Terms of Endearment

It took a while to post this week.  On Wednesday and Thursday, I sang “Make that change” to all who would listen.  I was pleased with the election results, but not with the analysis that followed.  To hear others spin it, I voted against Fenty, and not for Gray.  Like many native, African American voters, I turned my back on efficiency and embraced nostalgia instead.  As a teacher, I opted to return to lower scores and complacent colleagues.  My vote was irrational, emotional, racial, and, worst of all, heralded devastation for the children I teach.  I needed a little time to digest what change meant to me and for them.

Then, on Friday, my first period English III class comes scrambling into the classroom.  “Yea, son.”  “Nice, cuz.”  They share their original myth illustrations with great enthusiasm.  I watch their interactions and note, for seemingly the first time, how much they support one another.  Their familial greetings mask a deeper connection.  They know what is being said about them.  They have heard all the talk about failing schools and lazy teaching.   They realize they are the object of much speculation, and even the recipient of pity from some well-meaning quarters.  “Those poor kids in those awful schools.”

My students know now that they are eleventh graders, all the special attention, one-on-one meetings, and trips they received last year–the testing year–will not be repeated.  In some ways, they are on their own now, with college looming and graduation finally in sight.  They lean on their parents and grandparents, cousins and aunts.  They lean on each other, and they lean on me.  It is an inspiring embrace.

As they settle into their seats, I turn their attention to our earlier discussions about the Puritans, a humorless but hardy bunch.  We discuss the lingering influence of this group on popular notions of the American Dream, in particular the idealized role of community as a shared space of mutual obligation.  Then it occurs to me.  My vote was a tally for a broader definition of community and common concerns.

In the past four years, too much of the District government seemed to paint by the numbers with no concern for the resulting portrait–a stilted creation with no vibrancy, no unity, no soul.  Schools turned into testing factories and war rooms where a single exam became the yardstick, and people became interchangeable notches easily dismissed, or replaced, or belittled.  Civility was weakness, and collaboration an excuse.  If progress meant “dissing” some in the name of others, so be it.

Community became a narrow thing, especially in the classroom.  Do this.  Don’t do that.  Teaching as recipe seems to work on paper, but I know the constraints, restraints, narrow curriculum, and constant observations drove me out of 10th grade, the last year that “counts,” despite my individual AYP success.

The support my students give to one another is something we all could use more of in our rush from here to there.  We need more mutual consideration, especially at a time when contempt and derision pass as discourse, and “my way or the highway” is the national song.  We need more terms of endearment to acknowledge our common fate.  The divides so trumpeted in the press make our city seem on the verge of collapse.  And yet, on the roads I travel at least, I see movement, and hope, and the kind of mending that only happens after a storm.

“Yea, son.”  “Nice, cuz.”  What a great day to teach.

–teachermandc

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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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