“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 this esteemed institution.  While nibbling mini-muffins and making small talk with his mother, I wanted to turn to him and ask, “Are you sure?”

Over ten years, 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 winners.  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 mutual.

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 freshman 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 miscreants 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 “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 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 semester 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 the 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 chase 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)

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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!

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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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I Missed You Too

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I took a long break from blogging to work on a book I am writing about teaching.  The last school year ended on a high note.  I even got a chance to speak during the graduation ceremonies.  I stayed away from school all summer, but I returned last week for teacher training.  This week, I will work on my classroom and lesson plans.  Luckily, my schedule is the same as last year.  I will be teaching tenth graders mostly, with one senior class each semester.  I love that mix, and I am looking forward to a great year.

Last Tuesday, our first day back, I ran into one of my students from last year.  He is a junior now and grew a few inches to better look the part.  He was at school for football practice.  He and I had a few run-ins last year, but nothing major.  I loved his energy and work ethic.  He hated writing papers.  I remember pulling him out of class once when he refused to follow a directive.  After giving him my sternest voice and a brief lecture, I looked him in the eye and said, “You know I love you, right?”  The look on his angry face softened, and he nodded “yes.”

Everything worked after that.  He is a special young man, and I intend to continue to monitor his progress from afar.  When he saw me on the stairs, he stopped and stared for a moment.  Then he stretched his arms out wide and said, “I missed you, man.”  I smiled, gave him a quick chest bump and said, “I missed you too.”

And I did.  All of them in fact.  That is the hardest part of teaching, the letting go.  Although you never do completely.  The week before that, a student I last taught in 2007 approached me on the street near the park by my house.  He had locked his keys in his car and wanted to know if I had one of those devices to open the door.  “Excuse me, sir,” he said. “I was wondering if you could help me.”  I had last seen him in 2009 at his graduation, but he had texted me from college each year to let me know how he was doing.  He even sent me a picture of his college graduation attached to a “Thank You” note.  I recognized him immediately.

“So you don’t know anybody?” I asked.  He looked at me again.  I had been bald with a black mustache when he last saw me.  Now I had hair and a white beard. “Mr. Roberts?” he asked.  Before I could answer, he grabbed me and gave me one of the tightest hugs I have had in a while.  He played Division I football and has outgrown his high school frame.  We will be having lunch next week, my treat.

Three days ago, I walked into 7-11 and encountered another young man I taught in 2010.  He graduated two years ago, and I had not seen him since then.  The smile that consumed his face was genuine.  He tried college for one year and then took a leave to work on a graphic arts business he wants to start.  He gave me one of his business cards and insisted I take his phone number.  Before I even arrived home, he had texted me.  We chatted about his ambitions and the inevitable obstacles along the way.  We promised to never lose touch.

I have one more week before a new crop of fifteen-year-old’s lands in my classroom.  They will carry a host of expectations and fears.  My job is not only to instruct, but also to uplift.  Inevitably, we will learn from each other.  Last week’s professional development was all about empowering students, establishing a safe place for growth, and installing Kagan’s Cooperative Learning techniques to help students help each other.  I still have to learn to talk a little less and listen a little more.  But I think I am ready for it, for them.

Truth be told, I can’t wait.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

 

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Good Friday

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I thought I’d share with you a poem I wrote a long time ago.

Good Friday

Lord,

They say today Your Son was killed

To save the world from sin,

But just next door in 804

They’re fighting over gin.

And right outside my window

Little Johnny’s getting high

And throwing rocks and cherry bombs

At every passerby.

And Ruby called me yesterday

‘Cause Jake’s in jail again,

And just right now I wish that I

Was fighting over gin.

Now I know Your ways aren’t always clear,

And who am I to say,

But it seems that its been mighty long

That I have had to pay.

And love your neighbor’s

Alright with me

And turn the other cheek,

But if Heaven is my just reward,

Could you spare a little peek.

‘Cause just right now I gotta say

That I can’t take much more

Of doors that close in front of me

And Mama scrubbin’ floors.

Now they say today Your Son was killed

To save the world from sin,

But just right now I think I’ll go

And get myself some gin.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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…and the Children Shall Lead Them

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I still have some work to do.  Summer is almost here, and I still have work to do.  Last week, we finished our lessons on the Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama.  In 1963, some eight, hard years after the negotiated desegregation agreement in Montgomery, Rosa Parks seemed almost a distant memory.  The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, under the guidance of Dr. King, needed a fresh victory.

The Albany Movement in Albany, Georgia had stalled in 1962.  A crafty local sheriff, an impulsive young adults brigade, a flawed local strategy, and a fickle national press bumped the Movement against a wall.  Without significant progress, the weary would soon become weak.

Reverend Shuttlesworth, a local legend, volunteered Birmingham, the “most segregated city in America” as the next testing ground. Eugene “Bull” Connor was waiting.  So was history.  A divided, white local government distracted each other with rhetoric and provided a window of opportunity.  But local white clergy, black businessmen, moderate politicians, and even Attorney General Robert Kennedy questioned the decision of Dr. King to press for freedom right away.  “Give it time,” they suggested.

Not even Dr. King’s solitary confinement ]tilted the balance.  His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” while compelling, did not substantially shift the terrain.   In 1963, it seemed the call for civil rights had become yesterday’s news.  Then the miraculous happened again.  My students learned in the last two weeks. about how the fiery Reverend James Bevel devised a plan to bypass the economic and psychological barriers shackling adults. He recruited children, junior college students, high schoolers, and middle schoolers.  to take up the march.

It was never an easy decision.  Dr. King and others struggled with the implications and the dangers.  But once the children learned they were needed, there was no holding back. By the time it was over, over 5,000 young people had been arrested.  By the eighth day, the children accomplished what some adults–those who protested–had failed to achieve.  Since Reverend Shuttlesworth first tried to organize civil resistance in Birmingham in 1956, violent retaliation had ruled the day.

The children brought Birmingham to its knees.  They defied understandable parental resistance, angry police, fire hoses, dogs, and, most of all, fear.  The evaporation of fear created conversation.  Despite whatever racial animas would continue, the nation would never be the same again.

On June 11,in a national address, President Kennedy told America it was being unfair, that the life of race-based, post-slavery restrictions would never hold, not if the nation’s promise and foundation would not devolve into myth.  His assassination five months and eleven days later did not deter his exceptional successor, Lydon Baines Johnson, from ensuring the start of the better days Dr. King foretold.

We learned all of this last week and then some.  While they watched the footage of ancient peers taking steps toward self-determination, they openly wished that time and feeling would come back today.  “I would do it,” one student said, and then another, and another.  “It looked like fun.”

And in someways it was, despite the turmoil.  We read and annotated a packet on the historic unfolding while also watching live videos.  Many became angry when I stopped the tape to add some observation or another.  They wanted to feel it for themselves.  Finally, I let them just inhale it.  Then I explained our writing assignment for this week.

“Was Dr. King’s decision to use children in the Birmingham protest both strategic and justified?”  This week, I will review my remarks on their last persuasive essay on the necessity of Emmett Till’s murder, and reiterate the structure such an essay requires.  We will revisit thesis statements, essay maps, context, and background.  I will go over the placement and goal of the oppositional paragraph where conflicting opinions are acknowledged and then disarmed.

It reminds me of my past days as a debate coach.  I will never forget the amazing growth we had.  My students won seven consecutive DC  Urban Debate League championships, besting magnate, private, and charter schools along the way.  I remember one year the title hung in the balance, and our team. composed of large football players, sparred with two petite, young ladies from a tony private school.  Even before the round began, everyone could see the assumption of triumph on their faces.  Those students didn’t think we had a chance–until we beat them.  As I recall it, it wasn’t even close  I might be wrong about the memory, but the end result is true.  That day, both our opponents and  my students learned that excellence, like change, is never out of reach once the fear is gone.

Friday afternoon, after school ended, a few boys with some years yet to mature entered my classroom yelling something about white hate, and their behavior is really what told me about the work still to be done.  I understand now why so many of my colleagues feel so uncomfortable celebrating Black History Month, especially the hard parts that came before and after Dr. King’s dream.  But I intend to make my students see that the past only died because enough people agreed to let it go–from every stripe and direction.  President Obama won two terms not because of the black vote, but because of the American vote, of which we were a part.

Clearly, the Civil Rights Movement is an American story, as fundamental as it gets.  We all have risen in its wake, like a submarine cleared to surface.  The only remaining danger lies within.  Most of my students, if not all, have already declared their essay intention.  They will defend Dr. King’s decision.  They believe children are more than vessels.  They believe children have an active role to play in making today, tomorrow.

No where should that capability be more apparent than the classroom.  So we read and write and consider.  We train our minds to do our thoughts justice.  But, to do so, we must be prepared, like families, towns, suburbs cities, states, and nations, to disclose our trespasses, mend our  wounds, and heal.

Spring is everywhere in DC.  As I pointed to the sunshine draping the windows on Thursday, I prayed with my students, “Lord, thank you for teaching us that winter is never always.  Help us to embrace and appreciate the sun and warmth You sent our way.  Help us not only to  cherish the blossoms unfolding outside, but also to feed the flower within.”

“Amen,” they answered in every class.  Amen, indeed.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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Spring Break

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I miss the cherry blossoms.  I’ve been off this week and seized the opportunity on several days to travel down Rock Creek Parkway, settle at Haines Point, churn my music, and watch the fishermen tempt the fish.  The only things missing were the fragile pink and white flowers squeezing a lifetime from a moment, and my students hearing me tell them about it.  The cold weather confuses the trees, and they cannot seem to decide when is the right time to dress for spring.  I know the feeling.  The Cherry Blossom Festival proceeds without them, but no one is fooled by the parade.  Something is missing.  I know that feeling too.

The last few weeks before our Spring Break oozed magic.  My students and I dissected the story of Emmett Till.  We read original documents and articles, watched historic footage, and followed the legal case against his murderers.  In the end, I assigned students a persuasive essay in which they must take a stand on an overarching moral questions:  was Emmett Louis Till a martyr or a victim?  Was his death “necessary or unnecessary” in light of the civil rights gains his lynching engendered?

The papers are due tomorrow.  After all our profound discussions, I can’t wait to see what they have written.  Like cherry blossoms, our time together is rapidly coming to a close.  I want us to end on a strong note.  We have come so far this year, but there is still much to do.  Such is the world of teaching.  I miss us already.  Given the number of emails and text messages I received over the break, I have a feeling they do too.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

 

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Unforgivable Blackness: Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, and Emmett Till

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Last week, I watched Part 1 of Ken Burns’ documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson on PBS.  It got me thinking.  A little over one hundred years ago, the “Fight of the Century” pitted the brashly black Johnson against James Jeffries, the revered champion who reluctantly came out of retirement to reassert the physical and tactical superiority of the white male.  Jeffries became, as author Jack London anointed him, the “Great White Hope.”

Throughout the night following Johnson’s 1910 victory on America’s Independence Day, race riots punctuated the national landscape. Boisterous black men became the typical target of vengeful white mobs. The venerable New York Times soon sought to reassure its white readers that, contrary to prior editorial claims, physical prowess did not translate into elevated social status, while the L. A. Times reminded its colored and Negro citizenry that nothing had changed as far as their scripted lives were concerned.

In too many ways, the American social fabric did remain unaltered.  Indeed, the next black man to box for the heavyweight championship had not even been born at the time of Johnson’s ascension.  It would be another twenty-seven years before Joe Louis, the more   muted “Brown Bomber,” would be even granted a chance at the throne.

It is perhaps difficult now to imagine how deeply the psychological need for racial superiority in all things anchored innumerable white communities.  Not everyone, of course.  It has never been everyone.  Some rooted for Johnson and saw the push back for what it was. But, even today, one has only to glance at the comment section of any story involving race to become reacquainted with a familiar litany of charges against all black males. Still, it is interesting to note that only after Johnson’s victory could physical strength and intimidating arrogance be added to the list.

In 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black male from Chicago who was “big for his age,” could not possibly understand the unwritten rules he was about to break when he traveled to Money, Mississippi to visit relatives “down South.”  A city  boy who attended an integrated school, the outgoing Till could not appreciate how engrained the lines of racial proscription were, nor could he anticipate the depth of the insecurities plaguing those white males hellbent on enforcing them.

While the exact account of what happened when he entered Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market differs, what is clear is that Till, in some untenable way, did not display the proper deference to the white woman manning the store in her husband’s absence.

Later, after being kidnapped and beaten by two or more men (including at least one black male “following orders”), Till refused to “assume the position” of inferiority his tormentors required.  In his youthful defiance, Till, according to his murderers,  called them names, declared he was their equal, and even boasted about being acquainted with white girls.  These were unforgivable sins.  As one killer explained in a 1956 Look magazine article published shortly after his acquittal, “As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place.”

This battle for “place” is as fundamental to American history as its wars. In 1994, after the mid-term elections witnessed the return of a Republican house majority for the first time in fifty years, the media buzzed about the resurgence of the “angry white male.”  It seems the latter half of the twentieth century had unleashed a slew of pretenders coveting the “all-American” title which belonged by birthright to this one essential demographic.

The election and reelection of a black president has not ameliorated the problem.  Just ask conservative darling and National Rifle Association board member Ted Nugent, who recently called the mixed-race President Obama a “subhuman mongrel.”

In his book Angry White Men, sociologist Michael Kimmel terms the backlash “aggrieved entitlement.”  He writes:

Raised to believe that this was “their” country, simply by being born white and male, they were entitled to a good job by which they could support a family as sole breadwinners, and to deference at home from adoring wives and obedient children. And not only do their kids and their wives have ideas of their own; not only is the competition for those jobs increasingly ferocious; they’ve also been slammed by predatory lenders, corporate moguls, Wall Street short-sellers betting against their own companies and manipulated by cynical elites into believing that their adversaries were not the ones downsizing, outsourcing and cutting their jobs, but those assorted others — women, immigrants, gays, black people — who were asserting their claims for a piece of the pie.

On February 6, 2012, Trayvon Martin, at seventeen, could not possibly have been prepared to become the boogeyman George Zimmerman needed. When the armed would-be avenger elected to pursue Martin by car and later on foot, he must have suspected the law would see him as the helpless victim and the black teen as the obvious threat.  The later actions and inactions of the police at the murder scene show Zimmerman’s suppositions were correct.

When Martin, with his menacing “hoodie” and suspicious bounty of Skittles and Amazon tea, decided to face the strange man following him, rather than lower his head and keep walking to his father’s house, he did not realize that “stand your ground” laws in Florida and twenty-five other states were never crafted to include his perceptions, or his safety.  Trayvon Martin was the whiff of “imminent death” the Florida law empowered Zimmerman to erase. It could never be the other way around, at least not to the jury which acquitted him.

Of course, Zimmerman and his attorney did not formally seek “stand your ground” protection at his trial, though state law mandated its inclusion in jury instructions.  Martin’s death was the result of simple self-defense, they claimed.

Similarly, then forty-five-year-old Michael Dunn also sought to justify the murder of Jordan Davis some nine months after the Martin tragedy on the same self-defense grounds.  Also seventeen and black, Davis made the critical error of mouthing back at an armed, aggressive white man who had, by his own admission, been drinking.  In fact, Dunn and his fiance, heading back from his estranged son’s wedding, had stopped at the gas station convenience store to purchase more alcohol.

On November 23, when Dunn demanded that Davis and his friends turn down the music in their car, rather than simply ignore their teenage antics, or move his vehicle to another parking spot, or enter the convenience store with his fiance, he no doubt felt he was merely asserting a natural right for immediate quiet–even in a public space.  The profanity-laced lyric thumping out of Davis’ car no doubt jarred his middle-aged ear.

Dunn’s own trial testimony reveals his escalating anger and dismay at Davis’ verbal audacity.  “Are you talking to me?” Dunn recalled asking Davis.  An eyewitness stated he heard an agitated Dunn declare, “You’re not going to talk to me like that.”

From his writings in jail, it is clear Dunn saw Davis and his friends as nothing more than  “thugs,” a popular euphemism for the N-word.  The young Davis had no right to question his entitlement, no right to ignore his command, and certainly no right to curse him.

After an unusually long, thirty-two hours of deliberation, the jury–which included nearly every subgroup except black male–finally reached a verdict of sorts.  The jury elected to convict Dunn of three counts of attempted murder for leaving his vehicle and firing at the fleeing car holding the fatally wounded Davis and his grieving friends, friends who, after all, had said nothing to him.  The jury simply could not ignore the blatant evidence in that circumstance.

But for the petulant Jordan Davis, who dared to verbally defy aggrieved Michael Dunn, justice remained elusive. It is telling that the jury could not reach a unanimous decision surrounding the only death that occurred on that horrible day. They could not even agree to the lesser charge of manslaughter.  Clearly, in at least one of their minds, Davis’ “attitude” precipitated and justified Dunn’s deadly response.

When it comes to race, this notion of “attitude” is synonymous with “knowing your place.”  Despite all the progress we have made as Americans–and we have–there remains this intractable core of “nostalgics” who intend to drag their mud into the 21st century, no matter what.  Till, Martin, and Davis, like Johnson before them, failed to follow someone else’s script, and, in today’s America, where gun rights are almost synonymous with freedom, that oversight can be a death sentence.

As a teacher of mostly brown and black teenagers, I am continually motivated by the need to fortify them against an onslaught of enabled fear and imminent danger they refuse to even see.  “Times have changed,” they tell me.  Perhaps they have.  Yet most of my students state they would have simply viewed Dunn as an arrogant “old head” trying to impose his will on their party. They, too, would have refused.

Personally, I am not a fan of loud, boisterous hip-hop.  I have pulled into gas stations where one or more teens saw themselves as DJ’s for the world.  The sound intrusion has annoyed me, but never enraged.  I have been there myself and remember when my high school friends and I, black, white, and otherwise,  searched for all sorts of ways to be noticed and heard.

In our youthful quest for newfound borders and adult respect, we were not always considerate of our more settled neighbors.  Such is the passageway of youth.  But I never, then or now, saw those generational clashes as a springboard for murder.  Nor could I have ever cowardly slunk away after firing ten rounds into a stranger’s car in order to soothe myself with pizza and more alcohol, as though nothing untoward had occurred.

When I read about all the incredible passions surrounding Jack Johnson’s title bout, I can only shake my head and marvel at the insanity.  When I read about the twisted justifications of Emmett Till’s assassins, or the self-righteous logic of Trayvon Martin’s stalker, or the victim mantle Dunn is so determined to climb, I realize that when it comes to race (and especially black males), there are still far too many Americans whose eyes are so obstructed by hate and judgement they simply cannot see straight—until it’s time to shoot.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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Shackles and Shout Outs

Slave-Shackles

I purchased a set of slave shackles once from the estate of an old Virginia plantation a few years ago.  I wanted to honor the experiences of ancestors whose names I do not know.  I wanted to remember the men, women, and children who choose life when death might have been easier.

I tell myself they endured untold indignities for me and for my children.  They held their inner soul and spirit inviolable to the transgressions of their circumstance.  They engaged in the ultimate rebellion against all tyranny–hope.  And they armed themselves with knowledge, the one weapon their oppressors feared above all others.

I told my students about them the other day.  In tenth grade, we are reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, a work I did not discover until college.  We are still in the first part of the book, and we are learning about the Ibo in the 1890s, and Okonkwo, the flawed hero whose village life will all too soon be ripped from his heart.  He reminds me of an uncle by marriage who marched through life with heavy boots and a singular focus which both empowered and handicapped his gait.

I have done my best to set the stage for my students.  I play traditional and modern music from Nigeria during warm-ups.  I show photographs capturing what Umuofia, Okonkwo’s fictional village, might have looked like.  We viewed two introductory scenes from a filmed version of the book I found on YouTube.

I tried hard to help them imagine how life might have felt in pre-colonial Nigeria.  “Haven’t you ever wondered,” I asked a room full of black and brown faces, “how life might have been if your distant relative had not been captured or sold? Let’s use this book as Achebe wanted and see in these people and their beliefs some small piece of ourselves.”

“But I’m not black,” one Latino male student said.

“No, you are not.  But there is something basic and human about village life, rural life, when you ate what you grew or caught, and people feared and honored the power behind wind and rain and lightening.  Somewhere in our DNA, all of us have faint memories of torch-lit nights, sacred rituals, and life lived outdoors.  Just image Costa Rico before the explorers  came.”

And so we began.  I supplied summaries and study guides for each chapter and interspersed audiobook recordings with in-class readings.  We used our prior work on conflict to try and map Okonkwo’s journey and point-of-view.  This week, we will take a closer look at proverbs and the role of women in traditional Ibo society.  I give reading quizzes every two classes or so.  “This is your chance to lift your grade,”I said.

Despite all this, some students remain unconvinced.  “This is boring,” one girl complained when we started the book.  She is a reader, but prefers urban tales about sex and heartache.

“Look,”  I said.  “You need to read about many things and people, not just Peanut and who’s ‘dropping it like it’s hot.’  Besides, if you only read things where the biggest word is “MF’er, then it’s time for an  upgrade, don’t you think?”

There is laughter and nodding, but I can tell everyone is not yet committed.  This initial reticence always happens when we turn our attention to a longer work.  I realize I need something stronger to pull everyone in–especially some of the boys.

Last week, after the Dr. King holiday and two snow days, I postponed a scheduled quiz on Chapters 1-4 and instead posted two large signs in the front of the room.  One read “Yes,” and the other “No.”  “Now, I want you to be completely honest with me,” I began.  “If you hate the idea of reading this book, I want you to come stand up here in a neat line under the “No” sign.  It’s not going to get you out of reading, but I do want to see how you feel.  If you are looking forward to reading it, stand under “Yes.”

In my second period class, one overflowing with basketball players, about twelve young men raced to line up under “No.”  They chuckled and jostled for position.  They are a playful, tight knit group, and I admire their energy.  Two of the girls in class rose and walked to the “Yes” sign, while the remaining handful of students, male and female, remained in their seats, waiting to see what this game was all about before they committed to either camp.

“Fine,” I said, before moving other to the few students who dared to declare their enthusiasm for the task ahead.  “Thank you for your willingness to embrace the book and all it represents,” I said.  “You can sit down.”  One of the tallest boys in the “No” line made a sucking sound, which is what they do when someone, especially me, compliments another student out loud.  We all laughed.

“Ok, ok,” I continued.  “Now, here, in this line, we have those who are not looking forward to reading Things Fall Apart.  I also appreciate your honesty,” I said.  “But I want you to look at this row.” I pointed to the dozen athletic, young men as a few took a bow.  “Now, imagine we could enter a time machine and go back, say two hundred years, to 1814.  Let’s say we go back to Virginia, just across the Potomac, or even further down to South Carolina, or Alabama, or Mississippi.  What might this line resemble?”

The students grew quiet and stared straight ahead.  “It might help if you imagine them half-naked and standing on a platform before a crowd of white men with money in their pockets.”

“A slave auction,” the girl who favors urban lit finally said.

“Exactly,” I said, a bit louder than I intended.  Without prompting, the young men slowly moved back to their seats.

“There is a reason so much time and effort went into keeping slaves illiterate.  Once a man can read, once a man has access to knowledge, he cannot be enslaved.  At least, not for long.”

I walked over to one young man in the rear I have been trying to ignite all year.  I can see in his eyes the wheels of his mind.  They move quickly, but his work does not.  He misses too many assignments, and his grades are nowhere near where they should be.  “So, Mr. Graham,” I asked.  “Are you a black man–a free man–or a slave?”

He looked up at me with a mix of anger and agitation.  “A black man,” he said.

“Then let’s read,” I said to him and the class.  When I later shared his reaction with a white colleague in the teacher’s lounge, he smiled and then asked, “I wonder how it would go over if I tried that?”  We both smiled knowingly.

“Not too well,” I acknowledged.  “But, hey, we all have to do what we can.  This is just something I can.”  I said nothing about my growing doubts about the approach.

Today, during last period, the school began airing “shout outs” during announcements.  The shout outs could be sent from students  to whomever they wished to thank.  Near the end, after a number had been read citing teachers and fellow students who had been helpful in some way, Mr. Graham, one of my second period students, sent one to me.  I missed most of it as the students in my class jeered and cheered, but I still remember the last part.

“Thank you, Mr. Roberts, for not giving up on me.”

Young people never cease to amaze me.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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