The Doer and the Deed


The first quarter has ended, and all the marks are parked. “Chase the knowledge, not the grade,” I implore the students. “The grades you won’t remember in twenty years, but the knowledge you get to keep.” But they have been schooled too long to break rank now. It is senior year, and numbers dominate the landscape. SAT, ACT and GPA top the list. “What are you?” is the question of the hour, even as I seek to steer them to the better inquiry. “Who are you?” I ask. “Who do you wish to become?”

They are working through their anxieties about the future and doing almost everything I ask to fortify themselves. We have one more short story to read before we turn to our first novel. Literature has already escorted us to New York, Chile, India, and now Nigeria. In each, we chart conflict, characterization, and plot; we debate theme and message. The conversations have been lively and have forced us to examine difficult issues like trust, sex, fatherlessness, death, and familial burdens. I am enjoying the volleying of ideas.

For the last week or so, I shifted focus to grammar. More specifically, I have highlighted the role of function in expression. “When you write,” I tell them, “you are a filmmaker making choices: who to follow? what to illuminate? what to ignore? Sentences, the backbone of our communication, are nothing more than frames featuring a subject and a verb, a doer and a deed. As in life, both are required to propel our ideas into action.”

Over the course of the year, we will be reviewing the ten basic sentence types in the English language, not as a primer on grammar lessons from prior years, but rather as a means to recognize form, to make choices, to “transform the words into your servants.”

Verbs, whether the “be” form or linking, intransitive or transitive, are the engines of the English language, with or without their complements. They become the combustion that makes the language hum and move. We will labor to upgrade our verbs and reduce our dependency on adverbs or prepositions to gather momentum. Through writing both formal essays and informal musings, we will shape the language around doers and deeds, even as we spice our written conversations with details, imagery, and figurative language.

“Rhythm,” I tell them. “Your writing must have a rhythm.  Language is a dance.”

“Remember, you are doers. I want you to uncover your voice—the one only you have—and then employ it to help shape your world, your perception, your possibilities, your deeds. May graduation will arrive before we expect it; it always does. We better prepare.”

“Alright, Mr. Roberts,” one remarks. “We got this. Now teach.”

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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Higher Ground



Each new year, my high school staggers student orientation by grade in descending order. Today, seniors and juniors return from summer break to obtain class schedules, lockers, and miscellaneous instructions about the year ahead. We have adopted a new, rotating, semi-block system this year, and everyone is both confused and excited. Change can be a wonderful thing.

Teachers have been at work since the 11th. Professional development interspersed with bonding and classroom time has been the rule. I actually like the two-week window we are afforded before the rush begins. Classes officially start next Tuesday, but, in truth, the new year is already underway.

I study the earnest faces of the new teachers—all young, nervous, and eager—and I think back on my first years of teaching. I am now entering my eleventh year, and my first students are in their mid-twenties now. I wonder if they wish me well as much as I do them.

Today, students assemble in the auditorium. Before their half-day begins, I make it my purpose to greet each one by name. I studied the yearbook last week; some names I had forgotten–but never the spirit, never the countenance.

They have grown inches and miles. They have made promises to themselves as the new adventure approaches. Eight weeks away does wonders for the soul. We hug and slap five. We resuscitate old jokes until the new ones come. I taught most of the seniors only two years ago, and all the juniors just last year. Still, everyone looks older, better, stronger. I want so much for them.

I shaved my beard off, and nearly everyone has some comment to make. “You look different,” one girl whispers.

“So do you,” I say.

As I move from chair to chair. I do my best to let them know I missed them too. I smile and inform the seniors I will be teaching them this year. One young man raises a fist and says, “Yes!” I know school does not come easily for him, and I take his gesture as a sign of good things to come.

I still need to finish planning the day-to-day for the first semester, especially with the new schedule, but I already know what I want to do. I am teaching World Literature, and I want to use that platform to press their ownership of this world and all its humanity. “You are more than you imagined” is my theme for the year.

I can’t wait.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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The Company English Teachers Keep

A few weeks ago, I attended an IB Conference at the United Nations International School in New York City.  I selected the IB English Literature workshop and eagerly became part of a room of English teachers from around the country.  Most had taught the course in the past; I had not.  I used the three days to learn about IB instruction and all the various components required for completion.  The IB English Lit arc is a two-year process divided into four parts.  Central to the entire process is the concept of what constitutes an ideal “IB” student.

I loved the emphasis on “curiosity” as a key ingredient motivating the IB student.  In today’s world, I am often befuddled by students who appear to have no interest in the things they do not already know.  Some remind me of diners who only order the same meal over and over again.  “Literature,” I remind them, “is a way to travel cheaply.”  Some, unfortunately, do not appear too eager to leave home.

It is a process of course.  Appearances have a way of surprising all the time.  It is one of the joys of teaching.  Throughout the week, as we learned names and shared stories, it became clear to me that English teachers are a unique breed.  Naturally, all teachers should have an ongoing love affair with their content areas, but English is something different, at least to me and, I suspect, my colleagues in New York.

“English is life,” I always tell my students on the first day.  “Yes, we will discuss grammar, vocabulary, diction, and syntax.  But the best part happens between the lines–in your heads.”  I ramble on about the essentials of communication, the power of writing (especially their own), and the cosmetic benefits of reading (readers have the best looking ears).  I do my best to sway them with my enthusiasm, one of my favorite words.

I felt that energy in the bright classroom where we met at the conference.  We shared notes, graded responses, and compared challenges inherent in reaching high school students.  I enjoyed listening to the other teachers read passages with such sincerity and passion.  I enjoyed earnest discussions about drama or poetry.

In one exercise, we formed groups of four using colors and then worked to select one of eight poems and turn it into a dramatic piece.  As we shared our interpretations, I thought to myself how much my students would enjoy that approach and promptly placed it in my bag of tricks.

English teachers are an interesting lot.  I am sure most of us have a novel-in-progress in our backpacks.  We read and read and read about everything it seems, always being careful to keep one eye out for technique while the other revels in beauty.

I will be teaching seniors this upcoming year (only three weeks away).  Many I also taught as sophomores, and I am looking forward to spending time again before they move on.  Our senior course is World Literature, which I did teach once before in my first year at my school.  I had fun with that class, although I do remember how “senioritis” became a factor in the room as the year progressed.

Still, I am enthusiastic about the year ahead.  Last week, I encountered one senior I will be teaching for the first time, though her legendary energy had made her something of a fixture in my classroom during breaks for some time.  I was on my way to karaoke, and I sported a straw hat, dark glasses, black and white shorts, and a black polo shirt.  My shoes were gray and black and new.  I was proud of myself.

We were both in the 7-11, and she had not noticed me.  She had on a school tee-shirt, and I correctly surmised she had just left cheerleading practice.  Our school’s squad has won a bevy of awards, and I knew how hard they all worked.

“So you don’t know anybody?” I asked, surprising her.  She stared at me briefly, adjusting her eyes.  I had shaved off the beard I had worn for three years, and she did not recognize me at first.  Then her million dollar smile kicked in.  “I’m liking this,” she said, pointing to my outfit.

“Thanks,” I said.  “You know, I’m teaching seniors this year.  World Lit.”

“Oh, I hope I’m in your class,” she said.

“You are.  I’m looking forward to it.”  Then I put on my semi-serious voice.  “Now I know you are going to come really focused this year, right?”

“I know, Mr. Roberts.  My mother and I were just talking about that.”

“Great.  I’m going to count on you to help set the right tone.  In fact, I want you sitting front and center,” I said, smiling.

She returned the warmth.  As I turned to leave the store, I said, “See you in a few weeks.”

“I know,” she said.  “Summer is going so fast.”

And it is.  I have started having teacher dreams again, especially the one where I have no plan for the day, left my book and notes at home, and students are chatting amongst themselves about something obscene some rapper I never heard of said– just as an administrator walks into the room for an unannounced observation.

I hate that dream, almost as much as I long for the conversations to come.  Like most English teachers, I will embrace the start of a new year, even as I cherish the last.

“Good morning, learners.  My name is Mr. Roberts.”

Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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


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, while 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 invaded our space in unfamiliar ways. The death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police in nearby Baltimore, and the ensuing anger and frustration, drew many of our conversations away to parallel cases of unarmed blacks “accidentally” placed “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 leaner, more sinister version who said all the correct things (or nothing at all), but then acted with equal disdain?

“Sometimes,” a male student in the rear 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, “ a girl in the middle added. “We kill each other more than all those things combined.

“They keep saying ‘’black lives matter,’” the boy in the back 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, finally calling on a persistent male near the front 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,” the girl in the middle added. “They are supposed to be professionals.”

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

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

Sitting in the front near the wall, 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, and the ones before that. But each determiner is separate.  One for hair, one for nose, one for lips, pigmentation.

Sometime around the mid-fifteenth century, the idea of race was created in order to separate humans into groups.  Hair and the amount of melanin in the skin became the dominate physical signs they used to lump individuals together and call it race.  Most of it was fueled by an excuse to exert power over others, in the name of God no less.

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 remembrances, geographic adaptations, holidays, music, language, and all kinds of social practices and institutions.”

“All of us inherit things, “ I said.   “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.”  Almost half the class applauded.

But 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 ran counter to all our assumptions about privilege and beauty, but almost no one dared say that aloud.  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, ninth-grade dropout and white assassin the same age as most of our graduating seniors, decided to ignore the hour of fellowship he received in the Wednesday evening bible study at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  According to at least one witness, he declared a need to murder black strangers in order to prevent them 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 as easily dismantled as racial fears reignite.

That same week, here in DC, Malik Mercer expired just five days before his 16th birthday, the 65th homicide victim of local 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 at a historic moment when the Supreme Court has affirmed an equal right (at least to marry) for all citizens, I still wonder when the time will come for my students when the phrase “black lives matter” becomes an unnecessary, redundant relic from the past.  When will the time come when displaced fingers point not at race, ethnicity, gender, language, religion, or other convenient barriers, but rather at America’s taxation, compensation, communication, and fiscal policies, and the resultant income disparities they create?  When will more people reach for a book and a ballot, instead of a weapon, to right the course?

When will the time come when no young soul will ever again have to question the comfort of skin, the body’s largest organ, the emblem of cultural wonders, and the barrier least understood?

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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The Cherry Blossom Mystery


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.


“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


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


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



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



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


“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 whom 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 own 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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