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Teaching Recycled Brains


How one teacher does battle with the blue recycling bin.

Sometimes as a high school teacher, you feel as though you are instructing recycled brains. You feed students the information you want them to learn, expecting to get back something with at least a similar theme to it, only to find that some pre-existing program has garbled the lesson and that what comes out is unrelated gobbledygook.

Take, for example, environmental education. My students get a lot of it. The high school where I teach offers AP Environmental Science (affectionately dubbed, APES), and most of the seniors take it. Being the freewheeling art teacher that I am, I rant a lot about the ways our destructive, wasteful lifestyle has directly resulted in our current ecological nightmare.

All of which is to say that you would think that the dozens of seniors who have commandeered my classroom for lunch over the past two years would know the difference between a black trash can and a blue recycling bin. But despite all their supposed knowledge, I still somehow end up policing the garbage can every afternoon, trying to salvage another miniscule amount of reclaimable material, not to mention a few water bottles, as I mutter about the stupidity of paying good money for something you can get for free. It do not get it: Every year, the APES teacher does a blind test, comparing bottled water to water from the school drinking fountain. And every year, the students cannot tell the difference between the two. So why, oh why, do they keep buying the stuff and then throwing the plastic in the regular garbage can?

There are reasons, of course. Change is difficult and takes a long time, especially when dealing with people who have spent their lives being barraged by a marketing machine that constantly tells them how important their whims and convenience are—more important than, say, breathable air for their grandchildren—and recycling is itself only a barely effectual, usually inconsistently-practiced placebo that allows people to feel good about themselves while continuing their truly destructive consumption habits. Perhaps the students sense that, or perhaps they just don’t care.

Towards the end of this past school year I showed one class a short video clip about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and two of the seniors in the class immediately started to shake their heads and argue derisively that it did not really exist. When met with reason and the protests of a number of their classmates, they then argued that while it may exist, it certainly wasn’t all that big, and when that argument fell apart, they resorted to crossing their arms and snorting that it did not really matter anyways—it was out in the middle of the freakin’ ocean, after all.

Nevertheless, some of the water bottles do go into the blue bin. And although selfish behavior is by far the norm, I have to remind myself that they are, after all, still in high school. Meanwhile, the momentum in my classroom has shifted significantly away from what it was even five short years ago. People who in years past were throwing fast food wrappers out the windows of their jacked-up trucks now eat organic protein shakes, drive hybrids, and deny the littering ever happened.

There has been a change, and I tend to believe that it has a lot to do with a steadily increasing tide of peer pressure coming from the country’s intellectuals and artisans. Since I am in the very business of making intellectual artisans (or, at least, inculcating in my students the capacity to appreciate their messages), I tend to believe that my job puts me right at the center of hope.

Although I know we’ve a long way to go before we are anywhere close to the ecological balance of yesteryear, I choose to see the blue recycling bin as half full. In the words of Bob the Builder: “Can we fix it? Yes! We can!”

The above rendering of Diego Velazquez's masterpiece, "The Water Carrier of Seville," was painted by the author.

Josh Barkey is a high school art teacher in North Carolina.

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