My tenth graders and I spent the last six weeks of the year reading Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Some got it, but some did not. I understood. It took me three or four turns before I surrendered to Hurston’s language and accepted her flow.
What a mighty river is she! Yes, sometimes the dialect throws you and your ear rebels with judgmental vengence. At first glance, the story itself seems small. So a black woman in some small town nobody knows finds love self-serving and elusive. Where is the news?
So we tried, my students and I, to appreciate the broad challenges present–a woman reaching and a man trying to step aside and let it happen. It might seem like a common story to young ears, they still are defining love, so I can understand how some tenth graders might wonder what all the fuss is about.
But then, in the final chapter of the protagonist Janie’s journey, she says, “Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from the de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.” It was only after I read the lines aloud and watched my students nod in appreciation that I considered the weight of Hurston’s observation.
That’s what the real challenge of teaching is–especially in an urban world. An effective teacher must remember to value all the many shores facing him or her, each holding its own promise and breathing its own air. After all the “edumetrics” and statistics are put away–at least for a while–it becomes clear person-to-person instruction trumps all the theories and latest trends, standardized or otherwise.
Children are miracles, and we only fail them when we forget that. When we treat them like demographic predictors waiting to explode–and not children thirsty for the world–we do everyone a disservice, present and future too. Could it be the much ballyhooed “achievement gap” is merely a reflection of the beholder?
Last week, the Census Bureau released it latest warning salvo about the browning of America. The future welfare of our nation will increasingly depend upon the input of students like mine. Soon, the very notion of the “All-American” child will be revised to include the African American, Latino, and Asian students in my classroom.
So my students and I read the book and made suppositions of our own. Can false love ever be a necessary hurdle? Is disappointment an ingrained part of life, or is it just an accidental stumble in the stretch to catch your self, rewind your juices, and outrun your pain. It is hard to believe that the path through the forest bends and weaves for a reason, hard to fathom that kind of divine love.
Like Janie, we roam with our eyes and minds, searching for a harbor beyond danger’s reach, beyond disaster’s tip. Children understand they do not have all the answers yet. No one does. So they attempt what we adults request, but study what we do even more. They wait for their break to taste for themselves life’s splendor while doing all they can to outmaneuver our mistakes. In the process, they make their own.
Can we blame them? The puzzle is wider than that: how can we help build their inner strength for the horizons ahead? Teachers have it easier than parents. Ours is a temporary station at best. Is it possible to make a difference in such little time? How do we convince them that the only true barrier to enlightenment lies within?
We must find a way to keep them daring, reaching, climbing, overcoming, and lifting high. We must feed their imagination and tease their wit. But, more than that, we must let them know, as we who have struggled through it know, any talent is a blessing, and blessings should be celebrated and never ignored.
My career challenge over these next few weeks is to think more about my approach to my students. I must continue to improve and make my inputs less intrusive, not because the year was not productive. It was. But like any gardener worth his weight, I need to aerate the soil and then step back and let nature take hold. I must work harder to temper direction with care.
It is a balancing act. And where there have been rough patches, neglect, or misunderstandings, I must make my minutes do everything they can to restore faith in optimism and grace.
Only then can the real learning start.