On Your Mark

I’m not going to pretend.  I’ve been away from this blog too long. But I needed time to adjust my wings.  Flight is often tenuous, especially when it comes to a new school, a new system, and a new beginning.  Face it, we sometimes take to the air and flap and flap and still wonder– has my landing really arrived?

Truth be told, I love my new setting, even as I mourn the old.  Private school is really no different.  The students want the usual things, but the declaration is not phrased the same.  Too many have been coddled into believing that material things really do trump reading and ideas.  The challenge for me remains constant.  I need to find the place which conveys my love and good intentions without obscuring the arduous climb they face.  Excellence is never a given, and too many words come free.

I had five classes today, as usual.  Yesterday was a sick day, and I was up very late last night, watching Monday Night Football and revamping my energy.  My first, my smallest class, overflowed, it seemed, with fourteen students who wanted learning, but just not quite enough.  Boys overwhelm the room.  I understand their rush to be men, but when I tell them it takes work and patience, they immediately seek some release.  They have heard it all their lives.  At times, I am guilty of trying too much to show my understanding and working too little to reveal life’s darkest truth–when it comes to your burdens, the ultimate earthly weight is often yours alone to bear.

The young ladies are more knowing.  They already understand the road they face will be harder to navigate.  They see in their mother’s faces the places they both yearn to visit and avoid. They have heard all the stories about what was and might have been.  “There are no guarantees,” one brave soul volunteers.  “Yes,” I answer.  “But how can we still make it work?”

I turned four boys in my senior writing class in today for rude and disruptive behavior.  One was temporarily suspended.  I know it was partly my fault.  I should have tightened the boundaries earlier.  But I believed in time they would figure out my one primal peeve:  do not interfere with the learning, even as we laugh along the way.

A few of their classmates now call me a “snitch.”  And when I tried to explain to one after school that, after all, it was a blind test starring the 2012 AP English Language argument question, and how all the students deserved quiet and time to write, he dismissed my concerns as an old man’s rumble.  It is a fight I cannot win.

Teaching isn’t easy–nor should it be.  But sometimes you stumble upon a moment you didn’t expect when everyone is silent and instruction controls the room. I know current dogma argues otherwise.  The reformers still believe teachers are nothing more than spools in a wheel, even when troublesome data suggests otherwise.  “No more than ten minutes of talking,” a supervisor once warned.  “Let them figure it out for themselves.”

But I know of no such village.  Take today.  In both my tenth grade classes, advanced and “average.” I unveiled an assignment I had hinted at for weeks.  After researching the importance of names, ethnic and otherwise, I instructed them to craft a story about their own.  I assigned senses charts and generic questions about the impact of history, mythology, and culture on the process of picking names.

“Tell me about your sound,” I urged.  “How does your music resonate within?  How does it feel to you?” I asked. Earlier, I plowed them with information  about the most popular names from most every  significant American ethnic group.  “Circle the rhythm of those whose faces you recognize,” I asked.

We talked about legacies and obstacles.  We read about a boy named “Osama” and a girl with a “Cisneros” last name.  We debated the merits of surface judgement and reflexive assignments like “ghetto” and “pretty” to the hats we wear.

That set up today, when I took it further.  “Write a story about who you are using only your name,” I said.  “Last month, we did exercises about imagery and figurative language.  We talked about how some words function like spices and herbs in writing.  Sprinkle just enough and no more.”

Today, just as I finally unveiled the name writing assignment, I decided to give them a piece of me.  It is not fair of teachers to demand more than they seek.  I handed out my take on the challenge, but not before assuring them it took me many years and countless revisions to “work it all out.”  I read:

On Your Mark

 For the longest, I assumed my father had named me as his one bold gesture of paternal outreach. He named me, but did not linger long enough to see how it would fit. No, he left the alterations for me to handle, the letting out and the tucking in. It was mine alone to maneuver through archways and tunnels, through honor rolls and disappointments, through first kisses and thirsty good-byes. But then I discovered, shorty after turning fifteen, that my name was actually my older brother’s idea. He had been inspired by his own deep affection for Mark, the Gospel writer who spun biblical tales of heroic tragedy and true belief.

 My name, I suppose, does elicit a certain expectation of honor from those who hear it. The banner rings crisp and clear. There is no confusion, no ostentatious display. Mark is the sound of honest labor and stubborn hope. It is the gun’s burst at the start of a race, the musky smell of strain and sweat as the spirit wills the body into action. Watch the yearning ripple forward, and upward, and on. Feel the slow-burning heat of a mind at work hungry for something more.

 Mark is too simple and plain a name for shiny medals or showy parades waiting at the finish line. My name moves not for victory so much as for movement’s sake. My history is healed by the attempt, by the struggle to be more than the echo of my father’s parting steps.

 For me, my sound, my symbol, is not the flashy gait of the sprinter chasing records, but rather the steady pull of the long distance runner, counting his paces, eyes locked on the horizon–keeping time.

The tenth graders applauded when I finished, and I turned to face the board so they would not see me smile.  Now if I could just find a way to lure my seniors on board.



About Mark E.P. Roberts

teachermandc is Mark E.P. Roberts, a middle-aged, high school English teacher entering his ninth year of instructing young minds. This blog is an attempt to capture the challenge of teaching and the essence of learning. At a time when DC has become the epicenter of educational theory, this blog will keep its preferred focus on students in an somewhat typical DC high school. I have taught in both public and private schools. To date, 95% of my students are of color. All names have been changed, and complaints about in-house politics will be avoided. Hope you enjoy.
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