Next to the first week of school, I favor the last. Exams are over, and the students who show up do so not for grades, but just because they enjoy being there. They spend unpressured time with friends and even some teachers. I am one of the lucky ones.
All week my room fills with rising seniors, juniors, and even sophomores I have yet to teach. The administration insisted on uniforms for most students until the end (10th graders received a reward for taking the DC CAS), but almost all the ones who arrive wear their regular clothes, especially on Thursday and Friday. They know a dress-down occasion when they see one. A few girls go too far, but most students, boys and girls, stylishly flaunt their youth.
Movies are my inducement. I have two showings each day. I prefer ethnic films which speak to youthful adventures. The Great Debaters, Coach Carter, Drumline, Remember the Titans, Cooley High, and School Daze top my list. Someone sneaks in Friday while I clear my room, and I am amazed at how many know the entire movie by heart. As some watch and laugh, others play cards or share songs on an iPod.
One day I serve pilfered fruit left over from the prior day’s faculty picnic. The watermelon tastes especially sweet, and I enjoy seeing students fight over the last strawberries. The air outside is very warm, a precursor of the hot July ahead. I will miss them all, and they know it. In-between films, some of us reminisce about funny moments in the past year. I make everyone take a list of recommended books for the college-bound. The sheet abounds with classics, and I assure them their SAT scores will rise 50-75 points per book read. “It’s all about exposure. These are the books they construct the test around,” I yell above the blast of the TV volume turned all the way up.
Vacation is upon us. A few students will head to summer school. Most will gain additional work experience and cash of their own. Their lives are beginning to assume a new texture, and it is exhilarating to watch them try on the clothes of adulthood. There is no rush, of course, and they know instinctively that these times together will become one of those “back-in-the-day” stories they tell their progeny.
I think of my tenth grade year. Mr. White, my English teacher newly-minted from Yale, had just finished reading the final passages from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Because it was prep school, there were only fourteen of us in the class, including two of my very best friends. Mr. White paused at the part where the police officer lifts his baton to stop traffic. “Why did Hemingway include this scene?” he asked. “What is he saying?”
We all stared back at him blankly. Mr. White always became so animated when he got excited over something we read, and we all looked at each other for clues to this mysterious passage which had excited him so. We saw nothing but a policeman raising a baton. “Come on,” Mr. White exhorted us. “Think. What is it that Jake could not raise?” We all knew the protagonist was impotent, but the reality and the symbolism escaped most of us.
“His, uh, baton,” the long-haired new boy finally volunteered.
“Yes!” Mr. White exclaimed. “He had no baton to speak of. He had nothing to raise. His penis did not work.” We laughed so much that class. But I also remember learning something so profound that day. I finally saw writing as art. I finally got what literature was all about. Writers, great writers, deliberately pick and choose language and things said and omitted to capture humanity in all its nakedness, beauty, and shame. If I teach AP Literature next year, I intend to add a few works from the Lost Generation to my syllabus.
And that’s the wonder of school and teaching. Students get to share in your excitement over a bunch of words. As my last post indicated, I am worried that DCPS’ latest attempt to codify outcomes by legislating the things we read in class will rob both the teacher and the student of that natural exchange. Teachers do best when they use the tools they love best to build the lesson or unit. I teach Raisin in the Sun or The Catcher in the Rye better than, say, The Tempest or A Lesson Before Dying (both excellent works) because those works resonate more with me. I know all the words the way some of my students know the movie Friday. That connection and enthusiasm also lure my students into the work, if for no other reason than to see what’s got me so “bent.”
At times this year, I worried that my link to students was weakening as I neared the end of my sixth year of teaching. I worried that my jokes and antics had grown stale. But staring out this week into all those faces moving in and out of my classroom with such ease made me realize that I teach not to pay a bill, or even to receive a certain score on an evaluation wheel. I teach because I can, and because the young people entrusted to me have a right to learn as much as I can give them in the short time we have together.
A departing senior searches me out to sign her yearbook. A steady presence for the last four years during my lunchroom sessions, I will miss her eagerness for knowledge. In tenth grade, she worked hard for me as I sought to improve her grammar and writing skills. A larger girl with family mishaps littering her path, she will be the first in her family to attend college. She choose St. Mary’s College, she told me, because she knew they would dig deep to lift her even further. Despite her ready smile, this young lady is so serious about seizing her future that my only regret is I will not be there to witness her ascent.
After promising to write neatly for once, I scribble on the top left corner of a blank page: Remember, you are a miracle. Do what miracles do. She grins, and we share a parting hug. She entered my classroom a tentative teen, and now leaves an ambitious young woman. No sweeping policy changes or administrative missteps can rob me of my front row seat as the transformation takes hold. I have, of course, only a small part in the drama of her life. What matters most to me now, as the summer break begins, is that I, like Mr. White, do everything I can to make that moment count.