I love the word “affirmation.” Sometimes the universe just seems to click your way, and everything melds into place. The weekend before school began, I took full advantage of the beautiful weather to visit some of my favorite places. At Rock Creek Park, I played gospel music from my car and envisioned the year ahead. I vowed to remain positive–no matter what. Then I drove around my neighborhood, stopping to chat with three grandfather types who sat on milk crates while solving the problems of the world.
I told them I was a high school English teacher, which seemed to impress. One thought the youth of today are lazy and lost. Another blamed the media for unfairly reporting only the bad things they do. The third reminded the other two that they, too, had been teenagers once, which set off a lively discussion about life in the 1950s. Older people always think they had it better, and I make a note to avoid that trap when my time arrives.
I then stopped at my neighborhood recreation center and blasted music for the retirees who regularly gather to play tennis. The younger crowd near the basketball courts also grooved to the sounds, familiar and otherwise. A father pushing his young daughter on the swings nodded my way and pumped his fists in the air. A lady in her thirties walked over to my car and said, “You’re making the whole neighborhood feel good.” It was a great day.
When Monday came, and with it the rush of students returning, I was ready. At first, I hated losing my old classroom and the couches and chairs I had assembled. But after I stopped complaining and accepted the change, things came together nicely. I painted over the marks on the walls, hung all these posters about literature and writing, and found three tall wooden bookcases to house my books. The room feels like a library, and, when you walk in, it just seems like education is taking place. The students loved it.
This year, after some prodding on my part, I am teaching four sections of AP English Language and Composition and two sections of Debate. It is my second year teaching AP English, and I know exactly where I need to take my students. In the first few classes, I used the football Hall of Fame speeches of Shanon Sharpe and Marshall Faulk to illustrate the power of words. It made for a nice segue into Aristole’s rhetorical triangle. Thanks to the teachers who proceeded me, they are already annotating with precision, and I think they appreciated the easy rapport we established.
I made no apologies for the amount of work I expected. “If you came here for knowledge, I will not disappoint,” I told them. “If you came here for hard work, worthwhile work, I will not disappoint. But if you came here only to play, to waste time, to just get by, then I am not the one.” I said. “Get to steppin’.” Nobody moved.
The students were especially touched by Sharpe’s speech. His impoverished childhood and courageous grandmother, who raised him and his two siblings, resonated with them. I choose to begin the year with that piece not only because it illustrated the principles of rhetoric in “everyday language,” but also because I wanted them to know that excellence in life is always affordable if you are willing to do the work. We will get to more formalized essays soon enough.
When I mentioned to the school counselor that my class seemed to be overcrowding with new faces each day, she said I was to blame. Word had circulated among the juniors and seniors that my class was “interesting and fun.” Of course, I am not alone in that. My colleagues appeared equally engaged in their classrooms. I just think it will be a productive year for all of us.
In Debate I, I again turned to the use of the N-word to demonstrate the key differences between argument and debate. We had a very spirited discussion on the topic, and we will have a formal debate this upcoming week. The students were divided on the issue. Some felt the word was negative and should never be used. Others saw it as an emblem of fellowship which should be worn with pride–but only by certain people. It will be an interesting debate. More importantly, students are thinking about diction and the impact of words.
When the earthquake struck on Tuesday, I was at lunch in my classroom. Three young ladies from the class of 2011 had stopped by to visit. We were chatting when the room began to rumble and then shake. I thought the building was going to collapse. As the ladies huddled under the door jamb, I moved down the hall towards the other teachers and students too unsettled to hide their panic. We evacuated the building and spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the football field and texting family and friends. Though the event itself was frightening, I think that time together with the whole school reclining on the bright green, artificial turf brought us together as a unit. Call it the proverbial “silver lining.”
When school closed the following day, I wanted to find a way to express my gratitude that no one was hurt. As I later explained to the students, I decided to use that Wednesday to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. I found a great parking space near the 23rd Street entrance. Sitting in my car, watching as people walked towards the impressive tribute, I loudly played the song “Heroes” by the Commodores. It was the perfect sentiment for the moment, and a few passersby lingered and swayed by the car as it played.
“Heroes make the sun rise in the morning. Heroes make the moon shine bright at night. Heroes make our lives a little stronger. In the heart of everyone, he can be found.”
I shared the song the next day with my students and distributed the lyrics. I used it to illustrate a host of things. I also gave each of them the printed program from the memorial. “Don’t lose it,” I said. “It will be worth money some day on eBay.”
Then I grew serious. “Think about it,” I began. “At the young age of 26, Dr. King looked out over a segregated America and realized something had to be done. But overtaking an insidious practice so deeply entrenched would not be easy. He needed a weapon capable of shattering a heavy wall. When he searched the arsenal available to him, he walked past the gun and the blade, the fancy car and the bling. He rejected violence and hatred in every form, including self-hatred–the deepest kind. Instead, he choose words as his weapon. Think about it.
He used those words to help transform the most powerful nation on Earth. Working with so many others, he confronted America with words. Some of those words are etched on the base of the memorial, not just an excerpt from the ubiquitous “I Have a Dream” speech–a groundbreaking moment–but also his thoughts on economics, politics, and war.”
“The statue itself is large and imposing,” I continued. “Rising out of this blank rock of despair, the look on his face is neither happy nor sad. It is the look of determination. His arms are folded in contemplation and deep thought. He neither smiles nor frowns. He does not look into the eye of the beholder, but stares somewhere off, slightly above and to the side. His pose suggests a man who knows there is still work to be done, even as we celebrate the sacrifice.”
“I want you to know,” I told them, “that words can change the world. Words can unleash the hero in you.”
In debate, we took turns reading Dr. King’s “Mountaintop” speech delivered the night before his assassination. In AP English, we read a piece about the Pawnee tribe and their belief that the universe was their progenitor. They believed in “ours,” more than “mine” or “yours.”
We discussed the implications of such an approach. If the whole world is your address, if the universe is your ultimate mother, then you will not lose yourself in silly associations. It will not matter if you reside on this block or that block. “If you see yourself as a child of the universe,’ I told them, “how could you become distracted by local disputes over turf or status? A child of the universe is too focused on its wonders to die over dirt.” I then pointed out that reading and words can bring that wondrous world to them.
When it was over, one male senior I taught in debate two years ago lingered after the bell. I knew him well. I knew his young shoulders had borne a man’s weight much too soon. But I also knew the persistent light in his countenance was real and worthy of celebration. “I just want to tell you something,” he said, staring down at his feet. Then he looked up at me, looked me directly in my eyes, and said, “You inspire me.”
Startled, I mumbled a hasty “thank you.” I just wish I had possessed the stamina and words to let him know how much he and his classmates return the favor in full.