A White Man on a White Horse and Other Republican Sightings

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In Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece Waiting for Godot, the two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, occupy a space that appears to exist without them, even as they dominate the scene. Throughout the two-act play, the men oscillate between confusion and inertia, “sound and fury,” as they await the arrival of the elusive Godot. I thought of the play while watching last week’s Republican National Convention.

Somehow in the last eight years, under the leadership of Barrack Obama, America’s first black president, our land has stumbled into a modern hell populated by roaming bands of lawless immigrants, satanic politicians, ungrateful Negroes (“hands up, don’t shoot”), pushy women (especially Hillary Clinton), and the uppity poor. To make matters even worse, America the Exceptional now cowers in the corner while legions of terrorists and anarchists bully a timid world. The ominous, inferior “subgroups” Iowa’s Rep. Steve King warned about are rising up not only across the globe, but also in our streets. The very future of civilization as we know it (white, Christian, straight) lies in a precarious balance. As the bellicose Rudy Giuliani shrieked for all to hear, “There’s no next election – this is it!”

While speaker after speaker peddled potions of doom and gloom, I could not help but recall those old Western movies when a sunrise showdown of disastrous proportions would somehow be thwarted at the last minute by a band of white men on white horses rescuing the day. Throughout three nights of rabid hysteria and fear mongering, orchestrated “family moments,” and blind allegiance (except for brave Ted Cruz, whose refusal to bow, it turned out, was based not on principle but rather hurt feelings), all eyes could not help but turn to the only one who could save us from ourselves—Donald J. Trump. On the fourth night, as he galloped onto a stage draped in red, white, and blue, all eyes focused on the man who promised to restore America to a land of order and plenty where loyal, upstanding, silent-no-more citizens could once again enjoy unmolested the splendor of guns, football, and beer.

In a seventy-three minute tome carved for the ages, Trump promised that all the annoying questions about right and wrong, nuance and interpretation, logistics and substance, facts and attributions, art and existence would vanish like a bad headache after one dose of his magic pill. Like addicts on a street corner, the Republican faithful leaned in and inhaled their collective sighs of relief. Trump became more than we imagined, more even than he might have supposed. He was Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan all rolled into one irresistible package. As Trump reminded the delegates, “I am your voice…I alone can fix it.”

When the balloons fell, before Cleveland’s post-convention cleanup began, I was reminded of the final scene in Godot, where Vladimir and Estragon, weary of the wait and the repetitive nature of their complaints, appear ready to abandon their search for whatever it is they think they lack, only to falter at the end, frozen in a time not of their making, locked in the suggestion of a better day. The promise of instant deliverance and self-serving redemption is as seductive as it is futile. Like an audience viewing Beckett’s play, I fear even ardent Trump supporters might be shaken by the awkward silence and heavy contradictions lingering after the final curtain descends.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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Half Hugs and Unopened Gifts

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This week, I went to this place where I started singing karaoke on Thursdays. I know most of the faces there now, but not the names. I saw one robust older woman whose refined manner and generous smile reminds me of my mother. I walked over to embrace her, as has become my custom, but my positioning was awkward, resulting in a tepid greeting. As I turned to walk away, she said to me, “Come back here and do that right. Nothing worse than half a hug.” I laughed, faced her properly, wrapped my arms around her, and squeezed my spirit into hers. “Now that’s what I’m talking about,” she said.

Later that evening, back at home, I pulled out the school yearbook and reviewed the faces I had taught in the senior class. Between 10th grade English, 12th grade World Literature, Public Speaking, and DC History, I must have taught over 70% of the class. It has been almost six weeks since they took that last walk down the graduation aisle. As I studied the faces of each one, I find myself wondering if I did everything I could to fortify their minds and character as they step into the world.

Looking back, my favorite moment probably came near the beginning of the year. I was asked to address seniors during an all-day retreat. Because it is a Catholic school, spirituality is never far from the fore. I stood before the class, almost one hundred strong, and told them about this guy I roomed with for a bit in high school.

He was a senior transfer who had had some problems at a previous prep school. He wore his hair as long as the school rules would allow. He played guitar, laughed too loudly at small talk jokes, and always said “far out” in every other sentence. Naturally, we all took to calling him “Far Out.”

One night, while talking, he revealed that he was wealthy. By then, I knew all about trust fund kids, but his worth exceeded theirs. Between his parents and step-parents, he said he stood to inherit millions and millions of dollars. Then he told me something I did not expect. “I envy you,” he said. I must have had fifteen dollars to my name. “What are you talking about?” I asked. “You have it made.”

“That’s the problem,” he said. “I have it made, but I didn’t make it, none of it. You know you have to work for everything you get. My dad already bought my seat at Princeton. It’s hard not to be lazy, you know, and just float. What kind of fucking life is that?”

Later, he took me home for Thanksgiving. We flew in a private jet to the private island in the Keys where he lived. His folks were away on a deep sea fishing trip. Two maids, both black, served us food and then disappeared. His parents had this couple straight out of Young Republicans come to dinner that first night and ask me questions about my likes and dislikes. We both knew they were there to determine whether I could be trusted in a house as big as it was empty. After they left, we drank daiquiris and laughed at life’s many ironies.

I told the students how I often think about Far Out. I wonder if he still plays the guitar, and if he found his purpose in life. Sometimes we all compare ourselves to some invisible rules measuring the worth of our lives. I urged the seniors not to fall for that trap.

“Each of you, each of us,” I said, “has value beyond measure. I don’t know how many of you celebrate Christmas, but those who do know about the sight of wrapped gifts under a tree. I don’t about your house, but mine is a mess one hour after we start unwrapping. Now I want you to imagine this one present left unopened in the far corner. Year after year, holiday after holiday, it reappears bigger than before. But each year, the present remains unopened. Finally, after eighteen years, you can’t stand it anymore and move to see what’s inside this mysterious wrapping. You discover your name is written on it. It is a gift to you from God.”

“Inside are all your talents, all your uniqueness, all your whims and your whimsy. Use these things to find your purpose. Use these gifts to inform, to enlighten, not just your life, but the lives around you. Appreciate what you have and who you are. There is no one like you. And let’s face it, the last thing you want to be in this world is an unopened gift.”

I remember it was one of those pin drop moments when complete silence and thought overtook the group. I hold on to that moment now that our time together is past. There were no half hugs that day, and only a few in the days to come. During this summer, I rest comfortably knowing I pushed, prodded, praised, chastised, and cajoled my way into the air we breathed together. Now there is nothing left to do but exhale.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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Cardinal Rules and Lasting Regrets

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As the winter persists, we are keeping warm in the classroom with a number of hot topics.  Currently, we are reading The Kite Runner in World Literature.  It has been work getting a few students to move beyond their reticence to read a novel.  I began the year with a number of short stories which are often easier to digest, especially in settings far removed from the United States.

With The Kite Runner, I sought to whet the appetite with general discussions about class, ethnicity, and the real and imagined impact of friction and warfare on personal development.  At one point, just before starting the work, I asked students to identify five cardinal rules guiding their lives and choices.  “I don’t want your parents’ rules, I want yours,” I told them.  “I want to know what you stand for.”

Students supplied a number of familiar ideals surrounding loyalty to friends, honor to family, and honesty in love.  I then asked them to choose an instance where they broke one of their rules.  “Tell what happened and what you learned.”  I reminded students about the importance of details and crisp verbs.  As I sometimes do with a writing assignment, I provided students a sample from my own life.  A sample was especially important in this exercise because I wanted students to “dig deep.”

My cardinal rules:

  1. Honor my ancestors through my actions;
  2. Don’t betray a trust;
  3. Don’t cheat—especially myself;
  4. Treat others the way I want to be treated;
  5. When someone needs to talk, even a stranger, make the time to listen.

After listing my rules, I wrote about a time that still bothers me:

Lasting Regret

          “In 1997, I became president of my eldest daughter’s high school P.T.A.. During a bi-weekly meeting with other parent leaders and the principal, I remained after for wine and cheese. Because parking in the neighborhood was difficult, I had taken the Metro to the meeting. As I was preparing to leave, a man I did not know (except by sight) offered me a ride home. I accepted, and during the trip uptown he began to tell me about problems he was experiencing at home with his daughter, who was a senior.

He told me Alice (not her real name) had taken to spending all her time alone in the family basement. She insisted on eating all her meals there, and she was constantly on the computer chatting with Internet friends. I suggested he limit her computer time and make her eat dinner with the family. Two weeks later, at our next parent meeting, this gentleman again offered me a ride home. I could tell he wanted to talk, but I made an excuse and turned it down. It had been a long day at work, and I did not want to become more involved with his difficulty. Two days later, his daughter climbed over the railing of the Calvert Street Bridge and jumped onto Rock Creek Parkway below, dying instantly.

To this day, whenever I drive on that overpass, I think about Alice and say a silent prayer. I wish I had taken the time that night to listen again to her father. Of course, I could have done nothing to stop that horrible end, but maybe simply listening would have helped him reach his daughter. I spoke to the man’s wife shortly after the funeral service by telephone. We had a long talk about grief and loss. The man stopped coming to the parent meetings, and I never spoke with him again. I wonder if he knows how much Alice’s death affected me, how much it made me extra vigilant about communicating with my own children, and how much I regret not accepting that ride home.”

The submissions I received from my students covered the typical range from the pedestrian to the profound.  I will not share their reflections here, but acts of betrayal, small and large, became a central theme.  For some, deception led to growth.  For others, omission delivered both consequence and character.  By glancing into the mirror at themselves, students also learned to later empathize with The Kite Runner‘s Amir and his quest to “be good again.”

I try to always remind my students that mistakes are opportunities, sometimes the best kind.  Books allow us to reach beyond our immediate circumstance and learn from the mishaps of others.  These powerful parables can be lasting–and are often much less painful than the bruises we acquire firsthand.  But regret is useless and self-serving, unless we put its memory to work.  Footsteps can be good steps, provided we study the lessons they teach.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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Kwanza and Family Ties

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Two evenings ago, on Saturday, we gathered together with family and friends to acknowledge the start of Kwanza. It was a beautiful night of music and laughter and connection. My sister-in-laws brought cupcakes and my mother’s sweet potato soufflé. Our longest friend and her husband drove down from Hartford and made collard and kale greens. I cooked mac-n-cheese, corn bread pudding (my middle daughter insisted), lamb roast, and a huge pot of turkey necks (made the way my mother loved them) with noodles. Another friend made rice and peas (she is like a sister to me), and we had homemade pound cake for desert. We had beer and wine and sparkling cider, and a 103-song Mp3 disc my youngest brother made before driving down from Bridgeport. In total, there were 30 of us, including neighbors, nephews, cousins, and long time friends.

It became an multigenerational mix. My two remaining brothers were there. The youngest guest was only a few months old; the oldest is turning 80 in January.  Every decade in-between was represented, each at different stages in their life journey.

My wife and I decided to keep the formalities short during the Kwanza celebration. Before we prayed over the meal, I spoke about family, ancestors, and the power of belief and resiliency. “We gather here today,” I said, “on the first day of Kwanza not because someone has died.  We gather because we live, and love, and imagine.”

My wife added her own wisdoms about love and responsibility. She mentioned the pallor of race which dominated so much of 2015 and will again as the election nears.  “But,” she reminded, “we have always been stronger than that.”  It became a special moment, and our candlelit home glowed with satisfaction as we lit the black candle at the center of our kinara. Later, my wife gave every family a African American-themed calendar for our Zawadis or gifts.

“I can’t tell you, one brother messaged me, “how much it meant to me to see the three of us together under one roof. Mommy was smiling down on us I’m sure.”

As we lingered well into the evening, I thought about my students and wondered how their holiday was progressing. I had to admit I missed them, and my colleagues, and I would enjoy returning to school almost as much as I relished the time away.

When my school reconvenes, it will be 2016, and my seniors will be entering the countdown stage. We still have much to cover: two novels, poetry, grammar reviews, sixty more vocabulary words, several formal papers, and one thing more. I still have to reinforce my life lessons about stamina and character and courage and faith. I still have more stories to tell.

The open eyes around it feed a teacher’s ego—that special passion and fear teenagers feel on the brink of adulthood. I want so much for them. I know time and life will test their swagger, but I also know a nurtured spark will rarely fade. So we have this time left together to prepare for our goodbyes.  This weekend, I still have midterm exams to grade and a few late papers, but I will not start that until tomorrow. I just didn’t feel like assessing earlier in the week.  I have four days left before class resumes; I will mark the work and find a way to encourage–especially the struggling ones.

For now, as the New Year saunters in, I just want to cherish the journey thus far. I want to thank God for all my blessings, for my family, for my friends, for my mind, for my loves. I want to wish all of you a marvelous year of exploration and depth. And I want to embrace all the students I have taught (over 1200 at last count) then and now, and I want to thank them for enduring all my well-intentioned anecdotes and jokes.  I want to thank them for listening– and laughing back.

Mark E.P Roberts (teachermandc)

 

 

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The Doer and the Deed

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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

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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”

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

Along the way, 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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

“What?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching is God’s work too.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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The Best Things In Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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