Their Eyes Keep Watching God

My tenth graders and I spent the last four weeks of the year reading Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God.  Some got it, but some did not.  I understood.  It took me three or four turns before I surrendered to Hurston’s language and accepted her flow.

What a mighty river is she!  Yes, sometimes the dialect throws you and your ear rebels with judgmental vengeance.  At first glance, the story itself seems small.  So a black woman in some small town nobody knows finds love self-serving and elusive.   Where is the news?

So we tried, my students and I, to appreciate the broad challenges present–a woman reaching, and a man trying to step aside and let it happen.  It might seem like a common story to young ears; they still are defining love, so I can understand how tenth graders might wonder what all the fuss is about.

But then, in the final chapter of the protagonist Janie’s journey, she observes, “Love is lak de sea.  It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from the de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”  It was only after I read the lines aloud and watched my students nod in appreciation that I considered the weight of Hurston’s observation.

That’s what the real challenge of teaching is–especially in an urban world.  An effective teacher must remember to value all the many shores facing him or her, each holding its own promise and breathing its own air.  After all the “edumetrics” and statistics are put away–at least for a while–it becomes clear person-to-person instruction trumps all the theories and latest trends, standardized or otherwise.

Children are miracles, and we only fail them when we forget that.  When we treat them like demographic predictors waiting to plunder–and not children thirsty for the world–we do everyone a disservice.  Could it be the much ballyhooed “achievement gap” is primarily a reflection of the beholder’s truth?

Last week, the Census Bureau released its latest warning salvo about the browning of America.  The future welfare of our nation will increasingly depend upon the input of students like mine.  Soon, the very notion of the “All-American” child will be revised to include the African American, Latino, and Asian intonations in my classroom.

So my students and I read the book and made suppositions of our own.  Can false love ever be a necessary hurdle?  Is disappointment an ingrained part of life, or is it just an accidental stumble in the stretch to catch your self, reword your self, and outrun your distractions. It is hard to believe the path through the forest bends and weaves for a reason, that our obstacles have a reason.  It is hard to fathom that kind of love.

Like Janie, we roam with our eyes and minds, searching for a harbor beyond danger’s roar, above disaster’s tip.  Children understand they do not have all the answers yet.  No one does.  So they attempt what we adults request, but study what we do even more.  They wait for their break to taste for themselves life’s subtle splendor, while doing all they can to outmaneuver its easy mistakes.  In the process, they make their own.

The puzzle is wider than that:  how can we help build their inner climb for the looming horizons ahead?  Teachers have it easier than parents.  Ours is a temporary station at best.  Is it possible to make a difference in such little time?  How do we convince the children and ourselves that the only true barrier to enlightenment lies within?

We must find a way to keep them daring, reaching, climbing, and transcending.  We must feed their imagination and tease their wit.  But, more than that, we must let them know, as we who have struggled through it know, any talent is a blessing, and blessings must be celebrated and never ignored.

My career challenge over these next few weeks is to think more about my approach to my students.  I must continue to improve and make my inputs less intrusive, but not because the year was not productive.  It was.  But like any gardener worth his weight, I need to aerate the soil and then step back and let nature exhale.  I must work harder to temper direction with care.

It is a balancing act.  And where there have been rough patches, neglect, or misunderstandings, I must make my minutes before the plate do everything they can to restore faith in optimism. grace, and home runs.

Only then can the real learning start.



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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1 Response to Their Eyes Keep Watching God

  1. Antony Norman says:

    Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God over seven weeks in Haiti. The novel was published in 1937. Though the novel was written while abroad, Hurston’s home base was actually New York, where she played a prominent role in what we now call the Harlem Renaissance – a time of immense literary, musical, and artistic creativity in the black community of Harlem . Their Eyes Were Watching God is Hurston’s most famous novel. The storyline follows the life of Janie Crawford, a black woman in search of true love and her true self. Both the novel and Hurston were not very well known until 1975, when another African American female writer, Alice Walker , wrote an article entitled “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston.” This piece resulted in a renewed interest in Hurston and her writing.

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