On Courage

Classes this week have been good.  AP English Language students deliver well-constructed arguments for or against Cosby’s assertions about the black lower class.  Some feel Cosby is correct; poor people bring misfortune on themselves through reckless behavior.  Others argue Cosby’s claims are too simplistic and mask his own personal grief over the death of his son (why are these people still wasting away while my son is gone).  We clap after each student reads from the front of the class.   I then use that platform to begin formalizing the lessons around rhetoric and argument in general.

In Debate, we examine some common logical fallacies and are preparing for our first in-class debate.  Next week, we will argue for and against use of the N-word.  I only have to introduce “flow,” or how to chart an opponents arguments while they are speaking, and we are on our way.  Finally, in English III, we read three creation myths from a few Native American tribes (Navajo, Modoc, Onondaga), while Navajo music plays in the background.  We identify elements most creation myths share.  The students must now write an original myth explaining either the origin of life, or some other natural phenomena (rain, earthquake) that would have perplexed early man and required an explanation.  It goes well.

But my most interesting conversation this week occurs during lunch.  I am lucky this year.  My school has two lunch shifts, so my Third Period planning stretches for two hours.   I have this nice chunk of time in the middle of the day to make copies, plan my lessons, or just sit in my room and think.

Last year, during one lunch period, my room was always full of students–an interesting mixture of young people from all grades who wished to avoid the inevitable cafeteria politics.  The students included seniors I had taught in 10th, student artists hooked on anime, a few skateboarders, and several young ladies not easily classified.  Misfits of sorts who found solace in each other’s company–and mine.

I enjoyed them, and I am glad the “old gang” is slowly finding its way to my new room.  Today, one young man who I am teaching for the third year in a row and a  young lady who is now a senior (I taught her in 10th) share lunch with me.  Both want to talk about college.  I share some of my stories (they have heard them all before), and we laugh about the future awaiting them.

Then the young lady, a valedictorian candidate, shows me a college application she is completing. She asks me to review her essays.  One question asks how her current environment has shaped her life.  She chooses a journal format to tackle the question and aptly describes a typical stroll through her neighborhood.  All her images are bleak.  Clusters of unemployed men and aimless teens punctuate her stroll, along with cracked sidewalks, discarded beer cans, and discarded  dreams.

Her piece is well-written, and I first compliment her on her use of vivid detail.  Then I asked her to reread the application question.  “So how has your neighborhood shaped you?” I ask.  She pauses for a long time and then shows me another paragraph she has written about courage.

I forget the exact quote she begins with, but it contrasts courage and fear, casting them both as twin brothers.  It is a good quote, and our talk turns to the notion of courage.  How did her neighborhood give her strength?  I should note she is a first-generation American.  Her parents are immigrants from Nigeria.  Like most first-generations, I have always found her focused, almost too focused. Two years ago, I admonished her to have at least a little fun along the way. She frequently exhibits a mixed love for her new country.  She loves the freedoms she has found here, but she misses the far-away home she never really had.  She sees it through her parents’ longings.

Sometimes her judgments about others, especially the people in her community, can be harsh.  No one works hard enough.  No one appreciates what they have.  No one wants to achieve.  I can tell talk of the “lazy, spoiled American” percolates in her home.

“When you walk down your street,” I ask her, “do you see anything or anyone worthwhile?  Have you missed anything?  Are there any sources of beauty–besides you?”  She laughs while the young man, who has been listening, nods.  “Be careful,” I say.  “Maybe courage lies in the faces and lives of the people you do not see.  Think about it.  What a great essay that would make.”

I tell her how my wife always works hard to find the best in people.  Whenever I start to complain about something or someone, she will ask me something annoying like “Did you wake up with feet this morning?”  In my classroom, the three of us laugh at that one.  The young lady wants to meet my wife.  The young man says he is learning to ignore the noise and stay positive about life and his future.  It is a good day, and my classroom is full of courage.



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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