The Things They Carry

The first day: It seemed like the whole school buzzed today about my change in appearance. After five years of shaving my head daily (they called me “Baldie”), I arrived with hair, mostly white with sprinkles of black. Former students rubbed my head to assure themselves the rumors of my transformation rang true. “So, you’re finally embracing your age,” one senior remarked. “Not quite,” I said, pointing to the shiny zirconium earring in my left lobe. We both laughed.

I have three different courses, or preps, this year, every day. My school is on a block schedule, and I now teach 11th graders in English III, AP English Language & Composition, and Debate. I have twenty-six students in each class, and I must now prepare to teach different courses back-to-back on consecutive days. It is a union violation, but I pretend I don’t know. Each course has merit for me, and losing one would be like misplacing a cell phone. The challenge should be interesting.

My classroom is large, and I manage to shrink the space by adding a couple of couches and chairs I found in storage and cleaned. The room is bright and colorful with spaces and places for everything. The walls shine with strategically placed motivational and instructional posters I purchased from the local teacher store. The tables are arranged in a modified “V,” and, for the first time, all my students have ample cabinets to store their notebooks and writing portfolios. The building is relatively new and still sparkles.

My desk sits in the front of the room, along with three white boards. Two boards are dedicated to English III and AP English, respectively. Each board has been pasted with the seven aspects of each lesson in bright colors. Essential Question, Standard, Objective, Warm Up, Agenda, Learning Reflection, and Homework are boldly declared for each day and every lesson. My school requires it. I save the middle board for making notations during class. My handwriting still stinks.

When the bell for first period rings, I am standing (I never sit down). As the students enter, I smile and allow them to choose their own seats for the first week. After I give a Learning Style diagnostic later, I will assign groups of four for the 1st Advisory and see how it goes. I always reserve the right to change groups at any time if interpersonal dynamics require it.

I know almost all the faces of the seventy-eight students I see today. I taught 10th grade for five years, and almost half of each class is returning to me from last year. They all look older and eager. It is amazing how much students mature in eight weeks: male voices deepen; some young ladies cut their hair; their stance is more directed. They are upperclassmen now, and they laugh at the freshman who still follow every rule.

As each junior takes a seat, I wonder how they will grow with me. I wonder what weights they bear as they move towards their seventeenth year. I am reminded of a piece I had some tenth grade students write three years ago, after reading the short story “The Things They Carried.” I loved that assignment and their responses to it. I asked them to write about the “things” students carry. I saved many of their responses and share some of them with you:

“They carry tangible and intangible burdens, from textbooks and workbooks, from tests and quizzes, and homework that supposedly taught and tested their knowledge. They carry passed notes, and whispered secrets, and hurtful gossip that supposedly taught and tested their knowledge. They carry the told and untold expectations from mommy, daddy, sister, brother, from English, Math, Science, Social Studies, and all the rest. They carry divorces, separations, or no parents at all. Thy carry the A’s, and B’s, and C’s, and D’s, and F’s that are sometimes used to depict their character. They carry judgment.” — Student A

“They carry minds wanting to learn. They carry thoughts of why isn’t their best ever good enough for parents and teachers. They carry cell phones and iPods to ease the burdens they carry.” –Student B

“They carry the hope to just get through the day, hoping when they get home their mothers will be away. They carry the stress of everyday life, hoping their life will never be the price they pay.”–Student C

“They carry knowledge and hopes and dreams. They carry material things. They carry lies about their life and their true identity. They carry problems and attitudes and multiple personalities. They carry anger for uniforms and rules and why nobody ever asks them. They carry pounds of textbooks up and down stairs, in and out of classrooms, and worries that everything they are learning will stay in the textbook once they put them away. They carry guilt, and strength, and hopelessness.”–Student D

“They walk down halls carrying attitudes, fake smiles and gestures, and bottles of haterade. They carry pounds of makeup. Like the soldiers, they shoot the teachers with their attitudes, bad and good. They carry each other. It’s like a battlefield.”–Student E

“They carry drama, and lust, and stares from boys who just want sex, and stares from girls who just want boys. They carry secrets about who their parents really are. They carry food to sell when no one’s looking. They carry the guilt of failing and the fear of letting their mother down. They carry the pressure of getting good grades. They carry un-done homework and un-done problems from home.”–Student F

“They carry the fears of not living to make it to twenty-one. They carry the hopes that somehow the money for college will come.”–Student G

As  my new students file in and out of my classroom, I wonder what secrets they shield, which relatives they hide, what property they cherish, what goals they fear, which friends they trust, which burdens they harbor (no matter what), which family they defend (no matter who), whose dreams they siphon (no matter why); whose footsteps they chase (no matter where).  I wonder what lessons they will teach. I peer into their eyes and try to communicate my desire to make our time and space together matter. I want them to see me as a facilitator on their way to wherever it is they desire, unless it is simply to be “away.”
On my doorway are posted my rules for success: Have the courage to be yourself; Honor your power; Respect yourself and others; Ask for what you need; Remember you are a miracle. My job this year is to teach them not only about the redemptive power of words, but also about the restorative beauty in truth, even the painful ones. It should be a fascinating year.

About Mark E.P. Roberts

teachermandc is Mark E.P. Roberts, a middle-aged, high school English teacher entering his ninth year of instructing young minds. This blog is an attempt to capture the challenge of teaching and the essence of learning. At a time when DC has become the epicenter of educational theory, this blog will keep its preferred focus on students in an somewhat typical DC high school. I have taught in both public and private schools. To date, 95% of my students are of color. All names have been changed, and complaints about in-house politics will be avoided. Hope you enjoy.
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3 Responses to The Things They Carry

  1. DCPS teacher says:

    Just discovered your site via The Washington Teacher, I like it. I have 4 preps as I did last year, my first year of teaching at DCPS. I tried to find out the unions’ policy on the number of preps and official prep hours but couldn’t get anyone to tell me despite calling the union myself. What is it exactly? I only have one white board so trying to set-up for 4 classes each day is a nightmare. Mind you it is an improvement on last year, when I first started I didn’t have any.

    • teacherman01 says:

      It depends on how your school schedule is arranged. If you meet everyday, my understanding is that 3 preps is the max. If you have a block schedule like mine and meet every other day than two preps is the maximum. Four preps and one board is outrageous. Talk with your building rep. I would also get a few stand alone boards that hold chart paper and dedicate one to each class. Otherwise, you will get burned come observation time. Let me know how it turns out.

  2. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something.

    I think that you could do with a few pics to drive the message
    home a little bit, but instead of that, this is wonderful blog.
    An excellent read. I’ll certainly be back.

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