Sometimes, the best part of teaching occurs outside the classroom. As I sail through the halls at my school–usually singing some old soul song–I make it a point to interact with as many students as I can. Seniors and juniors I no longer teach are a particular target of mine. We talk about colleges, or grades, or family issues. The few minutes spent with a student matter. You never know where a knowing word or kind gesture will land.
I spend my lunch time in my classroom with a wide range of students who have somehow found their way to my room. Some are regulars from years past, but many are new, including freshman and sophomores I have yet to teach. I enjoy our informal chats about whatever it is they wish to discuss. Young people have such enthusiasm when you let them. Away from the immediate weight of grades and judgement, they turn into fascinating human beings, at once silly and sad, witty and wise. I enjoy their company.
On Saturday, twenty-three of my debaters braved the icy snow to participate in a debate tournament sponsored by the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. I make it a point to participate because I want them to see young professionals of color successfully engaging in a host of enterprises. Many of my students have limited exposure to the world outside their gates. I know I did growing up. I want them to meet lawyers, engineers, system analysts, scientists, and entrepreneurs. They need to see that dreams need not be limited to make-believe. They need to understand that hard work and diligence really are rewarded with options and varying degrees of independence. The tournament provided an excellent lesson plan for the highest objective I know–teaching students to believe they can reach beyond wherever they are.
There is one young lady I am worried about. Her life story has been a difficult journey, and adults have not always been as protective as they should. I can almost hear the panic in her voice as graduation nears. She fears outcomes–especially her own. Her mother died young and somewhat broken by life. I know this young lady, despite her keen intelligence, fears a similar ending. She seemed depressed throughout much of the tournament. Always a competitor, she did fine in combat, but wilted between matches.
I moved to sit beside her. I told lame jokes and teased her about her boyfriend. I made her promise to come see me at school for a long talk. She donned a braver face, but I knew she was still troubled. Her team finished the day strongly, losing only one match. As we waited for the cash awards to be announced, the men of Omega burst into an unannounced step show replete with chants and frat songs. The young lady sat mesmerized by the action. Grabbing the arm of two other young ladies, she left her seat and found another one closer to the “show.” I had not seen her smile so freely in a while. When it was over, she approached me and exclaimed, “I just had an epiphany (one of our vocabulary words from two years prior).”
“What?” I asked.
“There is so much out there,” she beamed. “These guys are young, handsome, and strong. There are people like that out there.” Then she added, as though some decision had finally been reached, “I want to be a part of that.”
“See,” I replied. “Now you know why I wanted you here today.” It was corny, perhaps, but true. Later, a young man who has made my classroom something of a school home for three years now asks for a ride. He is a brilliant mind who has also had to navigate a difficult journey. His father is a stranger, and his mother is unique–to say the least. I have tried to teach him to “honor his power” and his innate love of knowledge. He is an unconventional thinker, an old soul, trapped in an adolescent’s insecurities. But he is also a strong competitor who loves to win.
His three-person team learned at the start of the day that one of their members was sick and would not be coming. He and the young lady on his team began to panic. They had not prepared for this. I reminded them of their strength and the inevitable turns life takes. The young man was particularly agitated. He would now have to tackle both the first and second constructive speeches. He had never delivered the opening before, and he claimed he could never meet the challenges inherent in that placement. “I can’t do it,” he insisted.
“Of course, you can,” I told him. “Just breath deep, take your time, and speak.”
At the cash award ceremony, they called his name. He and the young lady were undefeated for the day and placed third as a team. After posing for a picture, he returned to his seat, grasping the check they gave them like it a life preserver at sea.
Then, the top speaker awards were announced. Fourth and third place honors went to capable competitors from other teams. My hesitant debater is not used to hearing his name called, and he shook briefly as they read his name again. He came in second in a room full of strong debaters. The way he moved towards the front to receive yet another check made my smile almost as wide as his.
I gave him a ride home. “Finally, I have some money,” he said. I decided not to ask him how he intended to spend his treasure. Some things are not meant to be shared. But I did decide to add something just as we stopped at the tall apartment building where he lived.
“Never forget,” I told him, “how you felt this morning. All the things you said you couldn’t do, but then did anyway. Sometimes, we are the clouds blocking the sun. You are so talented. Don’t make the mistake of getting in your own way. Ok?”
“Ok,” he said as he opened the door. “Thanks for the ride.”