These past few weeks have been marked by a period of introspection for me. My students continue to charm and grow. I took my Public Speaking class of seniors to see the film “12 Years a Slave.” I rarely do field trips, but I strongly felt they needed to see the message of endurance, hope, and perseverance inherent in the story of Solomon Northrop. Afterwards, they had to write a speech about the responsibilities of freedom and deliver it publicly in our school library.
One wrote, “I never realized the worse part of slavery was not being able to control your own time, your own space and decisions. You had to pretend to be less than you were, know less than you knew. I learned that freedom isn’t free. You have to work to protect it.
My sophomores in English class had to tackle a host of subjects during the end of this semester. We diagrammed complex sentences, mastered new power words, and tackled layered short stories ripe with nuance and point-of-view and conflict considerations. We have our rhythm now, and my classroom has begun to attract students I do not directly teach. There is this power of trust and familiarity that binds us to each other in unexpected ways.
We cheer for one another and work as a unit. There is music and laughter, but also learning and growth. My grading system rewards effort. Mistakes are part of the process. The only sin I will not tolerate is not trying. During the beginning of my ten page midterm exam, one young lady, a stand out on the girl’s basketball team, complained, “This is too much. You do too much. What if I can’t do all this?”
“Of course you can,” I said. “Remember last week’s game? I watched you weave and soar all over that court. Let me ask you something. When you go to shoot a lay-up, do you worry about what to do if it doesn’t go in?”
“No,” she said.
“Then don’t do it here. You got this,” I said.
“Great analogy,” another boy sitting near her added. Then they both lowered their heads and went to work.
Teaching is such a humbling profession. Part of what happens in class comes for planning and anticipation. But, as a teacher, I am always amazed at how much the students bring their own energies to bear–especially if they feel valued and welcomed. That lesson really came home to me two weeks ago when I received a text from a student from my very first English class–way back in 2005.
It was his freshman year. I will never forget that magical Class of 2009. I was new to teaching, and they were new to high school. We helped each other out and grew together. I remembered the fiery determination of that young man. He was an exceptional athlete who went on to play Division I college football. But, for me, he was a thinker and a poet. We worked hard to nurture those gifts, even after he left my class.
Like all my students, he had my cell phone number. After graduation, he kept in touch, sending texts about his progress in college, his difficulties, and his triumphs. Always, I reminded him of his power. “It’s not easy being king,” I would tell him. “failure is not your option.”
He texted me a photo of his college graduation. A bump freshman year had delayed his matriculation for one term, but there he was with a college diploma in his hand. In the photo, he is embracing his mother. In another, he is surrounded by family and friends. The wide grin is still the one I remember, and the message he sent along with the picture touched me.
“Love you, Mr. Roberts,” it read. “This is God’s work with your guidance.”
I know I had only a small part to play in this young man’s unfolding. But the gift of teaching has allowed me to applaud the stride of over one thousand students in my nine years in the profession. I cannot imagine a more worthy prize. When we approach our craft with earnestness, openness, and humor, we teachers help empower young people to secure their freedom and own their time.
Of course, life will test and surprise. But I believe the ties that bind students and teacher enrich both parties and make the journey ahead a “makeable shot.”
–Mark E. P. Roberts (teachermandc)
P.S. Happy New Year!