I had a wonderful week. All my students are almost in full swing, and they seem to be appreciating the caliber of work they are receiving. “Great class,” one yelled upon leaving the room. “This is going to be fun,” added another. I cherish those remarks probably more than I should. Sometimes they are directed at the lesson, but other times they actually refer to one of the many “life stories” I share to keep the class moving while illustrating a point.
I tell them about growing up in Southeast Washington. “You must not know who I am. I’m from Shipley Terrace,” remains a popular refrain from me. I tell them about the summer camp at Fort Stanton, the long walks home from Catholic school, the riots, and prep school. I tell them about my days at Harvard and Columbia. I paint pictures about my stint as “Dr. Love” on the radio, or about the times in the hospital when my daughters were born. Always, I use cultural landmarks with which they can relate. My tone is breezy, like when I describe the 9/14 day, way back in my freshman year of college, when I first met my wife–a miraculous day.
I believe much of the “achievement gap” arises from lessons which fail to make a connection with the students and the cultural landscape supporting them. Because I share that landscape, it is, perhaps, easier for me to anchor lessons and essential questions with familiar allusions. “Too much pathos in writing,” I tell them, “is like hot sauce on greens. You don’t want too much. You don’t want the fire to overtake the meal.” They nod and then add their own stories about that one aunt who simply cannot cook–but thinks she can.
Teaching can be so much fun if you let it. Students are such a ready audience. For example, this week during AP English we completed our first examination of rhetoric and Aristole’s rhetorical triangle. I emphasized the need for connection between speaker, audience, and subject if persuasion is to be achieved. After reading and annotating half of the first chapter of our textbook, I had the students tackle an in-class essay on the speech Lou Gehrig delivered on July 4, 1939 at Yankee Stadium. Their task was to analyze the rhetorical effectiveness of his language. But first, I had to tell them who he was.
I briefly related the basics of his baseball career, his record-setting 2,130 consecutive games (not broken until 1995 by Cal Ripkin), his steady bat, his hitting prowess, his tenure as a Yankee, his humble demeanor, and his horrible disease. I told them how, feeling increasingly weak, he voluntarily pulled himself from a game on May 2, knowingly ending his appearance streak for the sake of the team.
I share with them my notes on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the disease confirmed on his 36th birthday in 1939, which would soon claim his strength, his limbs, and, two years later, his life. I did the best I could to recreate that Fourth of July in 1939 when Gehrig took to the microphone to address fans who were no more ready to see him retire than he was to leave. And yet…
Using this familiar AP English SOAPSTone chart, we decided Gehrig’s purpose that day was to express his gratitude for his life and career, rather than bemoan the disease he simply referred to once as his “bad break.” In stating his claim–I am the luckiest man alive–Gehrig used plain language to highlight the incredible times he had spent with family, teammates, fans, and friends. A short speech, we read it twice and then agreed with a reviewer who deemed it one of the most effective, arresting speeches ever given.
Student athletes, male and female, are, of course, naturally more engaged with stories drawn from sports. But stories like Gehrig’s resonate with everyone. By high school, all students have a story or two about some family member’s “bad break.” The power of Gehrig’s simple yet astonishing farewell provides a perfect backdrop for a lesson on the power of diction, syntax, and words to achieve purpose and create impact.
At the beginning of the next class, I handed out a warm-up which reinforced our discussions about diction–the choice of words–and the role it plays in persuasive writing. One of the books I use (Voice Lessons by Nancy Dean) reprinted an excerpt from Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium.” In the two lines provided, Yeats writes, “An aged man is but a paltry thing. A tattered coat upon a stick…”
After brainstorming and then confirming our understanding of the exact meaning of “paltry” and “tattered,” we turned to the electric charge contained in these words. Like the old DC standards they replace, the nationally-adopted Core Standards have a love affair with denotation and connotation–the precise and implied meaning of words. We all agreed that, for the purposes of this poem, Yeats was clearly no fan of the elderly man.
Then I stepped away from the DCPS-prescribed lesson and told my students a story. Two days prior, shortly after school let out for the day, I drove to this Dollar Store I favor on the edge of town. I needed a few more supplies for the year. Just as I parked my car, an old song by Rose Royce came on the radio that I wanted to hear. I lingered in the parking lot as it played.
In the midst of singing along, I noticed an old black man exiting the barbershop on the corner. It was a warm day, yet he wore a plaid jacket, a white shirt, and a brown tie. He also sported brown dress pants and Sunday shoes.
He used a walker with two wheels on the front to steady his stride. “He must have been 95,” I said. “And he moved so slowly. Maybe one inch every five minutes. And he fascinated me.”
The old man’s car–a light blue compact with a large, handicap sticker hanging from the rear view mirror–was parked diagonally across from mine. When the song ended, I turned off the radio, and my eyes charted his slow progression towards his automobile. He would push the front of the walker an inch or two, then use the wheels and back legs, cushioned with the half-shells of yellow tennis balls, to move his frame slowly forward.
His body sloop-shaped like a capital “C,” I momentarily imagined him years younger, a vigorous high school student just beginning his life. As my eyes followed his laborious advance, I imagined all the wonders he had witnessed, all the loves he had enjoyed, all the losses he had endured, all the steps towards freedom. “It would have been so easy,” I told my students, “for that man to stay in bed that day. Who cares if his hair is cut?”
“Nobody,” one girl said.
“Wrong,” I said. “He cared. Rather than lie and wallow in whatever complaints he might have had, that man rose from his bed, made breakfast, got dressed in his best clothes, and went to the barbershop–something he has probably been doing since he was a boy.”
“Did you help him?” one boy asked.
“No,” I said.
“You just watched?” another asked.
“Yes,” I said. “That man did not need help. All he needed was time, and he had been granted plenty of that. When he finally reached his car, he found his keys in his front pants pocket and removed them with a shaking hand. Then he opened the front door, undid the latch to the back seat door, worked his way back to that walker, took a deep breath, folded it in the middle, took another breath, lifted it into the back seat, closed the door, inched his way back to the driver’s seat, slowly reclined into it, lifted his outside leg over the threshold with both hands, and sat for a minute, catching his breath again.”
How easy it is to stop living long before the final call. This man, like Lou Gehrig before him, choose instead to celebrate life’s victory, rather than linger on its setbacks. “For me, a haircut is an hour at best. For him, it is a day’s journey. And yet he still goes. I admired and loved that man so much,” I said. “I want to be him some day.”
Then the classroom grew quiet, the way it sometimes does when there is nothing left to say.