As is my habit, last Thursday I headed out in the early evening for a karaoke joint not too far from my home. As usual, I arrived as “James,” my singing alter ego, replete with a cool, sideways cap, dark glasses, and tight sleeves showcasing my hard-earned muscles. The place doubled as a restaurant and bar. Last month, a karaoke buddy suggested I stop by, and it was only my second visit. I ordered a Coors Light draft beer and joined a list of would-be singers.
When the disc jockey finally announced James’ turn, I requested one of my favorite songs of late, “Ain’t No Way” by Aretha Franklin. I love the story about sweet surrender and unrequited love–ain’t no way for me to love you, if you won’t let me–and, as I sang t0 the instrumental, I roamed from table to table, urging patrons to help me send the message “to my girl.” I moved all around the room, ad-libbed the lyrics, massaged the melody, and even serenaded one embarrassed woman from one knee. When the song finished, I received a lusty response. As I rose to return to my seat, a man I passed yelled, “You missed your calling, brother.”
I’ve heard that before. I suspect anything done with passion generates that response from someone. When I was a student, learning was my joy. When I worked as a radio disc jockey in my early twenties, communication was my forte, and I still have a box full of listener letters to prove it. When I ran my music marketing business for fifteen years, I raced to work each day and filled America’s showplace with at least one iconic product. After I sold the business, consulting drove me for a while. Each adventure held my eye, ear, and soul for a time. I have been lucky.
My wife says I have ADD when it comes to careers. At first glance, she is right. But I realize now the seam holding all those adventures together was teaching. Whether on the radio, or in a studio, or in a meeting with a client, I always strove to take a complicated experience and break it down, or a mundane romp and lift it up to poetry. Nowhere is that translation more necessary than in a classroom full of adolescents with one eye on the forbidden cellphone or the great outdoors.
I discovered this year that administrators had moved me from teaching seniors to sophomores. At first, the reassignment disappointed me. Last year, I worked to begin building relationships with juniors in anticipation of 2014. I had enjoyed my first time escorting seniors to the finish line and wanted to do it again–only better. But then I remembered how six of my nine years of teaching involved tenth graders. Three weeks into the new year, I am reminded again of how much I love their silly enthusiasm and honest energy.
We are reading short stories now and focusing on the “hunt for theme.” “Theme,” I told them, “is like the fortune cookie at the end of a great meal. What’s your favorite Chinese dish?” I asked.
“General T’so’s Chicken,” one boy volunteered. “Shrimp Fried Rice,” added another. “I like Chicken Wings,” a young lady said.
“Mumbo sauce on the side?” I asked to laughter.
“My mom likes Beef Broccoli,” the quiet girl interjected. “But I like Egg Rolls.
“Exactly,” I continued. “We all like different things. I like Pepper Steak.”
“Man, I’m getting hungry,” another boy said.
“See, I want you to come here hungry,” I said. “I want to hear your brains grumbling. Only here, reading is the answer. See, in literature, the fortune cookie that comes at the end of the meal is actually the reason for the gathering. All the dishes served–let’s call it the plot, the setting, the point of view, the characters, or the conflict–are only there to prepare us for that little white slip in that cookie.”
As I spoke, I walked around the edges of the semi-circle I have arranged the desks into this year. The classroom size is perfect; I have no more than twenty in any class. As I pound on the desk tops to emphasize a point, or dance in the opening just beside my desk to coax a response, the students are with me. “Theme,” I tell them, “is the point the author is trying to make or address. Theme is the thing we are paying for with our time and our attention. In literature, it’s the reason we came.”
“Nice,” one male student said in an audible tone. Others nodded as well, and then applauded when I promised to bring fortune cookies for everyone on Monday. “There can always be more than one theme,” I said. “All you have to do is call witnesses to the stand to support your claim, your contention, your statement about what the theme is. And who would you call? If you say the theme is ‘look both ways before you walk.” who could you call to support that?”
“The story?” one asked.
“What about the story? What in the story could you call to the stand?”
“Quotes?” asked the quiet girl. “Quotes from the story?”
“Yes!” I yelled, slamming my fists on her desk. “Yes,” I sang to no music at all. They are about to write a formal essay about theme in Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.” I assured them they were more than up to the task, and, as some smiled in agreement (even the one who complained after the first reading that “Girl” made no sense), I remembered what I said to the man at the karaoke place. “Thanks for the compliment,” I yelled back over the din as he high-fived James on the singing, “but you’re wrong. I’m where I’m supposed to be.”
I wanted to tell him what I told my students on the very first day. “My name is Mr. Roberts, and I will be your teacher.”
–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)