Friday afternoon finds my last class of the day, English III, restless again. The new seating arrangement has helped, but there is a football game tonight against a beatable rival, and the young men have a nervous energy. Generally, I like football days. The whole school is a bit electrified, and the players get to wear their jerseys all day.
At my high school, way “back in the day,” sports cemented the place. Lodged between pine trees and a man-made lake, the prep school had a real love affair with contact sports. Every student had to participate in some team activity. “You are scholars and athletes, athletes and scholars,” was practically our school motto, especially when the school was all boys. I participated in wrestling and track.
The high school were I now teach does not have many winning traditions yet, not since the reopening, but the full roster of sports (except wrestling) gives our students an outlet too many alternative programs ignore. This week alone, I have cheered on boy’s and girl’s soccer, girl’s volleyball, and I will be at least making an appearance at the game tonight. Students like it when their teachers show up to watch them work outside the classroom.
Back in class, I begin by having my English students outline the differences between sentences and sentence fragments. We discuss how, in English, a complete thought requires a doer and a deed, something all languages do not. I mention how I read once that in the Hopi language “airplane” is a verb, complete unto itself. We talk about how the difference in word order in Spanish might shape variances in thought as well. How we see the world is deeply dependent on the words we use to articulate that sight, as well as on the order in which we arrange them.
The discussion is interesting, and I can literally see ideas and thoughts grabbing hold of some of my students. But not the ones in the back, the football players and their crew. They are interested, but just not enough to commit. I take note of it, call on a few for guided input, and then move on.
The primary focus today revolves around the art of persuasion. I use the same analogies and flow charts from my earlier AP English class. Since both sets of students are eleventh graders, I try hard to expose both groups to the guiding question this year: how do words and their arrangement impact action? We are no longer just asking “what” a particular piece says, but “how” does it say it. I am enjoying the shift in focus, and most of my students seem to be as well.
I decide to focus first on speeches, and, after a lesson on rhetoric, logos, ethos, and pathos, I distribute their assignment. They are to read Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty, or give me death” speech and track his various appeals to logic and to emotion. Then, they are to pretend the month is June; the class of 2011 has graduated, and they are the seniors-to-be. They are running for president of the Student Government Association. Their audience consists of ninth graders who don’t know them, tenth graders who might know them, and their fellow eleventh graders who think they know them. How will you convince this crowd to vote for you? What words will you use and to what affect?
Most students like the exercise, but my crowd in the back groans audibly even before I can finish explaining it. The notion of seizing leadership outside of a sports captaincy is a foreign body to them. Which is, in part, why I assign it. I want them all to see themselves not just as followers, but as leaders who can inspire and be relied upon. Midway through my reiteration of the mandatory assignment, Mr. Rhines enters my room.
I met him, or rather he was thrust upon me, on Tuesday after school. A 1958 graduate from the old school located where we now sit, Mr. Rhines described himself as a poet and speaker who wanted to connect with young people. I could barely hear his words for his outfit, a matching pants and shirt ensemble of African garb much too heavy for the heatwave we have been experiencing. His pointed hat matched his clothes, and from it long gray dreds fell almost to his waist. He also has a full, gray beard and a thin, angular face. His wife, who is younger, wore a similar outfit with her hair in braids and said nothing. I listened as Mr. Rhines recited poems to me while periodically pulling from a black satchel handfuls of other documents and signed thank you letters from classes he has visited across the country. I nodded politely at first, but then became more engaged. Once he told me he ends his talk by doing one-hundred push ups, I was hooked. I invited him to speak to my “football” class on Friday. But when he enters my room at 2:30 PM, as scheduled, I am as surprised as my students. I had forgotten. He is wearing clothing similar to when we met.
He and his wife find a seat while I complete my talk on leadership and quickly review the basic structure of rhetoric. Just as I finish, the public address systems asks all Junior Varsity football players to report to the gym. I know my players are all varsity, but they attempt to rush for the exit door using this tailor-made excuse. Before I can say anything, Mr. Rhines barks, “Sit back down” in a voice much deeper than I remember. “I said sit down, young man,” Mr. Rhines says to one, placing his body between the towering young man and the door.
All return to their seats. Mr. Rhines then tells all my students how old he is (70), and that he once sat in that very room. Back in 1958, integration had just come to DC, and the majority of the school was still white. He introduces his wife and says he has come bearing wisdom. Before he reads his poems, he makes then recite “I am so glad to be alive.” He then asks the students to applaud themselves and their families for having survived the Middle Passage, slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and benign neglect. Only his voice can be heard. Then, he asks them to applaud me. He says the little part of the lesson he heard was masterful and urges them not to take my efforts for granted. He reminds them how few teachers are black males, especially English, and then he calls me “deep.”
The student, especially my athletes, rise from their seats and salute me. I wave them off with my hands and look down to conceal my emotion. I am touched. Then, Mr. Rhines promises my students that if they listen to him he will do one-hundred push ups for them. He recites four lengthy poems from heart about the joy of living, the power in knowledge, the need for self-love, and the balm in education. After each poem, my students applaud loudly. Some record him on their cell phones. When he is done, one student in the back yells, “What about the push ups?”
Mr. Rhines moves to the center of the “U” and proceeds to lift his body up and down off the floor while counting down. One male student tries to mimic him, but quits at around fifty. When he is done, all my students gather around him and shake his hand. They invite him back, and most linger even after the dismissal bell.
On the ride home after the football game, I kept thinking about Mr. Rhines, as well as the mothers, fathers, uncles, and aunts who came to watch the game. Thursday was Back-to-School night, and I met almost seventy parents, grandparents, and guardians then. The line connecting my students to their community is a deep one, and I make a note to thank the village in my prayers.