Sunday, November 7, 2010

History Class, With Booze

A master teacher holds class in New Orleans, LA

The thing about drinking absinthe? It numbs your lips.

It doesn't happen fast. You're three or four minutes into your glass of milky green poison before you notice that you're losing sensation in your tongue.

“It's a sipper,” Joe tells you. “I saw a guy do five shots of absinthe once. Wasn't pretty. Guy couldn't walk. Stuff is still illegal in most states.” Joe's eyes twinkle from under his straw fedora. “It's legal in New York, San Francisco, and here, of course.”

He continues from his seat in a little bar in Pirates' Alley in the French Quarter. “Tennessee Williams used to say that these were the only three cities in America. Every place else is Cleveland.”

And so goes Joe Gendusa, professor of libations on The New Orleans Cocktail Walking Tour. A retired teacher and school counselor, Joe is a guy who loves his job. He often smiles as he tells a condensed history of one of the world's greatest cities, replete with stories of pirates, ghosts, archbishops, and presidents through the lens of an upturned highball glass.

It's so awesome to learn from a teacher who loves his material.

I've had absinthe before. But I never had it in a century-old bar that reputedly served it under the table during an international absinthe prohibition that began in the 19th Century. The anise-spiked spirit opens its flavor with a little water and a burning sugar cube. It'll take you on a trip, people. And that's just one of the featured drinks of the tour.

I had a beautiful Pimm's Cup (a concoction of caramelized gin, lemonade, ginger ale, and cucumber) that's best made at the Napoleon House. Did you know that Napoleon planned to escape imprisonment in Europe by fleeing to New Orleans? He had the 2nd floor of the Napoleon House ready to receive him. He died before he could move in.

I had a bizarre and absolutely wonderful cocktail named The Bayou Bash. Made with wine and Southern Comfort, it's as if Mark Twain made a drinkable rocket fuel: southern, hilarious, and ready to send you into orbit. The drink was invented by a native bartender who wanted to find a way to marry a distinctly Old World wine with a New World spirit. Like the best of any creole cuisine, the beauty comes in the exotic marriage of strange bedfellows.

Joe had us all at “hello,” using historical anecdotes to improve the cocktails-- and vice versa. Like any master teacher, his passion for the material not only engaged us: it made us work for him. Sure, we got to drink and that was cool. But, that wasn't what made the experience masterful.

We wanted to see the city the way Joe saw it. We wanted the secret knowledge of a passionate expert. Joe had us right where he wanted us. He had a class that wanted to learn.

That's a pretty far cry from most classes in our schools.

We've built our schools on the concept of containment and control. We value security way more than we value curiosity.

Administrators and teachers, hobbled by a culture that fears danger more than it hungers for growth, huddle in the shadow of litigation. Instead of putting discovery at the center of learning, we've put stability and security.

What makes Joe such a wonderful teacher reads like an indictment of what is missing in most public school classrooms:

1. Joe is as important as his curriculum. He loves his topic and relishes his time sharing his knowledge.
2. His classroom is wherever the learning happens. He literally explores his material with his students.
3. Instead of attempting to control learner curiosity, Joe surfs it.
4. The length of his class is based on how long it takes to learn, rather than on a predetermined time allotment.

Now, I'm not saying that the best education happens with a drink in your hand.

I. Would. Never. Say. That.

I am saying that we must recognize that the best learning puts great teachers in charge of where, when, and how students learn.

We need to start asking better questions about what makes a great teacher. About what makes a better learning environment.

And let's start drinking better cocktails.


  1. This just made my day. I have strange combination of feelings telling me:

    1) to fight for some small corner of truth to be real and actualized in my life...or anyone's life for that matter.
    2) to hop on the next flight to New Orleans