, for lack of a better term, performative eccentricity. Or you might look back to your high school days and think of someone like this. This is the kid who played up a particular kind of difference from the crowd, accentuating his or her “weirdness.” I’m not just talking about being different in general, and I’m not at all suggesting that these people are not expressing sincere aspects of their personality. I am saying that there’s a way in which they broadcast their difference in order to make that the salient aspect of their personality in the eye of their peers. And I say this from experience, as in middle school, this was more or less me.
Butterfly theory is an attempt at an explanation for this tendency. To understand these students, think of how a butterfly flies. If you study the path of butterflies through the air, it looks like they’re drunk. To get from one point to another, they never travel in a straight line; they zig and zag through the air, dipping down strangely and without warning. The presumed reason for this is a survivability advantage: if you are a creature as fragile as a butterfly, it’s a very bad thing if other animals can predict where you’ll go. Contrast with, say, a 1,000 pound moose. You might be prey, sometimes. Your physical advantage doesn’t make you invulnerable. But mostly you’re equipped to handle it if some other animal comes across your path. So you walk in straight lines. In a similar way, people who have certain social vulnerabilities — people who can be easily hurt thanks to the outward aspects that signal different types of social value, particularly when we’re young — have a vested interest in unpredictability. If no one knows who you really are, no one can insult who you really are.
Or, to put it in another way, when I was in 8th grade, I think my implicit thinking was “If they define me as the weird kid, at least they aren’t defining me as the kid with the greasy hair, with the bad clothes, the kid who smells.”
As I could tell you, from my middle school experience, this system of self-defense is inadequate. But I think both from my own experience and from my years of teaching, as a sub in middle and high school and as a college instructor, there’s a great deal of truth in this theory. And I’ve often struggled to know how to react to students who I perceive to be enacting this kind of behavior, not out of judgement, but out of sympathy. How can I make them feel that my classroom is a place where they are safe enough to move in straight lines? And how can I think of them in this way without acting like eccentricity and difference are things to avoid, or like they are all performance rather than an expression of genuine personality?
Because I was on the receiving end of the very worst way to go about it. One day in 8th grade, I was quoting from Moby Dick, because I had watched Wrath of Khan the night before. So while we puttered around doing exercises, I was saying some lines to the members of my group. My teacher pulled me out of class and gave me a speech that has only gotten harder to believe over time. My problem, as she patiently explained to me, was that “you’re different from other kids.” “You act so unhappy,” she said, but I was lonely because I acted strangely, and if I wanted to be happy, I had to stop. What bothers me in particular, with the weight of hindsight, is that while middle school was something like social hell for me, by then most of the people around me in classes had come to understand, if not accept, who I was. I’m still friends with a bunch of people from that very class. And I’m sure they thought it was odd that I was quoting Ahab, but they knew me well enough by then to leave it alone. As much as I was chased around and laughed at, for a couple years, none of my peers ever made me feel as bad as my math teacher did that day.
So I have some sympathy for fellow teachers who say that the personal or social eccentricities of students is simply none of my business, that the most humane and fair thing to do is not to acknowledge those idiosyncrasies. By the time they come to us at the collegiate level, students are adult learners, and deserve to be treated in the ways befitting the narrow exchange of pedagogical practice between teacher and student. The best way to avoid being like my 8th grade teacher is through benign neglect.
But context matters. There’s a funny reality of teaching freshman composition at a university like mine. So many of the classes our students take in their first couple years, at this huge STEM university, are giant lecture hall classes. I can’t tell you how many of my freshman have said to me, “You’re the only instructor here who knows my name.” That, to me, dictates a certain responsibility. I guess the punchline of this piece is that I haven’t really discovered a way to meet it yet. The best I can come up with is to act in a way that I hope all teachers would act: to try my best to remain aware of the social dynamics within my classroom that can be so hard for instructors to notice, to extend sympathy and respect, to make sure students know that I am accessible. Then again, I think to when I was a college freshman and try imagining going to tell a professor I was lonely then. Would never happen. I guess this is all weak brew.
Perhaps by the time they come to me it’s less pressing. Things got better for me, after middle school. I know the popular conception of high school is as a hellish wasteland of ceaseless cruelty, but things were OK for me, and they got better as time went on. Part of that was choosing to get more invested in my hygiene and my appearance — not for that teacher, or for the kids who teased me, but for me. Part of it was just aging into myself; I grew almost 4 inches in 18 months, my complexion cleaned up, I lost weight. But a lot of it, I perhaps naively think, was just that people started to give each other a better time. I became close friends with some of the very kids who had once chased me around. People let stuff go. I think people came to understand how rough life could be and resolved to just leave each other alone, more. You just grow up, you know? In any event, I got popular, to my surprise. I even started dating — although the first two women I dated came, not incidentally, from over the bridge in the next town over, and never knew me when I was the awkward kid getting chased.
So maybe by the time they come as college students, they are past some of this stuff. Maybe there’s a virtue to not seeing all of the same people in all of the same classes. Maybe it’s the simple reality of not having to ride the bus or eat in the cafeteria. I’d like to think that, at a certain age, the social cost of acting like an asshole overwhelms the insecurity and self-hatred that provokes it. But then, now I’m tall, and I’ve lifted weights for forever, and I dress a certain way, and I have absorbed the subtle rules of the social hierarchy, and I’m educated and male and white, and I have been told I’m attractive often enough to realize that there’s a certain kind of arrogance in self-deprecation. So from that stance of abundant privilege, my optimism is cheap, and I find myself wondering about the abundant social cruelties that may be multiplying right out under my nose. Reluctantly I come to admit that I am powerless to understand, much less to prevent, the pain among the students who I cherish and do not understand.