This bi-weekly column, making its debut in this issue, explores the day-to-day lives of Oberlin residents outside the College community.
“I wanna be quoted!” one student insists from across the room when Donna Shurr introduces me to her home economics class at Oberlin High School. Shurr, who is curtly “MissShurr!” to her students, has been teaching home economics and ceramics at the high school for eight years. She has invited me to sit in on a period of each of these two classes because she considers them good. The energy in the room is held back from the brink of chaos only by Miss Shurr’s cheerfully harried exertions.
Today’s project is sewing pillows and bags. The nature of the work is often considered calming, but everyone in the classroom is in a hurry. Most students are constantly in and out of their chairs, tracking down scissors, fooling with an irrelevant scrap of fabric or pestering a classmate. But even those who stay put are sure to share their good-natured sarcasm or demand help from the teacher whenever a quiet moment arises.
Miss Shurr attends to requests almost dotingly, and seems eager to supply me with anecdotes to ensure that my impression is good. Nevertheless, the students are sympathetic, patiently awaiting her help and addressing “MissShurr!” with an irreverence that evidences their fondness for her.
“You’re not really listening to her, are you?” one student whispers to me under her breath as Miss Shurr tells me something, but they all grapple for her attention and insist upon her help.
Miss Shurr passes out a worksheet on which the students must answer a few questions about their interests and plans for the future. The students fill it out willingly, but not without a dose of sarcasm.
“Miss Shurr, Miss Shurr, I just discovered my new career!” someone says. “I wanna be a monster truck driver.”
“Yeah, Miss Shurr, I wanna wreck stuff.”
“You want to wreck stuff?”
Another student flops himself on his desk and pushes the sheet away. “Which question are you stuck on?” I ask.
“Interests,” he says, milking the irony.
Beside the question that asks about college and career interests, one student has written, “Yale, Harvard, Ohio State.” With the combination of warmth and urgency that characterizes her teaching style, Miss Shurr reminds the student of the hard work she must do as well as the opportunities for which she qualifies as a member of a low-income household. The student is undaunted and unimpressed.
By 1:35, five minutes before the 45 minute class period is up, most of the students have stealthily packed their bags and migrated to the door. The bell releases them, and Miss Shurr has a handful of quiet minutes before the next batch of students begins to trickle slowly through the door.
Donna Shurr is not easily fazed, and she cannot be talked into bragging or complaining. When I interviewed her on Tuesday evening at the Lewis Center before an ecological design class that she’s taking with David Orr, she was on the mend from a migraine that had plagued her all day at work, but canceling either our interview or her class were both out of the question for her.
“What’s it like to teach high school and what are some of the challenges?” I asked her, expecting to hear about long days, troublemakers or restrictive school bureaucracy.
But Shurr sat back and said slowly, “What’s it like to teach high school? I like the kids; the kids are cool. I don’t think we’re any different from any other place. I think we need to talk about the good things we do.” She was determined to paint her town and her working environment favorably, and she welcomed me to her Wednesday classes on the condition that I “didn’t say anything negative about [her] kids.”
Part of what seems to contribute to Shurr’s upbeat attitude is the notable amount of community service projects in which she is involved. Throughout the school year and during the summer, Shurr heads up a host of after-school clubs, student groups and one-time service projects. In addition to her durable motivation, the resource that is Oberlin College has helped Shurr to take on these projects.
Shurr says, “That’s the way it’s worked since it was founded; there’s always been a partnership between the town and the College. That’s what I like to do with my classes. Even in my classes, I want them to have a service component.” But when I expressed admiration for the breadth of her philanthropy, Shurr insisted, “everybody’s got their niche.”
On Wednesday when I sat in on her classes, she made me a list of other teachers to speak to, teachers whom she admires for their commitment to community service.
Our interview also did not prepare me for the vitality of her classroom. Of classroom dynamics, Shurr said, “I went to an all-girls Catholic school and we wore uniforms. It was a very strict high school. In public school you’ve got kids of all needs. I think that there’s a lot more interaction between students and teachers [in public school]. What I teach is hands-on. I don’t think I could do a lecture class.”
After our conversation, I went back to my room and tried to cull an article from my scrawled notes. I looked over the questions I had expected to help me conduct the interview: “What are the challenges?” “What are the biggest problems?” I realized that my worldview, be it learned or inherent, draws me intellectually towards conflict. I found myself searching Shurr’s words for latent conflict, but this approach was misguided, and perhaps it is precisely my affinity for problems that was problematic.
I realized that Donna Shurr projects a worldview that accommodates complexity
in its positivity, just as she combines urgency with warmth in her classroom.
Certainly spending a few hours with someone does not qualify me to summarize her
worldview but even if I am mistaken, the insight for me is invaluable and I hope
to maintain it as I write this column in the following months.