“Question Everything” and Other Lessons From Mr. Mann

Write about a class or teacher who challenged you.

When I was in the eighth grade, I took the infamous Gifted and Talented class taught by the even more infamous Mr. Mann. Picture my first day in this classroom: the four walls were absolutely plastered with nonsensical posters and paintings and a random assortment of maps, post cards, and calendars. Between those walls, desks in classic rows were sat upon and inside of by a group of raucous, slightly obnoxious, pimply, and yet still more-than-intelligent young teenagers who hollered in a cacophony of gossip while tossing schedules and packs of gum through the air. Then, in the middle of it all, in the eye of the hurricane, I sat in the center row, clutching a worn-out copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to my chest and fingering a neatly-folded copy of my own schedule, feeling insecure and overwhelmed and out of place.

Of course, I already had some suspicions that this GT class might be my undoing. While I had participated in the GT program since beginning elementary school, those GT rooms were quiet spaces where chess was practiced, algebra was learned, and advanced vocabulary words were studied. They were safe and predictable and, while challenging intellectually, never took me outside of my small world of books and multiple-choice tests. Mr. Mann’s GT course, however, was expected to be an entirely different story. Whispers from older students of extensive projects, pop quizzes over the details of obscure foreign landmarks, and the destruction of conventional beliefs and teaching practices had circulated in my grade for years. At the end of seventh grade, those of us in honors classes asked each other, “Are you taking Mr. Mann’s class next year?” and more importantly, “Did you hear that last year, Mr Mann did (insert bizarre activity or project here)??” None of us knew what to think or expect.

So on that first day of school, as I sat surrounded by my fellow students (who seemed utterly at ease about the class I had formerly believed we all feared together), I was much more than intimidated. I didn’t want my beliefs to be challenged. I didn’t want debates or a clash of ideas. And I certainly didn’t want to get a B in a class just because I was too scared to participate. It was a Catch-22 of a course.

Mr. Mann entered the class with the bang of a door. Did he do it to be dramatic, or did the door simply stick that day? I may never know. His head was bald, his t-shirt was baggy, and his tennis shoes were dirty. He looked more like a custodian than a teacher. Mr. Mann didn’t pause to quiet the class, because they all sat down and shut up without his encouragement, revealing that my fellow classmates were probably more nervous than they had initially let on. He simply walked to the whiteboard (the only part of the room not covered in his collection of ratty decorations) and wrote in block letters, “QUESTION EVERYTHING.” And so began the class.

For the first few months, I was too intimidated to truly participate. Mr. Mann encouraged each of us to develop opinions independent of our parents or our peers, and challenged us to debate those newly formed ideas with each other. He assigned us group projects over topics ranging from Orwell’s literature to the details of a body’s shut-down when drowning, in clumps of students we weren’t friends with or (to be honest) didn’t particularly like. It seemed like he wanted us to not get along with our classmates — and believe me, we didn’t. We argued over politics, religion, novels, the school system, the conflict in the Middle East, and every other current event or controversial topic under the sun. While at first I hung back during these discussions out of fear of backlash or sounding stupid, by November I was voicing my opinion with the rest of the class — quietly, at first, but soon with growing confidence.

I didn’t understand, at least while it was happening, how the class slowly changed me. I entered as an insecure bookish girl who was enthusiastically accepting of what I was told to think and believe. I exited not only with a much wider knowledge base of the particles of sand and the history of the Taj Mahal, but also with the understanding of how to discuss with people of all different backgrounds and interests the intricacies of topics that rarely invite consensus. I gained respect for the validity of my own opinion and the opinions of others. Despite my fears and reservations, I left Mr. Mann’s class with a skeptical mind — with every intention to, as he originally instructed, “question everything.”

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