My students have drawn me into later and later hours at school. For years, I was known for exiting the building at exactly 3:30 PM, yelling, “I don’t do overtime” as I neared the front door. With the exception of Tuesday’s tutoring sessions, that schedule was as regular as my penchant for waking up at 4:00 AM to grade more work. My students knew I was always good for lunchtime visits. But at my new school, lunch is shorter and more controlled. Access to my classroom is difficult to maneuver. I missed the easy in-and-out flow of prior years and started staying late to get it back.
Last week, two young men came to visit after school. Light banter soon faded when the subject of father’s came up. “So, you in the ‘Deadbeat Dad’ club too?” one sophomore asked.
“Join the party,” said another, offering a fist bump to seal the link.
“My father might have left me,” I said, “but I never left my children. You can choose your own fate.” The two young men burst into a chorus of “You got that right” and excitedly shared their visions of future families. No “baby mama’s” here, they vowed, but loving wives and devoted offspring. It was nice to feel their enthusiasm, and I found myself wondering how much had been spurred by the detour I had taken in the day’s earlier lesson.
I was not in the best of moods. As I returned what I considered to be an easy assignment, I noted the lack of effort I found in most of their work. I had asked them to write a letter from one character in a story we had finished to another. We had been discussing point-of-view, and I wanted them to assume the voice and manner of someone other than the protagonist. The only restriction revolved around plot; they had to honor the storyline as it was written, but they were free to extend it however they wished.
A few students failed to even turn in the assignment. Those who did delivered missives with no passion, no panache. “You have got to trust your imagination and let it loose,” I said. “Stop getting in your way.”
The tenth grade students looked at me with confused faces. I could tell they did not understand my complaint. They had completed the homework; what else did I want? I paused, lowered my head into my hand, and then looked at them with a kinder face. “You know why I became a teacher?” I asked.
“You couldn’t find a better job?” the sarcastic girl near the window asked. The class laughed, and the tension lifted.
“I have you know I am an educated mind. Educated minds can always find a better job,” I said. “I know, I looked.” At that, the students roared, and I had them where I wanted.
“Anyone in here run track?” I asked. Several hands went up. “So you know about the relay races, right? A runner sprints for a distance and then hands the baton on to the next runner, and so on until the race is over. What are some of the things that can go wrong?”
“A bad pass.”
“A slow runner.”
“A hamstring tear,” said the football player in the leg brace.
“Yes,” I continued. “All those things–and more. See, to me, life is like that relay race. That first runner, the one who started the race, I see as my ancestors, the ones I know like the grandparents, and the ones I don’t, like maybe the first African to touch these shores. I like to imagine them rounding the curves in that race and pressing forward despite all the obstacles along the way. How many of you have grandparents still living?” I asked.
Most raised their hands. “Any great-grandparents?” A few proudly lifted their arms. “All of you are so lucky for that,” I said to both groups. “Treasure them. I never knew my great-grandparents, and my grandparents are gone. But I’m not sad about it. I know they ran a great race and moved that baton closer to me. See, the better they run, the less ground I have to cover. It’s that kind of race.”
The students grew silent then, and I had one of those “pin drop” moments I live for. “The second runner, the one right before me, represents my parents. It is a race for two, my mother and my father. While they labor, it is my job to prepare myself for the race to come. In the distance, somewhere ahead of me, my children and my children’s children are waiting. Can you see that?” I asked, pointing to an invisible hill in the distance.
Many nodded, and I continued.
“The baton will reach your hand when you turn eighteen, ready or not. Your job now, with your wait almost over, is to prepare your mind, your body, and your soul for the ground to come. Now, you can take a nap under a tree and just wait, doing nothing. You figure you are young, and the speed and endurance will come. Or, you could work out, do jumping jacks and wind sprints, read books and gather words and ideas, sharpen your thoughts and your wits for the journey ahead. You could build a chapel inside yourself and find a loving place for the God in you. Or you could just waste time.”
“You could root for your parents,” one boy added.
“Yes, you could and do. I see that. But what happens if one or both of your parents fall short? It happened to me. My mother ran her heart out–literally. But my father fell short. I’m not trying to knock him or anything, but he left the race early.”
“Did he die?”
“No, he just left. Maybe he got bored, or maybe he just saw something in the fields that caught his attention. Either way, he laid the baton down on the track and walked away.”
“Yeah, but we all know it happens. It has happened to some of you. So what can you do if a parent does that? You still have a race to run.”
“Don’t even worry about it,” said one young man. “You still got Moms.”
“True,” I said. “But you know what I think? I think part of you has to go back and find that baton and pick it up. You have to start your race sooner than you should. You have to carry your baton–and his. It makes the race more difficult. But not impossible. And remember, your children are waiting and cheering you on.”
“I feel you,” said the boy who came to fist pump me after school.
“We can’t just sit and bemoan all the things that went wrong before the baton reaches us. Because you are the thing that went right. The miracle-in-waiting. I want you ready and able to run the race of your life. Do it for your children. The further you run, the less ground they have to carry. And your grandchildren. And your great-grandchildren who might never even know your face or your name.”
“They better know my name” said the sarcastic girl. “Hard as I ran.”
“They will,” I laughed. “Especially if you do the work now. See, I’m just the coach. I can give you some pointers, tell you how to extend your breathing or your arms. But it’s your race–no one else’s. Carpe diem, people. Seize the day.”
“Carpe who?” a student asked.
“Carpe diem,” I said, writing the term on the board. “It’s from Latin. It means ‘seize the day.’ What do you think that means?”
“It means ‘one monkey don’t stop no show,’” said the after school boy.
“You got that right,” I said. “So get out there and run your race like your life depended on it–because it does.”
“Nice,” the football player added. Then they did something they had not yet done all year. They clapped. So much for finding a better job.
–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)