Class Notes

A Workout for the Mind

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The gym isn’t just for sweating anymore

By Paula Marantz Cohen


 

At least three times a week, I go to Curves, a gym for women that offers an undemanding regimen for the exercise-averse. Its clients range widely in age, ethnicity, creed, socio-economic status, and political beliefs. We sometimes get a little brusque with each other, particularly when important legislation or elections are in the offing, but we soon get over it.

What I notice about the women at Curves is that, for all their differences, many of them are teachers—most in public schools, and a good number in special-needs education. Some are still working: they come on their way to or from school. Most are retired: the gym gives them a place to go when, from habit, they wake up at 6 a.m. ready for school. Whatever the reason, teachers abound, and teaching is a major topic of conversation. I’ve learned a lot about education from women I’ve met at Curves.

One of my favorite members is a sign-language instructor who teaches both signing and vocalization to hearing-impaired children. We’ve discussed the fraught politics associated with her work and the changes in attitude that she’s seen over time. Another woman I like to talk to teaches cognitively impaired children. She knows about the plasticity of the brain and likes to discuss how certain kinds of activities that focus on concentration and self-control help her students learn. “Why should you try to solve this problem, even though it’s hard?” she’ll ask her students. “Because it will make your brain smarter.”

Another woman teaches high school math at a troubled inner-city school. She complains about systemic problems; her attitude is often angry and pessimistic. Yet she has not given up on her students. I recently talked to a woman who had spent 30 years teaching seventh grade and is now volunteering with second graders—“in order to get a taste of a different age group,” she says. She said one of the wisest things I’ve heard in a while: “Our job as teachers, like our job as parents, is to render ourselves obsolete.”

I am always buoyed by the conversations I have at Curves. The teachers I meet there are great women. They are not pushovers, they see the obstacles in their jobs clearly, they are sometimes despondent and disgusted, but they genuinely love kids, take their work seriously, and don’t give up. Curves gives me hope for the future of education, even if my workout is pretty lame.

Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. Her new novel, Suzanne Davis Gets a Life, will be published this spring.

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