The Comfort of Skin: “Sometimes I Wish I Was White”

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Now that I am away on summer break, part of me misses the bustle of students climbing stairs or commandeering choice seats near the windows. For my tenth graders, we ended the year with a multi-arced exploration of the role of children in the Civil Rights Movement. As I did last year and the year before, we began with the significance of Emmett Till’s murder in 1955, travelled briefly to the failed 1962 Albany, Georgia desegregation attempt, moved South to Birmingham, Alabama and the unprecedented Children’s Crusade, and then ended with the tragic death of four little girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

Along the way, after examining historic footage and reading original accounts of the events, we analyzed strategies, explored obstacles, and evaluated impact. I approached this unit both as an opportunity to suggest the power of young people to affect change, and as a chance to reflect on the meaning of life and sacrifice. Using formal, persuasive argument as the backdrop, students must decide whether Till’s death was “necessary,” whether King’s decision to employ children in Birmingham was “justified,” and whether or not parents can ever keep their offspring safe in an oppressive environment.

As we debated these lessons from the past, the present world sadly invaded our space in familiar ways. The death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police in nearby Baltimore, and the ensuing anger and confusion, drew many of our conversations away to parallel cases of unarmed blacks placed accidentally “in harm’s way.”

My students were aware of the death of Trayvon Martin, of course, and Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, and too many more. They had impressions of their own to share from family reunion stories or personal observations. Had the notorious racist Bull Connor simply morphed into a modern, leaner, more sinister version who said all the correct things (or nothing at all), but then acted with equal disdain and disregard?

“Sometimes,” a male student said one day in May, “I wish I was white.”

“Why would you say that?” I asked.

“I just get tired of it sometimes. Too much work. You gotta be looking out for everybody, the police, George Zimmerman, somebody following you in the store…”

“Or down the street, “ one girl added. “We kill each other more than all those things combined.”

“They keep saying ‘’black lives matter,’” the boy continued, “but I don’t see it.”

I said nothing for a moment. I had to gather my thoughts and my emotions. “You matter,” I said. “And you, and you, and you,” I repeated while pointing at boys and girls around the room. “We just have to work harder to make sure we let each other know how much we matter. We just have to remind ourselves we are special and blessed, and then we are–”

“Yes?” I then asked, calling on another male in the rear whose comments always seemed to oscillate between thought-provoking and charmingly annoying.

“Why should them kids in Birmingham have to go to jail just because the grown folks wouldn’t? Why I have to bow my head just ‘cause some cop is coming?”

“”Those kids….it’s “those” kids and ‘why do I have to bow.’  But let’s be honest now,” I said. “Isn’t it fair to say that the biggest threat to your life, if there is such a threat, is some clown from the neighborhood who doesn’t want to go to school, doesn’t want to work hard and do things the right way, but wants to take from you, or your brother, or your sister, or your folks? I mean is it fair to ask whites to value black lives if we don’t?”

Silence again.

“I still don’t think police should treat us like criminals,” another girl near the front added. “They are supposed to be professionals.”

“I just wanna live my life and not bother nobody, and nobody bothers me,” the boy in the rear continued.

There was another brief silence after that exchange. I used the time instead to pose a slightly different question. “Isn’t life a struggle for everyone? Mr. Samuel? What do you say? Haven’t heard your voice today.”

Sitting in the front row, he paused momentarily, as was his custom. “I think…I think God made heaven and everything in it. I think God made me–and everybody. Sooner we see that, the better.”

More introspection.

“You know,” I finally said.  “Biologically speaking, there is no such thing as race.  There is no genetic marker for race.  There are certain traits we receive from our parents and their parents.  But each marker is separate.  One for hair, one for nose shape, one for lips.  Sometime around the fifteenth century, the notion of race was created in order to separate humans into races.  Hair and the amount of melanin in the skin became the dominate physical signs used to lump individuals together and call it race.  Most of it was fueled by an excuse to exert power over others. It’s as simple and as complex as that.

Now, there are social realities which shape us and the human experience.  There is culture, shared experiences, geographic adaptations, music, language, and all kinds of social practices and institutions.  All of us inherit things, “ I added.   “We all have history and footsteps before ours, some steady and unwavering; some stumbling and unsure. But in our history, in everyone’s history, there are moments of strength, and wisdom, and kindness. There are lessons learned, forgotten, then remembered again.  Life is a journey. You are a miracle. Don’t let anybody ever take that away.”  Over half the class applauded.

I still wonder how much of our discussion they retained.  So much has happened since that day.  On June 12,  the last day of school, the parents of NAACP leader and self-proclaimed “black” Rachel Dolezal outed her as “white.”  For the next ten days, articles and opinion pieces explored the same question: why would a white woman ever want to be black?  Her declaration runs counter to all our understandings about privilege and even beauty, but no one said that exactly.  It was not Dolezal’s mere deception which startled, but rather contemplations about its origin.  When and how had this woman become so lost?

Then, in the evening of June 18, Dylann Roof, a ninth-grade dropout and white assassin the same age as most of our graduating seniors, ignored the hour of fellowship he received in the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina and declared a need to murder strangers in order to prevent blacks from “taking over our country.”  Later investigations revealed a deep affection for the Confederate flag and the white supremacy it asserts.

I wondered if my students, on vacation, saw the parallels to our studies.  Just as Robert Chambliss, the convicted Birmingham bomber, believed in 1963 that death in the 16th Street Baptist Church would resegregate the city, so too did Roof harbor visions of race wars and a return to the utter subjugation of Americans of African descent.  Both killers wrongly assumed that the racial progress we have achieved in this country is fragile and as easily dismantled as racial fears are reignited.

That same week, here in DC, Malik Mercer died just five days before his 16th birthday, the 65th homicide victim of gun violence.  Metro bus video suggests he was followed by three, young, black men who coveted his designer belt.  A rising high school junior, Mr. Mercer is now dead.  The young men who ended his life saw him not as a person of substance, or a comrade in struggle, but rather as a nameless obstacle in the way of material gain.  To them, undereducated emblems of a persistent divide, his life equalled a belt and no more.

To be sure, violence and crime are down here and across the country.  Teen pregnancies have also diminished significantly, and high school graduation rates are up.  Clearly, young people have been listening, even as another eulogy threatens their resolve.

What becomes clear is that in a historic moment when the Supreme Court has affirmed an equal right (at least to marry) for LGBT citizens, I still wonder when the time will come for my students when the phrase “black lives matter” becomes an unnecessary, redundant relic from a distant past.  When will the time come when displaced whites point the finger not at race, but rather at America’s taxation and fiscal policies, and the resultant income inequality they foster?  When will aimless young people reach for a book instead of a weapon to right their course?

When will the time come when no young soul will ever again have to question the comfort of skin?

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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The Cherry Blossom Mystery

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Two days ago, on Friday, I drove down to Haines Point after class.  It had been a good week.  My seniors were busy putting finishing touches on their written DC Neighborhood Project.  Teams of three or four had to adopt a neighborhood on the Metro line and then become tour guides.  After completing a written paper and power point, where they covered everything from census data to typical expenditures to future development, they have to make a video and “present” the neighborhood.  They are excited about that last part.  I heard one group arguing about what songs to include on the sound track.

My tenth grade students received their graded Emmett Till’s paper back for rewrite.  I had provided them with a host of tools to assist structuring their papers, and it showed.  I was so proud of their work because they were.  They had become writers, not just recorders; analysts, not just sponges pouring back.

During my last period, one girl said she had to speak with me.  Writing, I knew, always made her nervous.  We had met a few times after school to review the purpose of every paragraph and the dominant role of her thesis.  She began to understand, to stretch, and it was a joy to see.  She was learning and loved it.  “What is it?” I asked.  Her grade on the rough draft had been average, but she and I both knew she had walked a long way to get there.

“I want to thank you for something,” she said.

“What?”

“My learner’s.  I passed the test and got my learner’s,” she said with a smile all over her face.

“Congratulations,” I said.  “You’ll be on the road in no time.  But why are you thanking me?  You did that.”

She grew quiet and then said, “You helped me.  I never been much on studying and stuff, but you taught me how to take it slow and just do it.  All those charts and things.   I would have never passed that test without you.  I studied for it and everything.”

“Sure you would have,” I said.  “But thanks.  Just do me a favor.”

“What?” she asked.

“Do not pull up next to me while driving.  I will panic and hit somebody.”  At that, we both laughed, and I knew when I left school I would take the long way home.

Even before I arrived near the Tidal Basin, I realized the blossoms would be gone.  Just last week, the entire area burst with magic no wizard could devise.  The limbs of the trees exploded with white and pink bubbles of  art, like slivers of candy cane on a stick.  It was peak time for the cherry blossoms, and the tourists were out in force near the usual walkways.  Some had traveled from far distances just to taste the sight.

But further down at the Point, only locals gathered, most just fishing and seemingly oblivious to the sight.  But those men did not fool me.  It was impossible not to be captivated by the simple beauty of those blossoms, so tender and modest in their majesty.  If you stared at them long enough, with the water as a backdrop, you could imagine a world without rancor anywhere, a peaceful place where antagonists settled their differences with a checker game and a cold brew.  It reminded me of those late summer night hide-n-go-seek games when I was young and ached for the world and all the knowledge I could uncover.  We played back then even after the sun had set and the street lights shone.  We played and chased and imagined.

I had visited Haines Point several times that week, but now the blossoms were gone, except for a rogue blossom cluster on a tree limb or two, holding on to the finish.  I asked my students about it once.  Why create such beauty and make it last for no more than two weeks, sometimes less.  Why gather all the power of nature, place it tenderly in a fragile blossom, and then give it only fourteen days to live–until the next year at the same time?

“If you think about it,” I told them,  “our lives are something like those cherry blossoms.  We each have a beauty some of us take for granted.  In the scheme of space and time, our walk on this Earth is shorter than those blossoms.  We need to make it matter, all of us.  If you knew you only had two weeks, what would you do?  How would you shine?”

“I’d eat,” said one rotund, young man known for his double lunches.

We laughed some more and went back to work.  But I thought about that conversation again on Friday.  Our time together in school is coming to an end.  I can smell summer coming.  I make a promise to use the time wisely.  I still have some things I want to cover, a few more skills I want to teach.  But, mostly, I want to savor the moments my students and I have left before they move on to other classrooms.

Of course, they come back to visit frequently.  But it is never quite the same again.  That daily, one hundred and eighty day space we share is fleeting but significant.  From the day it begins, it is ending.  Like the blossoms, we need to appreciate the miracle and handle it with care.

Teaching is God’s work too.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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The Best Things In Life

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The last month or so has been difficult.  Death is such a final visit.  You think about the things you wanted to say, the things you wanted to do.  But there is something more at work than regret.  There is hope.  As a teacher, I see students come in and out of my classroom with a plethora of challenges, some academic, some not.

Comportment becomes the issue.  How do I show love and admiration without oversaying it?  How do I maintain appropriate distance without relying on it?  How do I tell them that I know the road is not easy without falsely attempting to make it so?  It has always been a conundrum for me.

My tenth grade students are learning about Emmett Till.  This upcoming week, they will be asked to evaluate the meaning of his horrific death.  For several weeks, we have read articles and watched film about his case and circumstance.  Now, the hard question must be faced.  Was his death a necessary catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement, or just a tragic loss?  Can children be rightly called upon to lead progress, or is change solely an adult burden to bear?

I am always concerned when I introduce this topic.  Part of it seems unfair.  When I was the age of my students, fifteen or sixteen years old, the nation remained engrossed in the issues of race and its legacy.  In many ways, it still is.  No president except our present one has been made to carry the weight of so many transgressions, so many assumptions, so many years of “benign neglect.”   I remember discomfort at times.  All I wanted then was to stoke my youth for as long as I could and stay far away from the winters of our nation’s discontent.

The great thing about growing older is the wisdom it brings.  I have learned how to maintain optimism in spite of the things we see and read.  I know America has advanced as a nation, as a cause–even when some attempt to deny and to retrace brittle steps.

I will try to teach my students how to use yesterday to fortify tomorrow.  They are the future imagined; they will become the future achieved.

I want to be the best guide on the journey.  Sometimes I fail; sometimes I succeed.  There is still so much work to be done, and courses to be traveled, and corrections to be made.  I think now more than ever that prayer and rigor are the only ointments for weary limbs, and belief is the talisman we seek.

Next week, my students will write about what they think and imagine.  My job is to teach structure, correct errors, and encourage attempt.  I remember high school and how fragile and determined I was.  Antithesis is the burden and the road.

I pray for guidance and wisdom.  I pray for them, and me, and us.

Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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Joyful Wings: In Memory of Rodenard Warren Davis

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Yesterday, we buried my oldest brother.  I wrote and delivered his eulogy, and I wanted to share it with you.  For the last few weeks, students have been so protective and loving.  They helped me manage my emotions during his illness and transition.  One girl even sprinkled silver glitter on my head for good luck, and one silent, young man would never leave my side.  I love them for that.  Here goes:

“Merry Christmas,” as Ronny would often say on days other than Christmas, sometimes with a bite, sometimes with a smile.

As I sat here through the homily, I found myself remembering the summer of my eighteenth year.  I remember growing more and more excited as my freshman trek in college neared.  I had a summer job at the General Accounting Office.  I was a GS Zero.   I earned minimum wage, $1.60 an hour, but I was glad to be working.  Using her DC Government connections, my mother had helped me secure the job, as she had done for many of the teens in the neighborhood.  I saved most of my money to assist me once I got to college.  Even with financial aid, I knew things would be tight for her.  I had a little over $500 in the bank and boasted about it to my family.

Sometime right before Labor Day, college just two weeks away, my oldest sibling, Ronny, nine years my senior, came to me with a request.  He had fallen short of rent money.  If I would loan him my savings, he would repay me in one week once he got paid.  I was a little apprehensive about it, but some of me was proud.  It was as if this transaction edified my passage into adulthood.  I mean, he had never borrowed anything from me before.  So I obliged.

I began packing a trunk for the train ride to Boston.  The week came and went, and I had heard nothing from Ronny.  No one could reach him.  I became nervous and pondered my folly.  I still had my last check coming, a little under one hundred dollars, and I could probably get a work study job once I arrived on campus.  Still, a piece of my heart was broken.

Then, the night before my departure, Ronny showed up.  In one hand, he held ten twenty dollar bills, less than half of what I loaned him.  In the other hand, he clutched three coats, a purple suede ankle-length number, and two leather jobs, one red and the other lime green (it was the ’70s).  Things had not gone as planned, and this was the best he could do, he explained.  I accepted his offer.  I had no choice.  But, you see, that was Ronny.  Part of him had forgotten, but most of him remembered.  That was how he loved.

I packed the coats, after trying them on, and left the next day for college.  I especially remember the red one.  It had a wide belt and a “Super Fly” collar.  Looking back now, I am certain that, as the weather cooled, I was the only young man traversing tony Harvard Yard in a red leather coat with a Super Fly collar.  Still, I like to think that was how my wife noticed me.  I don’t know if she just felt sorry or what, but here we still are.  So, in the end, Ronny had done me a favor I did not recognize at the time.  But I suddenly recall now how special I felt holding my girlfriend’s hand walking across campus while wearing my oldest brother’s coat.

A little over two weeks ago, on a Thursday, the 8th, my birthday, Ronny’s doctors delivered good news. Since entering the hospital on New Year’s Day, his vital signs had finally improved enough to allow them to do an internal probe to determine the cause of his breathing difficulties. They discovered there were no obstructions, no cancers, no blockages of any kind. In essence, Ronny had simply stopped coughing, and there were remedies, a special vest with which they could outfit him to help him along. The prognosis seemed good, and I was overjoyed.

Unfortunately, by Friday evening, it became clear Ronny was not improving. In fact, his breathing had gotten worse. But on that day before, that Thursday, we were so hopeful. After teaching, I traveled down to Haines Point, where I often go to celebrate good news or contemplate the day’s adventures. As I stopped in my favorite spot near the water, I watched an older Asian couple park their car near mine, open the trunk, and pull out loaves of white bread. At first, the seagulls nearby simply stood on the railing, waiting. Then, as the lady and man began tossing chunks onto the parking lot and the water beyond, the birds rose in a frenzy.

As the seagulls dove down towards the ground and then back up into the air, circling each other and dancing on the wind, I thought of Ronny’s life. As with the birds, there had been moments of joy, of dance and song, style and substance, and there had been periods of stillness, like the wait before the prize. There were moments without apparent movement, and then suddenly, rhapsody again.

It got me thinking about the gifts Ronny had given me. I counted eight. The first gift was my name. A former altar boy, he had chosen it before I was born because he liked the sound and the message of Gospel writer Mark. I thank him for that.

The second gift he gave me was humor. Whenever my big brother was around, laughter ensued. I can still hear him exclaiming “Only in America” whenever one of life’s little ironies appeared. And even later, in the nursing home, when the power of speech eluded him, even then his eyes sparked when I told him my silly jokes, or surprised him with a Ben’s Chili Dog with everything on it, the way he always liked.  Finding humor in almost any situation was a gift he gave to me, to us.

The third gift was resiliency. Ronny was a fighter, even at times when flight might have been the better course. Ronny could at times be down, but never out. He could take a punch and then rebound as if nothing had happened. There was always a new plan, a new approach, a different scheme, and I learned from watching him that no storm lasts forever if you refuse to let go.

Ronny also gave me an appreciation for style, for verve, for what my students call “swag.” From his dress to his cars to his lady friends, Ronny always impressed me with his ability to shine without apparent effort. He seized the room when he entered. As a teenager and a young man, I watched my oldest brother strut through life, and I wanted to move like him, to sway like him, to glide like him, and I thank him for that.

The fifth gift he gave me was the gift of gab. A born salesman, Ronny knew how to take words and make them his servants. Whether hawking furniture, or cars, or insurance, he could talk his way into and out of almost anything. It is one thing to have a sharp mind; it is another thing to put it to work. Ronny put his mind to work and used his words to take on the world. He taught me how to be fearless when it came to communication, to exchange, to poetry, and I thank him for that.

Ronny also taught me about family. In many ways, family became his church, even when he failed in the attempt. Family mattered to him in a way deeper even then words. Now don’t get me wrong. Ronny could definitely pluck a nerve. He could test your patience. But always, no matter what, always I knew family anchored him. It rooted him even when he appeared aimless. Family was his creed, and I learned from him how to love without conditions the way families should, through the good and the bad, and I thank him for that.

The seventh and eighth gifts he gave me move together in tandem, like peanut butter and jelly. Ronny showed me through his life that there were places I should avoid, parties I should not attend. He taught me, through his life, that some roads should remain untraveled. Later, as he battled his demons, I learned the importance of moderation, of temperance, and I thank him for that because without that lesson there is no way I could appreciate his final gift—forgiveness.

Ronny taught me the importance of forgiving, not just others, but also ourselves. He taught me that life is a journey, that there will be stretches of sunshine so bright you almost have to look away, and there will be patches of fog so thick that stumbling is inevitable. He showed me that even when you feel lost, there is always tomorrow, there is always faith in the unseen, there is always God and His mercy, there is forgiveness—the gift you give yourself.

I love Ronny for all these things and more. Like the joyful wings of a bird in flight, I know he touched all our lives and will continue to do so, even beyond our sight. They say death ends a life, but not a relationship. Speaking for myself, and Michael and Charles, I know Ronny will always be our larger-than-life big brother—and I thank God for that.

I know we will all miss him.  Our eyes will water with regret.  But let’s face it, even try to embrace it: Rodenard Warren Davis, Senior, our son, father, brother, nephew, uncle, cousin, friend, and guide, is flying again–where he belongs.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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A Clean Slate

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Today is the last day of winter break. I have missed the faces of my students and look forward to reconnecting tomorrow.  There are still two weeks left in the semester, and I do not relish the inevitable inquiries about grades and midterms to come.  Most students will do as they expected, but a few will fail.  Always at this juncture, I emphasize the learning opportunities to come and the projects ahead.  But one or more students will always interject the familiar “I just want to know my grade.”

I don’t remember being so obsessed when I was in high school, but that was a long time ago.  Invariably, I have scrubbed my memories of all minor encumbrances, and grades were never a problem for me.  As best I can recall, the knowledge mattered more.  Of course, success helps, and I know for a few of my students school has always been something of a chore.  I do what I can to change that dynamic.  I pepper my assignments with “no wrong answer” grading.  I assign teams of varying levels of achievement in order to spread the work and ideally facilitate student teaching.  I look students in the eye and emphasize their strengths and personalities.  I use humor to get us over the rough patches.   But none of those things can reassure a student who is struggling.  Maybe a clean slate can help.

I have a major birthday coming this week–the ones that end in zero or five and mark a passage of sorts.  I have used the last few weeks to consider my life to date, my choices, my successes, and my failures.  I have tried to be as objective as I could in my mental tally, and I made promises to myself to do better to conquer bad habits and nurture good ones.  I want my students to do the same.

Despite whatever pushback comes my way, I will not return work tomorrow or distribute grades.  I will wait until Wednesday to do that.  Instead, I will assign new seats and teams for the new year.  I will ask students to share holiday stories, and I will gently guide them back into the book we are still reading.

I will remind them that a little over half a year of schooling remains and their effort is the best predictor of their outcome–in class and in life.  That much I have learned in my years to date.  This week, when my birthday comes, I intend to “lighten up” and celebrate me.  I want my students to learn how to do the same.

It is a lesson they will need in the challenges to come.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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Running the Race….and Then Some

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I just got back to DC from New York.  My wife and I drove to the Big Apple on Saturday.  I had not been there in quite a while.  It is always strange returning to a place you once called home.  I still knew the streets and kept pace with the residents while walking them, but I could not fool myself.  My days as a New Yorker were gone.

The subway trains no longer took coins, and a computer voice now announced all the stops, along with a snazzy graphic board tracing the train’s progression.  When we moved to the city in 1981, the trains glowed with graffiti art on the outside and heavy, indecipherable marks covered the windows and some of the seats.  Men with paper cups moved from car to car seeking penance from riders who could afford the ride.  “I may be big, and I may be black, but I don’t rob and I don’t steal” always yielded a cupful of dollars and change.

There was a chaotic energy to the city then.  An intoxicating mixture of survival and danger gave the air an electric feel.  I used to ride the trains sometimes with no destination in mind except discovery.  So many faces from so many places all rolled into one.  But this trip, I knew where I was going and welcomed the unexpected order I found.

The New York City Marathon began on Sunday, and my oldest daughter would be one of the 50,000 taking it on.  She had trained for months and done all the things the experts suggested.  A disease claiming a friend had inspired her to raise funds in this compelling way, and I was moved by her courage.  I knew I could never pull it off.

I don’t remember the community spirit surrounding the marathon engulfing me in our years in Manhattan.  But by the time our family moved to Brooklyn in 1988, the race had grown into an event, and we would gather each year off Adelphi Street in Fort Greene and cheer the runners on.  My friend Greg and I would always swear the next time would be our turn, but we knew we never meant it.  Running 26.2 miles seemed as far fetched as dancing in space.  Long distance running was something other people did, and, even as I waved flags and egged them on, I always wondered why they had nothing better to do.

In truth, envy distorted my view.  How had these runners of all ages and sizes found the time to channel their energies towards a singular goal with no clear monetary purpose?  I still don’t know for sure.  What I do know is, on the coldest running day in memory, my daughter left her apartment at 6 a.m. and headed for her first marathon.  Her layered clothing was cheap enough to be easily discarded along the way.  My wife had written her name in neon colors on a sign pinned to her chest.  We had synchronized our plans the night before.

My wife and I would leave my daughter’s apartment in Queens around 10:30 and catch the N or Q subway towards Brooklyn.  We would exit at Dekalb Avenue and then walk up to Adelphi, where we gathered years before.  We told her we would be standing on the right side, just below the church where the middle school band played the theme from Rocky over and over again.

When we got there, a crowd hugged both sides of the street.  We put on our bright caps and pulled out the teal bandanas my wife had purchased to make us easy to see.  We stood near the nine mile mark, and yelled out the names or countries of strangers as they passed.    “Go, Stacey!”  “Looking good, Haiti!”  “Yes, Norway!”  “You got this, Dave!”  The spectators around us were equally as loud.

As I waited for our daughter to approached, I glanced around the old neighborhood and noted the changes.  Millennials were in full stride, and there were more coffee shops and sidewalk cafes then I remembered.  Still, the vibe was the same, and the sense of neighborhood and community made me homesick for yesterday.  My daughter was entering the second grade when we moved to Brooklyn.  Now she was one of the few braving the marathon.

“Go, Erin!”  “You can do it!”

She saw our flags and found us in the crowd just beyond the blue police tape.  We hugged briefly and noted she still looked fresh and determined.  “Looking good,” we said.  “See you in Harlem!”

My wife and I walked back down to Dekalb for our next stop at 116th and 5th Avenue via the 2 or 3 train.  That would be the 22.5 mile mark, and we wanted to be there to rally our oldest to move past the famed “runner’s wall” we had heard about.  We had time and stopped at the McDonald’s off Fulton for coffee and fries.  We were surprised to see how much we still remembered from the time when we walked those streets several times a day, children in tow.

All grown now, our daughters had stepped into their own lives years ago.  We had moved from guides to cheerleaders and occasional advisers.  It was more than enough for us.  In Harlem, we again had coffee and danced to the music all around us.  As the runners passed, we could feel their fatigue, but still they ran, and still we cheered.

“Go, Raul!  Almost there!  You got this, Kim.  Look at you!”

By the time our daughter found us and hugged our necks, we had enough composure to take her picture and videotape her running past our grasp.  We then headed for our final meeting spot off 74th and Columbus.  By then, she would have finished her race and wrapped herself in the bright blue poncho they give you at the end.

She limped slightly as she moved towards our outstretched arms.  A friend from long ago had met us in Harlem, rode with my wife and I to Columbus, and the led us all after the race towards a nice restaurant nearby where she treated us to chicken soup and sangria.  When we were all new to the city, our children had walked to preschool together in Manhattan.  Now, our children were grown women on their own course.  Hers was starting a great new job in the city, and ours had just run the marathon.

Time can be such a wonderful adventure if we let it.  I can’t wait to get back to school tomorrow and tell my students all about it.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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“John Harvard Walks the Yard” — Reflection on my “Black Experience” at Harvard

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“A spirit moves, John Harvard walks the yard,

The books stand open and the gates unbarred.”

In 1986, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney penned his poem “Villanelle for an Anniversary” in honor of Harvard’s 375th anniversary.  Yesterday, a distinguished woman associated with the college and admissions recited the poem at a gathering for Harvard Book Prize winners.  The Harvard Club of Washington, DC hosted the affair on the top floor of the Jones Law Firm on New Jersey Avenue.  The outdoor terrace adjoining the meeting space featured an amazing view of the US Capital and the surrounding area.  It was an unseasonably hot, summer day tucked inside a late September morning.  It was DC at its best.

A student who I last taught in Honors Literary Analysis two years ago invited me, along with the president of our school.  He knows I attended Harvard and is seeking whatever advantage he might gain as he seeks early decision admittance into that esteemed institution.  While nibbling mini-muffins and making small talk with his mother, I wanted to turn to him and ask, “Are you sure?”

At the ten year mark, I have had the privilege of teaching a number of students who achieved distinction upon graduation from high school.  I have taught several Stephen Joel Trachtenberg scholarship winners entering George Washington University, as well as a number of Posse Scholarship recipients.  I have seen  students leave my classroom and move on to the University of Virginia, Temple, M.I.T., Spellman, Virginia Commonwealth University, Penn State, Morehouse, Howard, and Georgetown.  But I have yet to witness a former student enroll at my alma mater.  I have a feeling that is about to change.  He is a remarkable, young man, and Harvard would be lucky to have him.  I just hope the luck will be returned.

Later, as I stood on the patio with the young man and marveled at the view, I turned and said to him, “Look out there.  We are standing here before the physical seat of government for the most powerful nation on Earth.  There are important matters being debated in all those buildings we see.  I want you to be  a part of that conversation. To me, that incredible view is your future life.  Pick your spots wisely.”

He turned to me and said, “That view metaphor you used is a good one, Mr. Roberts.  But, you know, we are on the seventh floor.  In my life, I have already done my fair share of climbing.”

I loved that observation and told him so.  He is a student and an athlete, and even two years ago his quiet confidence captured my attention.  “You remind me of me,” I told him sincerely back in tenth grade.  But standing there with him yesterday, so young and eager for the future, made me worry slightly.  Would Harvard be ready for him?

I first arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts on September 14, 1973.  I remember the date because I first met my wife. also a freshman, that night at a party.  Twelve days before beginning my first year, the only fully tenured black professor, Martin Kilson, had penned an article for the New York Times Magazine entitled “The Black Experience at Harvard.”  In it, he chastised the college for admitting too many black students who clearly did not belong.  Before classes had even begun, a black professor had labeled us intellectual pretenders taking up valuable spaces we had not earned.

I remember laughing when I first heard about the article.  Three students from my high school joined the Class of 1977, and my grades were superior to the white male admitted.  Still, Kilson’s contentions that too many black students were  nothing more than “affirmative action” babies who were anti-elite, self-segregating, interlopers stung.  The college, Kilson charged, was admitting too many lower-income blacks.  I remember thinking about my mother, a single parent, who, though a Howard graduate with a professional, government job, earned less than many of the students I would encounter at Harvard, black and white.

The article also featured a picture of black students congregating together during lunch.  For me, it was true I gravitated towards my fellow students of color.  We ate together, studied together, partied together, and bonded in ways I have never experienced since.  But I saw whites students do the same with their friends and classmates with no outcry from anyone.  I remember at the end of freshman year, my two black roommates and I had the highest GPA in our dorm.  I also remember the look of surprise on the faces of too many when our residence counselor announced it.

In 1969, Harvard admitted the first freshman class with over 100 black students.  I was only four years removed from that watershed moment signaling the college’s determination to diversify its ranks. Still, the presumption of weakness became an obstacle I would have to overcome in many classes.  It was a burden I should not have had to bear. Despite having made the Dean’s List for six semesters and founding Diaspora, Harvard’s first African America literary journal, I took a voluntary leave after junior year and only returned in 2002 for a 25th class reunion.

With our children in tow, my wife and I again walked Harvard Yard, past the inspiring statue of John Harvard, and I remembered how special that trek had seemed to me that first time, how excited I was to become part of it all.  My joy turned into something else as time passed, but I imagine it is a different experience now.  My student tells me how impressed he was with the diversity he encountered on a recent college visit.

Back in 1998, my oldest opted to attend Yale and turned down Harvard.  At the time, she had received a very large scholarship from an outside source, and the college indicated her aid package would be reduced accordingly.  The next year, Harvard abandoned that practice. Yesterday, I learned that families earning $65,000 or less can attend Harvard without cost.  I am certain these policies have increased the income diversity I often found lacking when I went there.

Still, the current “I, too, am Harvard” campaign suggests that students of color still must contend with the cultural naiveté of others.  Perhaps such clashes are inevitable, but I wish black students in particular did not have to suffer the lowered expectations of others as they herd their dreams.

Yesterday, as the young man and I chatted on the terrace, I thought of all my students facing the journey he is about to undertake.  In the past, most have elected to attend historically black colleges and universities.  I sense that is changing slightly as the new century unfolds.  My middle daughter attended Temple, and the youngest is a Dean’s List student at Trinity University here in DC, slated to graduate in the spring.  I believe each found the place they needed to be in order to unfold as young adults with educated minds and nurtured intellects.

It is the wish I have for this young man.  When he chooses to enter that intoxicating Yard (and I am confident he will be admitted), I am hoping he will find the opened books and unbarred gates he seeks and deserves.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child (revisited)

spare the rod cartoon

On April 11, 2011, I wrote a blog post about “whoopings” and the ridiculous notion that beating a child leaves a positive mark.  In light of Adrian Peterson’s rationalizations that beatings from his parents made him the father he is today (all seven kids from seven different women), I thought I would rerun the post in hopes we stop thinking abuse is a joke.  I know.  As a teacher, I work hard to undo the damage done:

The rumored reunion of The Fugees means almost nothing to my students, who were mere toddlers when the group topped the Billboard charts in 1996. I am always surprised when my references in class to 1980s and early ’90s cultural and political phenomena yield blank and puzzled faces. It’s not that I forget how young they are; I forget how old I am–at least to them. Last week, they kept reminding me of the gap between us in subtle and not-so-subtle ways I had not heard in months. Something must be in the air.

During my English III classes, I threw a “Gatsby” party, replete with period music and “finger food.” I secretly designated one student to serve as the mysterious protagonist in Fitzgerald’s novel, and the rest of us gossiped about his supposed exploits and speculated about the source of his wealth while munching on his food and sipping his beverages. It was fun guessing which of the “guests” actually was Gatsby, and, for a moment, the party almost seemed lifted right from the novel. It was then someone blurted out, “Were you born then?” I reminded the student the novel was published in 1925, the year my mother was born. “So when where you born? The ’40s?” another asked incredulously to much fanfare from the crowd.

“None of your business,” I replied, which satisfied no one and only fed the diversion. Sensing my disadvantage, I quickly had them open their books to Gatsby’s first entrance in Chapter Three and refocused their attention on the matter at hand: Why had Fitzgerald waited so long to actually introduce the character after whom the novel is named? The ploy worked, and the age inquisition slipped away.

The next day, a female student in my AP English Language class stopped me during a brief review of the social conditions surrounding Bigger Thomas in 1930s Chicago (we are reading Native Son) and asked, “How do you know so much about that? I thought you were from DC?” I gently reminded her about the presentation our excellent librarian had delivered to us two weeks earlier on that very subject. His multimedia lecture included political cartoons about The Great Migration, period blue songs, segregated housing track data from Chicago, and an amazing New Masses piece by Wright entitled “Joe Louis Uncovers Dynamite,” which describes the symbolic elation in black Chicago following Louis’ heavyweight boxing victory over Max Baer.

“So were you there?” she asked, facetiously I hoped.

“Yes. Front row,” I said. We all laughed. Later, the speculation about my age reached its zenith during Thursday’ break.

This year, my planning period corresponds with our staggered lunch schedule. As a result, I have a two hour hiatus each day, a time I have come to cherish. In years past, my classroom had become something of a cafeteria alternative for pockets of students needing time away from the crowd. This year is no exception, and, with the larger classroom I now occupy, as many as thirty students cluster throughout the room in their disparate groups during first and second lunch.

I host jocks and skateboarders, loners and popular kids. There are seniors planning prom, and juniors awaiting seniority. Lately, a group of tenth graders I have yet to teach have also made my room their gathering hole. I enjoy the company of all of them.

My wife keeps me supplied with peanut butter crackers which they all devour, followed by the mint candies I also stock in a wooden box on the window sill. There is much joviality in the room, and I always marvel at the students’ ability to stick to their own “kind” while still embracing the same space. It reminds me of my own high school years, and some days I seem to almost share the weighty demands adolescence brings.

But each week, I pose questions to the crowd in an effort to root the banter in deeper ground. Last week, I asked if they agreed with the oft-repeated Biblical admonition “Spare the rod; spoil the child.” It is a favorite topic of mine. Most of my students have been the recipients of corporal punishment at home; they overflow with stories of pain inflicted for “their own good.”

I am always amazed at how many vehemently defend the practice and the practitioners. Almost all vow to continue the tradition with their own children. “How else they gonna learn what not to do?” one asked. “It’s all about love,” another volunteered.

I chose the topic for a reason. I deplore the prevalence of child beatings, especially in the black community. I attribute it to the stubborn vestiges of slavery. I explained to the students that way, way “back in the day” astute parents beat their children before the master did. If you wanted to keep your offspring as long as you could–maybe to twelve or thirteen years–you had to teach them their place before someone else did. An unruly or overly curious child, I reasoned, could easily be singled out or sold away.

My lunchroom guests recoiled at this notion. “Yea, maybe in your day,” a senior girl said. “I heard they used sticks and switches on your behind. My mother said her grandparents were mean.”

I confessed to being hit by a switch or two in my time, but only when I went South each summer to stay with my traditional grandparents. My mother was not really a fan of the belt or any other instrument.

“Yea,” the girl continued. “But back then there wasn’t much to worry about. You didn’t have shootings, and drugs, and things back then. Today, you have to beat your kids to keep them safe.”

I tried telling them that dangers have always existed in cities. I told them about my own experiences with goody bag snatchers during Halloween, and teen “jumpings” for money, and bullies with rocks and fists, but it all seemed so ancient to them. Once we established that Popsicle’s from the ice cream man used to cost me a nickel, and a soda and bag a chips only set me back a quarter, my claims of childhood relevancy landed with a thump.

I tried to switch tactics by explaining that well-to-do parents do not beat their children. “Do you actually think President Obama and the First Lady swack those little girls?” I asked.

“Maybe they don’t.” one answered. “But I bet that grandmother does.”

They laughed some more. “Seriously,” I interjected, “it’s not funny. I hate those comedians who always make jokes about getting beaten. Why is that funny?”

“So what are you saying?” another senior boy asked. “You believe in all that “time out” mess? I was in a store once and this little fancy girl practically called her mother a ‘bitch.’ My moms is not having that!”

We went back and forth for the rest of the lunch period. At one point, I took off my belt and smacked it repeatedly against my desk. “See how it sounds like a lashing?” I asked.

“Yea, you would know,” one girl said. “Times have changed,” she assured me. “People don’t do it that way anymore.”

I could feel myself aging with every word . By the time the bell rung, I stood as a feeble relic from a time more distant even than The Fugees. I became that pestering old neighbor from the past trying to shut down the birthday party, or confiscate the wayward football that landed on the precious lawn. Clumsily, I made it a point to tell them I would be “going to a club” that Saturday to “find my groove.”

“Save your money,” one yelled while exiting. “That groove is gone.”

“Not if I can help it,” I hollered back.

Then, on Friday, at an unusual assembly for juniors, I watched their faces beam while the class ring guy gave them ordering instructions for next year. It was the first time they had been treated as seniors, and I instantly remembered that same exhilaration when my classmates and I gathered near the end of our junior year. We had finally made it. We were seniors-to-be. I shared the students’ glee and excitement. Maybe that is why so many of us teach, not only to stimulate young minds, but also to keep our own rhythm hopeful and strong.

As promised, on Saturday night I danced to old songs from the ’70s and ’80s. I moved until it hurt. I thought of my students and my old high school buddies I hadn’t seen in years. Then I excused myself, rushed home in my car, ran hot water in the tub, and soaked my aches away. I pray the remedy for my students, especially the ones who spent at least part of their childhood dodging the wages of love, comes as easily.

Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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Public Speaking and Life After Death

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I have one class of mostly seniors this semester.  Of the eighteen students in Public Speaking, all but three will be graduating in the spring.  I taught about one-third two years ago in tenth grade English, but most are new to me.  It is fascinating to witness how the prior students have matured, though some of the old quirks remain.  As for the seniors new to me, some claim they choose the class to spend some time with me before the transition, but I know they really came because they see distinction in their futures and want to be prepared.

Speaking in front of a group remains one of the most prevalent fears of human beings.  Yet most recognize the power such an ability imparts.  I tell my students that obtaining a position in life where you have to both write and speak is a lucrative goal.  “It means you have been chosen for your mind,” I say.  “And what beautiful minds you possess.”

I began the class with a mini-speech assignment of one to two hand-written paragraphs.  After showing three videos about the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, we made a listing of known facts under three headings:  Michael Brown, the police, and the community.  The task required the students to answer one question:  who is most to blame for this tragedy?

We watched news footage of the killing, a feature piece about a young black man who confronted a group of looters, and a video recording of Captain Ronald Johnson’s powerful, first public address to a gathering of aggrieved community members.  We annotated two articles about the aftermath of Mr. Brown’s death, and then, after two days, the students began delivering their speeches behind a solid wood podium I commandeered from a departing teacher two years ago.

Most students blamed the police and weaved the facts we had uncovered into their presentations.  No one blamed Mr. Brown, but a few did find fault with the political apathy of the majority black electorate prior to the uprising.  One wondered when the outcry against black-on-black violence would come.  After each turn at the podium, I guided student feedback on the presentation.  My only rule was that each responder needed to acknowledge at least two strengths before honing in on weaknesses.

I had already stressed the “three p’s” in public speaking:  posture, passion, and power.  “Think of it like playing an accordion,” I said.  “You need to modulate your tone and volume to draw the audience in.  You must use your voice like an instrument.  No one wants to hear the same note over and over again.”  It went well for a first assignment.

The next task, I warned, would be the most difficult for some of them.  After two lessons and a quiz on rhetoric and the role of ethos, pathos, and logos in effective speaking, I asked them to construct a typed, 300-word introductory speech on themselves.  My only requirement was that the speech focus on a difficult obstacle they had to overcome and the lessons they learned from the challenge.  I also reminded them about the importance of eye contact with the audience.  “Remember, it is public speaking, not public reading,” I said.

I chose to begin with a prior student who always commanded the room.  She delivered a powerful talk about the impact of her beloved grandmother’s violent murder one year before.  She paused for a moment or two to gather her strength during a few taxing passages, but succeeded in completing her story without tears.  However, two young ladies left the room after she was done in order to compose themselves.

For the next three days, student after student rose to speak about the aftermath of loss–grandparents, parents, uncles, cousins, or friends.  A few, male and female, could not make it through before emotion overtook them.  The class leaned into every student and respected the nerve exposed.  As for me, I remembered all over again why I love my school so much.

We are a family united by tradition, values, transition, and prayer.  But violence is part of our landscape, and no one seems immune from its effect.  Children too young for such heartache experienced it anyway.  “Remember to remember the gifts your loved ones left you,” I added half way through.  And then I admitted that while my own mother had passed four years ago, I still was not ready to share.

Tomorrow, I have the impossible task of grading their speeches before me.  I will focus most of my remarks on delivery, rather than the words themselves.  As I grade, I know I will address the particular circumstances anchoring each speech.  “Know that death ends a life, but not a relationship,” I will write on each paper as I seek to reassure.

Next week, students will tackle a demonstration speech on something they do well, replete with props.  The talk must be primarily extemporaneous, and I expect the tone to be light.  We need a break before we undertake our first persuasive speech.  The topic will be poverty, crime, race, and blame.  Bill Cosby’s “Poundcake speech” will be our aim.

For tonight, I have only to cherish the momentum we are building, along with the trust.  I just find myself wishing my mother were here to share all of this with me.  She was so proud when I became a teacher.  Some days, I miss her so much.  Sometimes the best parts of teaching are the things you learn about yourself from your students.

Some nights I wonder, who is teaching whom?

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Play Ball!

play ball

School begins tomorrow with the 8:05 a.m. bell, ten minutes earlier than the year before.  This time, I have no first period class, and I am thrilled.  Last year, five of the seven students who failed my class did so because of chronic tardiness.  Late arrivals are not allowed to enter class.  Most of my tardy students received rides from parents, the type who are always running late.  “Why not just take Metro?” I always asked my students.  “This is your life.”  But with 64 different zip codes from DC and Maryland feeding into our school, I was simply talking with myself.  The five students opted for the comfort of car radios and traffic and missed at least two classes a week. 

During the first semester, I would grab a teacher with a planning period to watch my class and sneak down to the cafeteria where the late students sat until the second period bell.  I would snatch mine up at 8:30.  They all had my cell phone number and would frantically text “Please come get me.  I was only three minutes late.”  But late is late, as I tried to explain to both them and their parents.  The scooping up worked for a while, until I got caught by an administrator, who banned the practice.  I understood the point, but it was difficult watching passively as a few sunk deeper and deeper into a hole.  This year, I will have no such drama to manage.

I have been back in the building for two weeks now.  Professional development occupied the first week, and I must admit I actually took away practices I could use.  Usually, I find PD sessions to simply be talkfests with no real benefit, but this year I learned things I could easily incorporate.  I was especially impressed with the Kagan Cooperative Learning strategies and structures, and I have arranged my classroom accordingly.  I have even adjusted my lesson plans to ensure I adhere to the need for students to work with each other as we tackle the knowledge ahead. 

This is the beginning of my tenth year of teaching.  It is difficult to believe those years moved so quickly, but they did.  The fifteen-year-olds I first taught in 2005 are young adults now; some are parents even.  I wonder if they remember us, each class its own blend of personalities, frustrations, laughter, fun, and learning.  At least, that is how I remember it.  Standardized scores supported my belief, but I am freed from all that now. 

There is no DC CAS at my private school.  I remember having to stop instruction for four practice tests, and then the real thing in the spring.  Now, while I am teaching the pivotal tenth grade again, I no longer have to worry about me, or my students, or my school being judged by a few hours exercise and a dubious value-added statistical vise.  Now, I can focus all my attention on teaching the lessons that matter.  My students will sharpen their skills as we explore how to analyze literature, decode nonfiction claims, manipulate parts of speech, construct argument, unravel vocabulary, and punctuate life.  I am one of the unburdened, lucky ones who is still free to love what I do.

On Wednesday of last week, tenth graders reported to school for their orientation.  At 9:00 a.m., the entire class of eighty-five or so filed into the auditorium.  I stood in a side aisle and watched the parade.  Casual dress was allowed, with uniforms not kicking in until tomorrow, the official first day of school.  As I watched the students greet each other, I noted their chosen attire, an impressive mix of color and swag.  No longer freshmen, the new kids on the block, these students had a confidence about them I had not sensed last year as I passed them in the halls.  They all seemed to have grown a few inches both inside and out. 

As the administrators reviewed procedures and expectations, I observed the ones who paid attention, and the ones who did not.  It occurred to me that I would be teaching all of them this year, the gifted and the insecure, the talkative and the shy.  Seated all together like they were, it seemed, for a moment, to be a daunting task.  Failure would not be an option, not for them, and not for me.  One teacher, who had taught them the year before, offered to point out to me which ones to watch carefully, which ones to never seat in the back.  But I declined.  I like to start fresh with each one.  “This is a new day,” I will tell them tomorrow.  “This is like the first inning in a baseball game.  I don’t care about what happened yesterday, much less last year.  All I want to know is this:  on this day, who’s ready to play?”

Some will be eager to begin and will show it.  Some will wish summer break was one month longer and will make no attempt to hide it.  All will be curious about me.  Of course, in a smaller school, all but the newcomers will have heard a “Mr. Roberts story” or two.  Last week, more than a few came up to me and introduced themselves.  “I’m in your class this year” followed me all day.  I chose to think it reflected a certain enthusiasm, but I knew there was anxiety too. 

Tenth grade is like that.  Beginnings are like that.  I will do my best to ease their concerns.  In fact, my very first lesson will once again be exploring plot in Tracy Chapman’s 1988 song “Fast Car.”  Most have never heard it before, were not even born when it ruled the airwaves, but if the last nine years are any indication, it will become a class favorite, reappearing upon request whenever the magic of that first day seems to be drifting away.  While I do walk them through my classroom procedures and expectations, I purposely do not distribute a written syllabus until the second day, since I do not want to begin with grading policies and what not to do until I have reminded them how good learning can feel.  Then we will end the week by analyzing the role of plot in Edward P. Jones’ short story “The First Day,” set in Washington, DC.  My students always love that story.

Let the games begin.

 –Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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