…and the Children Shall Lead Them


I still have some work to do.  Summer is almost here, and I still have work to do.  Last week, we finished our lessons on the Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama.  In 1963, some eight, hard years after the negotiated desegregation agreement in Montgomery, Rosa Parks seemed almost a distant memory.  The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, under the guidance of Dr. King, needed a fresh victory.

The Albany Movement in Albany, Georgia had stalled in 1962.  A crafty local sheriff, an impulsive young adults brigade, a flawed local strategy, and a fickle national press bumped the Movement against a wall.  Without significant progress, the weary would soon become weak.

Reverend Shuttlesworth, a local legend, volunteered Birmingham, the “most segregated city in America” as the next testing ground. Eugene “Bull” Connor was waiting.  So was history.  A divided, white local government distracted each other with rhetoric and provided a window of opportunity.  But local white clergy, black businessmen, moderate politicians, and even Attorney General Robert Kennedy questioned the decision of Dr. King to press for freedom right away.  “Give it time,” they suggested.

Not even Dr. King’s solitary confinement ]tilted the balance.  His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” while compelling, did not substantially shift the terrain.   In 1963, it seemed the call for civil rights had become yesterday’s news.  Then the miraculous happened again.  My students learned in the last two weeks. about how the fiery Reverend James Bevel devised a plan to bypass the economic and psychological barriers shackling adults. He recruited children, junior college students, high schoolers, and middle schoolers.  to take up the march.

It was never an easy decision.  Dr. King and others struggled with the implications and the dangers.  But once the children learned they were needed, there was no holding back. By the time it was over, over 5,000 young people had been arrested.  By the eighth day, the children accomplished what some adults–those who protested–had failed to achieve.  Since Reverend Shuttlesworth first tried to organize civil resistance in Birmingham in 1956, violent retaliation had ruled the day.

The children brought Birmingham to its knees.  They defied understandable parental resistance, angry police, fire hoses, dogs, and, most of all, fear.  The evaporation of fear created conversation.  Despite whatever racial animas would continue, the nation would never be the same again.

On June 11,in a national address, President Kennedy told America it was being unfair, that the life of race-based, post-slavery restrictions would never hold, not if the nation’s promise and foundation would not devolve into myth.  His assassination five months and eleven days later did not deter his exceptional successor, Lydon Baines Johnson, from ensuring the start of the better days Dr. King foretold.

We learned all of this last week and then some.  While they watched the footage of ancient peers taking steps toward self-determination, they openly wished that time and feeling would come back today.  “I would do it,” one student said, and then another, and another.  “It looked like fun.”

And in someways it was, despite the turmoil.  We read and annotated a packet on the historic unfolding while also watching live videos.  Many became angry when I stopped the tape to add some observation or another.  They wanted to feel it for themselves.  Finally, I let them just inhale it.  Then I explained our writing assignment for this week.

“Was Dr. King’s decision to use children in the Birmingham protest both strategic and justified?”  This week, I will review my remarks on their last persuasive essay on the necessity of Emmett Till’s murder, and reiterate the structure such an essay requires.  We will revisit thesis statements, essay maps, context, and background.  I will go over the placement and goal of the oppositional paragraph where conflicting opinions are acknowledged and then disarmed.

It reminds me of my past days as a debate coach.  I will never forget the amazing growth we had.  My students won seven consecutive DC  Urban Debate League championships, besting magnate, private, and charter schools along the way.  I remember one year the title hung in the balance, and our team. composed of large football players, sparred with two petite, young ladies from a tony private school.  Even before the round began, everyone could see the assumption of triumph on their faces.  Those students didn’t think we had a chance–until we beat them.  As I recall it, it wasn’t even close  I might be wrong about the memory, but the end result is true.  That day, both our opponents and  my students learned that excellence, like change, is never out of reach once the fear is gone.

Friday afternoon, after school ended, a few boys with some years yet to mature entered my classroom yelling something about white hate, and their behavior is really what told me about the work still to be done.  I understand now why so many of my colleagues feel so uncomfortable celebrating Black History Month, especially the hard parts that came before and after Dr. King’s dream.  But I intend to make my students see that the past only died because enough people agreed to let it go–from every stripe and direction.  President Obama won two terms not because of the black vote, but because of the American vote, of which we were a part.

Clearly, the Civil Rights Movement is an American story, as fundamental as it gets.  We all have risen in its wake, like a submarine cleared to surface.  The only remaining danger lies within.  Most of my students, if not all, have already declared their essay intention.  They will defend Dr. King’s decision.  They believe children are more than vessels.  They believe children have an active role to play in making today, tomorrow.

No where should that capability be more apparent than the classroom.  So we read and write and consider.  We train our minds to do our thoughts justice.  But, to do so, we must be prepared, like families, towns, suburbs cities, states, and nations, to disclose our trespasses, mend our  wounds, and heal.

Spring is everywhere in DC.  As I pointed to the sunshine draping the windows on Thursday, I prayed with my students, “Lord, thank you for teaching us that winter is never always.  Help us to embrace and appreciate the sun and warmth You sent our way.  Help us not only to  cherish the blossoms unfolding outside, but also to feed the flower within.”

“Amen,” they answered in every class.  Amen, indeed.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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Spring Break


I miss the cherry blossoms.  I’ve been off this week and seized the opportunity on several days to travel down Rock Creek Parkway, settle at Haines Point, churn my music, and watch the fishermen tempt the fish.  The only things missing were the fragile pink and white flowers squeezing a lifetime from a moment, and my students hearing me tell them about it.  The cold weather confuses the trees, and they cannot seem to decide when is the right time to dress for spring.  I know the feeling.  The Cherry Blossom Festival proceeds without them, but no one is fooled by the parade.  Something is missing.  I know that feeling too.

The last few weeks before our Spring Break oozed magic.  My students and I dissected the story of Emmett Till.  We read original documents and articles, watched historic footage, and followed the legal case against his murderers.  In the end, I assigned students a persuasive essay in which they must take a stand on an overarching moral questions:  was Emmett Louis Till a martyr or a victim?  Was his death “necessary or unnecessary” in light of the civil rights gains his lynching engendered?

The papers are due tomorrow.  After all our profound discussions, I can’t wait to see what they have written.  Like cherry blossoms, our time together is rapidly coming to a close.  I want us to end on a strong note.  We have come so far this year, but there is still much to do.  Such is the world of teaching.  I miss us already.  Given the number of emails and text messages I received over the break, I have a feeling they do too.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)


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Unforgivable Blackness: Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, and Emmett Till


Last week, I watched Part 1 of Ken Burns’ documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson on PBS.  It got me thinking.  A little over one hundred years ago, the “Fight of the Century” pitted the brashly black Johnson against James Jeffries, the revered champion who reluctantly came out of retirement to reassert the physical and tactical superiority of the white male.  Jeffries became, as author Jack London anointed him, the “Great White Hope.”

Throughout the night following Johnson’s 1910 victory on America’s Independence Day, race riots punctuated the national landscape. Boisterous black men became the typical target of vengeful white mobs. The venerable New York Times soon sought to reassure its white readers that, contrary to prior editorial claims, physical prowess did not translate into elevated social status, while the L. A. Times reminded its colored and Negro citizenry that nothing had changed as far as their scripted lives were concerned.

In too many ways, the American social fabric did remain unaltered.  Indeed, the next black man to box for the heavyweight championship had not even been born at the time of Johnson’s ascension.  It would be another twenty-seven years before Joe Louis, the more   muted “Brown Bomber,” would be even granted a chance at the throne.

It is perhaps difficult now to imagine how deeply the psychological need for racial superiority in all things anchored innumerable white communities.  Not everyone, of course.  It has never been everyone.  Some rooted for Johnson and saw the push back for what it was. But, even today, one has only to glance at the comment section of any story involving race to become reacquainted with a familiar litany of charges against all black males. Still, it is interesting to note that only after Johnson’s victory could physical strength and intimidating arrogance be added to the list.

In 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black male from Chicago who was “big for his age,” could not possibly understand the unwritten rules he was about to break when he traveled to Money, Mississippi to visit relatives “down South.”  A city  boy who attended an integrated school, the outgoing Till could not appreciate how engrained the lines of racial proscription were, nor could he anticipate the depth of the insecurities plaguing those white males hellbent on enforcing them.

While the exact account of what happened when he entered Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market differs, what is clear is that Till, in some untenable way, did not display the proper deference to the white woman manning the store in her husband’s absence.

Later, after being kidnapped and beaten by two or more men (including at least one black male “following orders”), Till refused to “assume the position” of inferiority his tormentors required.  In his youthful defiance, Till, according to his murderers,  called them names, declared he was their equal, and even boasted about being acquainted with white girls.  These were unforgivable sins.  As one killer explained in a 1956 Look magazine article published shortly after his acquittal, “As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place.”

This battle for “place” is as fundamental to American history as its wars. In 1994, after the mid-term elections witnessed the return of a Republican house majority for the first time in fifty years, the media buzzed about the resurgence of the “angry white male.”  It seems the latter half of the twentieth century had unleashed a slew of pretenders coveting the “all-American” title which belonged by birthright to this one essential demographic.

The election and reelection of a black president has not ameliorated the problem.  Just ask conservative darling and National Rifle Association board member Ted Nugent, who recently called the mixed-race President Obama a “subhuman mongrel.”

In his book Angry White Men, sociologist Michael Kimmel terms the backlash “aggrieved entitlement.”  He writes:

Raised to believe that this was “their” country, simply by being born white and male, they were entitled to a good job by which they could support a family as sole breadwinners, and to deference at home from adoring wives and obedient children. And not only do their kids and their wives have ideas of their own; not only is the competition for those jobs increasingly ferocious; they’ve also been slammed by predatory lenders, corporate moguls, Wall Street short-sellers betting against their own companies and manipulated by cynical elites into believing that their adversaries were not the ones downsizing, outsourcing and cutting their jobs, but those assorted others — women, immigrants, gays, black people — who were asserting their claims for a piece of the pie.

On February 6, 2012, Trayvon Martin, at seventeen, could not possibly have been prepared to become the boogeyman George Zimmerman needed. When the armed would-be avenger elected to pursue Martin by car and later on foot, he must have suspected the law would see him as the helpless victim and the black teen as the obvious threat.  The later actions and inactions of the police at the murder scene show Zimmerman’s suppositions were correct.

When Martin, with his menacing “hoodie” and suspicious bounty of Skittles and Amazon tea, decided to face the strange man following him, rather than lower his head and keep walking to his father’s house, he did not realize that “stand your ground” laws in Florida and twenty-five other states were never crafted to include his perceptions, or his safety.  Trayvon Martin was the whiff of “imminent death” the Florida law empowered Zimmerman to erase. It could never be the other way around, at least not to the jury which acquitted him.

Of course, Zimmerman and his attorney did not formally seek “stand your ground” protection at his trial, though state law mandated its inclusion in jury instructions.  Martin’s death was the result of simple self-defense, they claimed.

Similarly, then forty-five-year-old Michael Dunn also sought to justify the murder of Jordan Davis some nine months after the Martin tragedy on the same self-defense grounds.  Also seventeen and black, Davis made the critical error of mouthing back at an armed, aggressive white man who had, by his own admission, been drinking.  In fact, Dunn and his fiance, heading back from his estranged son’s wedding, had stopped at the gas station convenience store to purchase more alcohol.

On November 23, when Dunn demanded that Davis and his friends turn down the music in their car, rather than simply ignore their teenage antics, or move his vehicle to another parking spot, or enter the convenience store with his fiance, he no doubt felt he was merely asserting a natural right for immediate quiet–even in a public space.  The profanity-laced lyric thumping out of Davis’ car no doubt jarred his middle-aged ear.

Dunn’s own trial testimony reveals his escalating anger and dismay at Davis’ verbal audacity.  “Are you talking to me?” Dunn recalled asking Davis.  An eyewitness stated he heard an agitated Dunn declare, “You’re not going to talk to me like that.”

From his writings in jail, it is clear Dunn saw Davis and his friends as nothing more than  “thugs,” a popular euphemism for the N-word.  The young Davis had no right to question his entitlement, no right to ignore his command, and certainly no right to curse him.

After an unusually long, thirty-two hours of deliberation, the jury–which included nearly every subgroup except black male–finally reached a verdict of sorts.  The jury elected to convict Dunn of three counts of attempted murder for leaving his vehicle and firing at the fleeing car holding the fatally wounded Davis and his grieving friends, friends who, after all, had said nothing to him.  The jury simply could not ignore the blatant evidence in that circumstance.

But for the petulant Jordan Davis, who dared to verbally defy aggrieved Michael Dunn, justice remained elusive. It is telling that the jury could not reach a unanimous decision surrounding the only death that occurred on that horrible day. They could not even agree to the lesser charge of manslaughter.  Clearly, in at least one of their minds, Davis’ “attitude” precipitated and justified Dunn’s deadly response.

When it comes to race, this notion of “attitude” is synonymous with “knowing your place.”  Despite all the progress we have made as Americans–and we have–there remains this intractable core of “nostalgics” who intend to drag their mud into the 21st century, no matter what.  Till, Martin, and Davis, like Johnson before them, failed to follow someone else’s script, and, in today’s America, where gun rights are almost synonymous with freedom, that oversight can be a death sentence.

As a teacher of mostly brown and black teenagers, I am continually motivated by the need to fortify them against an onslaught of enabled fear and imminent danger they refuse to even see.  “Times have changed,” they tell me.  Perhaps they have.  Yet most of my students state they would have simply viewed Dunn as an arrogant “old head” trying to impose his will on their party. They, too, would have refused.

Personally, I am not a fan of loud, boisterous hip-hop.  I have pulled into gas stations where one or more teens saw themselves as DJ’s for the world.  The sound intrusion has annoyed me, but never enraged.  I have been there myself and remember when my high school friends and I, black, white, and otherwise,  searched for all sorts of ways to be noticed and heard.

In our youthful quest for newfound borders and adult respect, we were not always considerate of our more settled neighbors.  Such is the passageway of youth.  But I never, then or now, saw those generational clashes as a springboard for murder.  Nor could I have ever cowardly slunk away after firing ten rounds into a stranger’s car in order to soothe myself with pizza and more alcohol, as though nothing untoward had occurred.

When I read about all the incredible passions surrounding Jack Johnson’s title bout, I can only shake my head and marvel at the insanity.  When I read about the twisted justifications of Emmett Till’s assassins, or the self-righteous logic of Trayvon Martin’s stalker, or the victim mantle Dunn is so determined to climb, I realize that when it comes to race (and especially black males), there are still far too many Americans whose eyes are so obstructed by hate and judgement they simply cannot see straight—until it’s time to shoot.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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Shackles and Shout Outs


I purchased a set of slave shackles once from the estate of an old Virginia plantation a few years ago.  I wanted to honor the experiences of ancestors whose names I do not know.  I wanted to remember the men, women, and children who choose life when death might have been easier.

I tell myself they endured untold indignities for me and for my children.  They held their inner soul and spirit inviolable to the transgressions of their circumstance.  They engaged in the ultimate rebellion against all tyranny–hope.  And they armed themselves with knowledge, the one weapon their oppressors feared above all others.

I told my students about them the other day.  In tenth grade, we are reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, a work I did not discover until college.  We are still in the first part of the book, and we are learning about the Ibo in the 1890s, and Okonkwo, the flawed hero whose village life will all too soon be ripped from his heart.  He reminds me of an uncle by marriage who marched through life with heavy boots and a singular focus which both empowered and handicapped his gait.

I have done my best to set the stage for my students.  I play traditional and modern music from Nigeria during warm-ups.  I show photographs capturing what Umuofia, Okonkwo’s fictional village, might have looked like.  We viewed two introductory scenes from a filmed version of the book I found on YouTube.

I tried hard to help them imagine how life might have felt in pre-colonial Nigeria.  “Haven’t you ever wondered,” I asked a room full of black and brown faces, “how life might have been if your distant relative had not been captured or sold? Let’s use this book as Achebe wanted and see in these people and their beliefs some small piece of ourselves.”

“But I’m not black,” one Latino male student said.

“No, you are not.  But there is something basic and human about village life, rural life, when you ate what you grew or caught, and people feared and honored the power behind wind and rain and lightening.  Somewhere in our DNA, all of us have faint memories of torch-lit nights, sacred rituals, and life lived outdoors.  Just image Costa Rico before the explorers  came.”

And so we began.  I supplied summaries and study guides for each chapter and interspersed audiobook recordings with in-class readings.  We used our prior work on conflict to try and map Okonkwo’s journey and point-of-view.  This week, we will take a closer look at proverbs and the role of women in traditional Ibo society.  I give reading quizzes every two classes or so.  “This is your chance to lift your grade,”I said.

Despite all this, some students remain unconvinced.  “This is boring,” one girl complained when we started the book.  She is a reader, but prefers urban tales about sex and heartache.

“Look,”  I said.  “You need to read about many things and people, not just Peanut and who’s ‘dropping it like it’s hot.’  Besides, if you only read things where the biggest word is “MF’er, then it’s time for an  upgrade, don’t you think?”

There is laughter and nodding, but I can tell everyone is not yet committed.  This initial reticence always happens when we turn our attention to a longer work.  I realize I need something stronger to pull everyone in–especially some of the boys.

Last week, after the Dr. King holiday and two snow days, I postponed a scheduled quiz on Chapters 1-4 and instead posted two large signs in the front of the room.  One read “Yes,” and the other “No.”  “Now, I want you to be completely honest with me,” I began.  “If you hate the idea of reading this book, I want you to come stand up here in a neat line under the “No” sign.  It’s not going to get you out of reading, but I do want to see how you feel.  If you are looking forward to reading it, stand under “Yes.”

In my second period class, one overflowing with basketball players, about twelve young men raced to line up under “No.”  They chuckled and jostled for position.  They are a playful, tight knit group, and I admire their energy.  Two of the girls in class rose and walked to the “Yes” sign, while the remaining handful of students, male and female, remained in their seats, waiting to see what this game was all about before they committed to either camp.

“Fine,” I said, before moving other to the few students who dared to declare their enthusiasm for the task ahead.  “Thank you for your willingness to embrace the book and all it represents,” I said.  “You can sit down.”  One of the tallest boys in the “No” line made a sucking sound, which is what they do when someone, especially me, compliments another student out loud.  We all laughed.

“Ok, ok,” I continued.  “Now, here, in this line, we have those who are not looking forward to reading Things Fall Apart.  I also appreciate your honesty,” I said.  “But I want you to look at this row.” I pointed to the dozen athletic, young men as a few took a bow.  “Now, imagine we could enter a time machine and go back, say two hundred years, to 1814.  Let’s say we go back to Virginia, just across the Potomac, or even further down to South Carolina, or Alabama, or Mississippi.  What might this line resemble?”

The students grew quiet and stared straight ahead.  “It might help if you imagine them half-naked and standing on a platform before a crowd of white men with money in their pockets.”

“A slave auction,” the girl who favors urban lit finally said.

“Exactly,” I said, a bit louder than I intended.  Without prompting, the young men slowly moved back to their seats.

“There is a reason so much time and effort went into keeping slaves illiterate.  Once a man can read, once a man has access to knowledge, he cannot be enslaved.  At least, not for long.”

I walked over to one young man in the rear I have been trying to ignite all year.  I can see in his eyes the wheels of his mind.  They move quickly, but his work does not.  He misses too many assignments, and his grades are nowhere near where they should be.  “So, Mr. Graham,” I asked.  “Are you a black man–a free man–or a slave?”

He looked up at me with a mix of anger and agitation.  “A black man,” he said.

“Then let’s read,” I said to him and the class.  When I later shared his reaction with a white colleague in the teacher’s lounge, he smiled and then asked, “I wonder how it would go over if I tried that?”  We both smiled knowingly.

“Not too well,” I acknowledged.  “But, hey, we all have to do what we can.  This is just something I can.”  I said nothing about my growing doubts about the approach.

Today, during last period, the school began airing “shout outs” during announcements.  The shout outs could be sent from students  to whomever they wished to thank.  Near the end, after a number had been read citing teachers and fellow students who had been helpful in some way, Mr. Graham, one of my second period students, sent one to me.  I missed most of it as the students in my class jeered and cheered, but I still remember the last part.

“Thank you, Mr. Roberts, for not giving up on me.”

Young people never cease to amaze me.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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Thoughts on Mr. Holland’s Opus


I recently took advantage of a free HBO trial and binged on movies I had meant to see but never did.  But today, while home for Dr. King’s holiday,  I watched Mr. Holland’s Opus again.  I had forgotten how much I loved the film back when it was first released in 1995.  The movie chronicles the professional life of a musician and composer who first becomes a high school music teacher for a paycheck, and then finds in the unexpected halls a lifetime calling.

After a few missteps of boring recitations and “teacher talk,” he begins to speak to his students, and, more importantly, he begins to listen.  He becomes his life, and the ending always makes me cry.  Surrounded by so many of his students from across the years, he slowly accepts a baton and, for the first time, conducts his own American symphony, but only after being told by one former student that “we are your symphony, Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and notes of your opus.  We are the music of your life.”

Back in 1995, teaching was the furthest thing from my mind.  I had just moved from Brooklyn back to my native Washington with three children in tow.  My wife and I greeted this new adventure as both a blessing and a challenge.  I also relocated my business and managed to lease an office within walking distance of our home.  I had a car, but I rarely used it, so used to walking was I.  Over time, my land legs grew lazy, and I took to driving everywhere–even to work.

At that moment, my daughters were entering kindergarten, and fourth and tenth grades.  I again became involved in their schools and PTA’s.  It was an awful period in DC; a “control board” created by Congress in response to the reelection of Marion Barry led to a sharp reduction in all semblance of democracy.  A “Board of Trustees” had also been established to oversee the schools.  I voiced my negative opinions on both developments (and the real nature of public education in DC) in two pieces I submitted to the Washington City Paper, a weekly alternative newspaper.  The first, “My DC,” railed against the sense of despair permeating the city, while the second, “Who’s Looking Out for Tiffany?,” discussed my own difficulties locating decent schools for my children.

Throughout all that turbulence, the notion of teaching as a profession never crossed my mind.  But once, at a heated meeting between parent leaders and a group of teachers, one veteran educator turned to me and said, “If you think you know so much, why don’t you become a teacher.  Then see how you do.”  I found in her voice both a needle and a haystack.  Ten years later, in 2005, after selling the business and dying from boredom as a marketing consultant, I refocused my compass, earned my certification, entered my first classroom, and tried to teach.

I have savored this arc in my journey.  To date, I have taught 1,043 students.  Each year, I have them print their first and last names on large popsicle sticks I use to ensure I call on students equally.  At the end of the year, I bind the sticks together by graduation year and place them in a large wooden box stored in my attic.  I tell my students one day, after I retire, I will glue the sticks end-to-end on a wall where I can see their names and recall their faces and energies.

Mostly, I will cherish the bond we shared with one another.  I am not as lucky as some of my colleagues who became teachers shortly after college graduation.  Some are thirty-plus year veterans who have survived a host of theories, administrators, superintendents, and new initiatives.  One told me the other day that she has actually taught three generations in the same family.  I cannot imagine such a legacy.  This year, I will have completed teaching up to three siblings in three different families and two different schools.  I am humbled by the trust their parents placed in me, and I understand the responsibilities embedded in it.

Growing up, one of my two favorite aunts became a high school English teacher (the other was a first grade teacher).  My Aunt Vera taught in a relatively small Southern city and frequently encountered her students in her daily treks, even after retirement.  I was with her during one of those exchanges, and I still remember how revered she was by her students.  Back then, she called me her “lipstick blotter” because she would always use my cheek to lighten her lipstick before heading out to face the world.  She is no longer with us, but her example no doubt breathes in the lives of her students, and their children and grandchildren.

I tell my students to work hard not for me, or their parents, or even just themselves, but for their progeny.  “No one wants an uninformed parent,” I remind them.  “The more you know, the less they will have to find out.”  I’m not exactly sure how true that all is.  Life has a way of surprising.

But, as a teacher, I do find myself sometimes daydreaming about a room packed with former students–all fully-grown, independent, and satisfied.  I guess that vision keeps many a teacher in the classroom.  It’s nice to be appreciated, but even nicer to help someone else, especially a young person, find their own appreciation for life and knowledge and faith.

I want to be a memorable cheerleader in my students’ lives–just like Mr. Holland.  But I do not want to abandon my own remaining dreams in the process.  I want to write my book, the one ambition I have yet to attain.   And I do not want to ever take for granted the special joy my own children bring to me, or the way my wife still makes me smile like no one else.  I guess I want it all.   I must make a promise to myself to remember each part of my opus, and to retire promptly the day before I forget.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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The Ties That Bind


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!

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Sins of the Father


My students have drawn me into later and later hours at school.  For years, I was known for exiting the building at exactly 3:30 PM, yelling, “I don’t do overtime” as I neared the front door.  With the exception of Tuesday’s tutoring sessions, that schedule was as regular as my penchant for waking up at 4:00 AM to grade more work.  My students knew I was always good for lunchtime visits.  But at my new school, lunch is shorter and more controlled.  Access to my classroom is difficult to maneuver.  I missed the easy in-and-out flow of prior years and started staying late to get it back.

Last week, two young men came to visit after school.  Light banter soon faded when the subject of father’s came up.  “So, you in the ‘Deadbeat Dad’ club too?” one sophomore asked.

“Join the party,” said another, offering a fist bump to seal the link.

“My father might have left me,” I said, “but I never left my children.  You can choose your own fate.”  The two young men burst into a chorus of “You got that right” and excitedly shared their visions of future families.  No “baby mama’s” here, they vowed, but loving wives and devoted offspring.  It was nice to feel their enthusiasm, and I found myself wondering how much had been spurred by the detour I had taken in the day’s earlier lesson.

I was not in the best of moods.  As I returned what I considered to be an easy assignment, I noted the lack of effort I found in most of their work.  I had asked them to write a letter from one character in a story we had finished to another.  We had been discussing point-of-view, and I wanted them to assume the voice and manner of someone other than the protagonist.  The only restriction revolved around plot; they had to honor the storyline as it was written, but they were free to extend it however they wished.

A few students failed to even turn in the assignment.  Those who did delivered missives with no passion, no panache.  “You have got to trust your imagination and let it loose,” I said.  “Stop getting in your way.”

The tenth grade students looked at me with confused faces.  I could tell they did not understand my complaint. They had completed the homework; what else did I want?  I paused, lowered my head into my hand, and then looked at them with a kinder face.  “You know why I became a teacher?” I asked.

“You couldn’t find a better job?” the sarcastic girl near the window asked.  The class laughed, and the tension lifted.

“I have you know I am an educated mind.  Educated minds can always find a better job,” I said.  “I know, I looked.”  At that, the students roared, and I had them where I wanted.

“Anyone in here run track?” I asked.  Several hands went up.  “So you know about the relay races, right?  A runner sprints for a distance and then hands the baton on to the next runner, and so on until the race is over.  What are some of the things that can go wrong?”

“A bad pass.”

“A slow runner.”

“A hamstring tear,” said the football player in the leg brace.

“Yes,” I continued.  “All those things–and more.  See, to me, life is like that relay race.  That first runner, the one who started the race, I see as my ancestors, the ones I know like the grandparents, and the ones I don’t, like maybe the first African to touch these shores.  I like to imagine them rounding the curves in that race and pressing forward despite all the obstacles along the way.  How many of you have grandparents still living?” I asked.

Most raised their hands.  “Any great-grandparents?”  A few proudly lifted their arms.  “All of you are so lucky for that,” I said to both groups.  “Treasure them.   I never knew my great-grandparents, and my grandparents are gone.  But I’m not sad about it.  I know they  ran a great race and moved that baton closer to me.  See, the better they run, the less ground I have to cover.  It’s that kind of race.”

The students grew silent then, and I had one of those “pin drop” moments I live for.  “The second runner, the one right before me, represents my parents.  It is a race for two, my mother and my father.  While they labor, it is my job to prepare myself for the race to come.  In the distance, somewhere ahead of me, my children and my children’s children are waiting.  Can you see that?” I asked, pointing to an invisible hill in the distance.

Many nodded, and I continued.

“The baton will reach your hand when you turn eighteen, ready or not.  Your job now, with your wait almost over, is to prepare your mind, your body, and your soul for the ground to come.  Now, you can take a nap under a tree and just wait, doing nothing.  You figure you are young, and the speed and endurance will come.  Or, you could work out, do jumping jacks and wind sprints, read books and gather words and ideas, sharpen your thoughts and your wits for the journey ahead.  You could build a chapel inside yourself and find a loving place for the God in you.  Or you could just waste time.”

“You could root for your parents,” one boy added.

“Yes, you could and do.  I see that.  But what happens if one or both of your parents fall  short?  It happened to me.  My mother ran her heart out–literally.  But my father fell short.  I’m not trying to knock him or anything, but he left the race early.”

“Did he die?”

“No, he just left.  Maybe he got bored, or maybe he just saw something in the fields that caught his attention.  Either way, he laid the baton down on the track and walked away.”

“That’s cold.”

“Yeah, but we all know it happens.  It has happened to some of you.  So what can you do if a parent does that?  You still have a race to run.”

“Don’t even worry about it,” said one young man.  “You still got Moms.”

“True,” I said.  “But you know what I think?  I think part of you has to go back and find that baton and pick it up.  You have to start your race sooner than you should.  You have to carry your baton–and his.  It makes the race more difficult.  But not impossible.  And remember, your children are waiting and cheering you on.”

“I feel you,” said the boy who came to fist pump me after school.

“We can’t just sit and bemoan all the things that went wrong before the baton reaches us.  Because you are the thing that went right.  The miracle-in-waiting.  I want you ready and able to run the race of your life.  Do it for your children.  The further you run, the less ground they have to carry.  And your grandchildren.  And your great-grandchildren who might never even know your face or your name.”

“They better know my name” said the sarcastic girl.  “Hard as I ran.”

“They will,” I laughed.  “Especially if you do the work now.  See, I’m just the coach.  I can give you some pointers, tell you how to extend your breathing or your arms.  But it’s your race–no one else’s.  Carpe diem, people.  Seize the day.”

Carpe who?” a student asked.

Carpe diem,” I said, writing the term on the board.  “It’s from Latin.  It means ‘seize the day.’  What do you think that means?”

“It means ‘one monkey don’t stop no show,'” said the after school boy.

“You got that right,” I said.  “So get out there and run your race like your life depended on it–because it does.”

“Nice,” the football player added.  Then they did something they had not yet done all year.  They clapped.  So much for finding a better job.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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Starburst and Hot Sauce



When I was at DCPS, the observers always warned me in post-conferences about being “too dynamic.”  My job, they said, was merely to facilitate the students’ own discoveries.  No matter how successful the class was on testing or other measures, I always found myself being admonished about keeping my input to ten minutes or less.  At my new school, there are no stop watches in the room, no IMPACT enforcers, and we tend to flow where the learning takes us.

I post my objectives and agenda for each day, and I require my tenth graders to write them down in the composition book I also mandate.  After a brief review of the plan for the day, we go to work.  At the start of a unit, there is usually some direct instruction, followed by class and/or group work tied to the goal I promised we would achieve.  “There will be no excuses,” I tell them.  “On this freedom train, everybody rides.”  Then, I might play a few bars from “Express” by B.T. Express.  As the sound of the locomotive taking off pours from the overhead speakers, a few students invariably dance.  Then I gently stop the music and begin.

“Literature, the things we read and the things we write, is not an accident, anymore than a painting is a series of arbitrary strokes.  You see this drawing here,” I say, pointing to a brightly colored sketch of an elephant lumbering on the Serengeti.  “Notice how the artist uses shading and color to create dimension.  He or she has taken a flat piece of paper and created the illusion of space and place.  That is no accident.  How many of you can draw?” I ask.

As a few hands raise, I call on students to share some secrets of how artists create perspective. or horizon lines. or make a body seem round.  After a few minutes, I return to the subject at hand.  “Writers of fiction have skills too.  They start with a blank sheet of paper, the same as all of us.  Then they reach into their bag of tricks–remember diction is the choice of words–and slowly create a world full of characters and situations that seem as real as that elephant.  What sort of things can writers do?” I ask.

The answers come slow at first, but then gain power as I record the answers on the board.

“They paint pictures,” one girl begins.


“With words.”

“I know that, but how do they decide which words to choose, or how to arrange them?  Take a minute and write a few sentences to capture what you did this morning before school. And I want you to think about diction.  Give the reader something he or she can imagine.”

Using equity sticks, I call on students to share what they have written.  One “scatters water” on a tired face; another pees angrily into the toilet.  “I’m up already,” gurgles yet another to her mother’s “crazy” voice.  We are in agreement; words matter.

“One technique writers have been using for hundreds of years is figurative language.  You’ve probably heard of it before in middle school.  But I don’t just want you to recognize it in the things we read.  I want you to use it in the things you write.

See, writers use figurative language, language you can’t take literally, especially to describe a feeling or an emotion we can’t really see by linking it to something we can.  Suppose I was a Martian who just landed on Earth, and I wanted to learn English.  How would you explain what “happiness” is?” I ask.

The young man in the front with a smile to rival Las Vegas shines his pearlies for all to see.  We laugh.  “Now put what he just did into words?” I ask a shy young lady on the side.

“Happiness is a smile.”

“Yes,” I say.  “We call that a metaphor.  But I have a problem with it.  How many of you have heard something like that before?”

As many hands raise, I move to the point I want to make.  “Saying ‘happiness is a smile” is like drawing a simple box and calling it art.  There is nothing special about it.  There is no surprise.  You see, writers use figurative language to give the reader a nice surprise.  Remember the first time you had a Starburst?”  As the students nod, I ask them to call out their favorite flavor.

“Strawberry.  “Cherry.”  “Banana.”  “Watermelon.”  “Lemon.”

“See,” I continue,”the thing I remember is not expecting too much the first time I had one.  It was just a tiny square with a little color.  Nothing special, right?  But then I bit into it, and all this flavor crashed into my mouth.  I was surprised.  I was delighted.”

The students laugh, and I regret not having brought a bag for them to sample.  “Saying ‘happiness is a smile” is weak because we have heard it too many times before.  It’s a cliché.  It’s like a piece of gum you have been chewing for eight days.  There’s no juice left, no surprise.  So, who can surprise us?  What is happiness?”

“My grandma’s cookies.”  “New sneakers.”  “Cold water on a hot day.”  “Clean money.”

“Great,” I say.  “Figurative language allows a writer to define something abstract in concrete terms.  It helps the reader understand what the writer is trying to show us.  When you write, I want you to consider using it.  But you have to be careful.  You don’t want to use too much.  How many of you like hot sauce?”

As hands raise, I ask, “What do you like to put it on?”

“Greens.”  “Eggs.”  “Pancakes.”

“Pancakes,” I repeat.  “Are you crazy?  Pig feet, yes.  But pancakes?”  When the laughter subsides, I give an assignment: define friendship.

“This week, we will discuss specific types of figurative language–metaphor, simile, personification, hyperbole, idiom, and imagery for starters.  But, for now, I just want you to explain friendship using concrete examples the reader would not expect.  Don’t tell me friendship is ‘when two people like each other,’ or anything like that.  Surprise us.  Come up with a new way to define it.  Friendship is when you don’t mind sharing your last Pop Tart; something different is what I am looking for.”

As the students tackle the assignment and chat eagerly among themselves, I move towards my desk and write on the board behind it in large letters:  Starburst and hot sauce–a little goes a long, long way.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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Did You Hear What I Heard? The Teacher Calling


As is my habit, last Thursday I headed out in the early evening for a karaoke joint not too far from my home.  As usual, I arrived as “James,” my singing alter ego, replete with a cool, sideways cap, dark glasses, and tight sleeves showcasing my hard-earned muscles.   The place doubled as a restaurant and bar.  Last month, a karaoke buddy suggested I stop by, and it was only my second visit.  I ordered a Coors Light draft beer and joined a list of would-be singers.

When the disc jockey finally announced James’ turn, I requested one of my favorite songs of late, “Ain’t No Way” by Aretha Franklin.  I love the story about sweet surrender and unrequited love–ain’t no way for me to love you, if you won’t let me–and, as I sang t0 the instrumental, I roamed from table to table, urging patrons to help me send the message “to my girl.”  I moved all around the room, ad-libbed the lyrics, massaged the melody, and even serenaded one embarrassed woman from one knee.  When the song finished, I received a lusty response.  As I  rose to return to my seat, a man I passed yelled, “You missed your calling, brother.”

I’ve heard that before.  I suspect anything done with passion generates that response from someone.  When I was a student, learning was my joy.  When I worked as a radio disc jockey in my early twenties, communication was my forte, and I still have a box full of listener letters to prove it.  When I ran my music marketing business for fifteen years, I raced to work each day and filled America’s showplace with at least one iconic product.  After I sold the business, consulting drove me for a while.  Each adventure held my eye, ear, and soul for a time.  I have been lucky.

My wife says I have ADD when it comes to careers.  At first glance, she is right.  But I realize now the seam holding all those adventures together was teaching.  Whether on the radio, or in a studio, or in a meeting with a client, I always strove to take a complicated experience and break it down, or a mundane romp and lift it up to poetry.  Nowhere is that translation more necessary than in a classroom full of adolescents with one eye on the forbidden cellphone or the great outdoors.

I discovered this year that administrators had moved me from teaching seniors to sophomores.  At first, the reassignment disappointed me.  Last year, I worked to begin building relationships with juniors in anticipation of 2014.  I had enjoyed my first time escorting seniors to the finish line and wanted to do it again–only better.  But then I remembered how six of my nine years of teaching involved tenth graders.  Three weeks into the new year, I am reminded again of how much I love their silly enthusiasm and honest energy.

We are reading short stories now and focusing on the “hunt for theme.”  “Theme,” I told them, “is like the fortune cookie at the end of a great meal.  What’s your favorite Chinese dish?” I asked.

“General T’so’s Chicken,” one boy volunteered.  “Shrimp Fried Rice,” added another.  “I like Chicken Wings,” a young lady said.

“Mumbo sauce on the side?” I asked to laughter.

“My mom likes Beef Broccoli,” the quiet girl interjected.  “But I like Egg Rolls.

“Exactly,” I continued.  “We all like different things.  I like Pepper Steak.”

“Man, I’m getting hungry,” another boy said.

“See, I want you to come here hungry,” I said.  “I want to hear your brains grumbling.     Only here, reading is the answer.   See, in literature, the fortune cookie that comes at the end of the meal is actually the reason for the gathering.  All the dishes served–let’s call it the plot, the setting, the point of view, the characters, or the conflict–are only there to prepare us for that little white slip in that cookie.”

As I spoke, I walked around the edges of the semi-circle I have arranged the desks into this year.  The classroom size is perfect; I have no more than twenty in any class.  As I pound on the desk tops to emphasize a point, or dance in the opening just beside my desk to coax a response, the students are with me.  “Theme,” I tell them, “is the point the author is trying to make or address.  Theme is the thing we are paying for with our time and our attention.  In literature, it’s the reason we came.”

“Nice,” one male student said in an audible tone.  Others nodded as well, and then applauded when I promised to bring fortune cookies for everyone on Monday. “There can always be more than one theme,” I said.  “All you have to do is call witnesses to the stand to support your claim, your contention, your statement about what the theme is.  And who would you call?  If you say the theme is ‘look both ways before you walk.” who could you call to support that?”

“The story?” one asked.

“What about the story?  What in the story could you call to the stand?”

“Quotes?” asked the quiet girl.  “Quotes from the story?”

“Yes!” I yelled, slamming my fists on her desk.  “Yes,” I sang to no music at all.  They are about to write a formal essay about theme in Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.”  I assured them they were more than up to the task, and, as some smiled in agreement (even the one who complained after the first reading that “Girl” made no sense), I remembered what I said to the man at the karaoke place.  “Thanks for the compliment,” I yelled back over the din as he high-fived James on the singing, “but you’re wrong. I’m where I’m supposed to be.”

I wanted to tell him what I told my students on the very first day.  “My name is Mr. Roberts, and I will be your teacher.”

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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Teacher Dreams


Teacher Dreams:  mine started about two weeks ago in earnest.  Like most professionals, teachers always bring their work home with them.  There is always something to grade, or someone to consider, as well as the steady revisions to the daily lesson plans.  I use the summertime break to move away from that rhythm so that when I return to it I am ready to dance.  The dreams, I guess, are just part of my mind and body preparing for a new round.

The dreams began with a group of students from various prior years stopping by to help me prepare my classroom for the first day of school.  The opening date for students is still three weeks away, but I can feel the clock breathing my way.  Back during my time with DCPS, I was constantly being shuffled from one classroom to another each year.  That first week became a stressful ritual as I scrambled to attend all the mandatory professional development meetings and still procure wall paint and whatever else I needed to put my spin on a new room.  I was never sure why the administration kept reassigning me each year.  I thought my accomplishments “in the field” would shield me from their moods.    Some teachers moved to a new room every year; some never did.  I was one of the ones who did.

But I believe that opening week drama is behind me.  I will be in the same classroom as last year.  I don’t have to relocate my files, or my supplies, or my spare parts.  Still, the students return in my dreams to help me, to chastise me when I place a poster where they do not feel it belongs.  All the visitors are former students, and the dream is vivid and enjoyable.  The sound of laughter and communion is everywhere.

My second set of dreams favors the end of the first week of classes.  I am still working to learn all the names, adjust my roster for additions and deletions, review classroom procedures, and entice my new charges with the learning goals for the year or semester.  I am learning to relax a little, and so are the students.

One young lady in particular figures prominently in these sketches.  She has a bold spirit and is always impeccably dressed, even in uniform.  We developed an easy rapport over the course of the last year, and I would always ask if she was “doing her job.”  I heard whispers in the teacher lounge.  “She is a challenge,” they said.   The cell phone was her closest friend, and her energetic disposition masked intellectual insecurities she was unwilling to face.  She invented entertaining excuses for the work she failed to do, and phone calls home were little help.

Near the end of  last school year, she joined a group of rising seniors who found their way to my classroom shortly after the Class of 2013 departed.  The “feeling out” process had begun, and I enjoyed spending time with them, making small talk, discussing summer plans, and joking about how special 2014 would be.

She came to see me on the last day of school, excited to tell me she had made it her business to sign up for not one, but two, of the senior courses I would be teaching.  I pretended to be dismayed, but, in truth, I expected it.  I knew we would have our share of “discussions” and hallway huddles.  In the dreams, she is at times engaged, at times distracted.  But I know somehow my success this year will depend, in part, on my ability to help reignite her journey.

Two nights ago, my dreams shifted to mid-year.  Exams approached, and I paced at home.  I worried I had failed to make some point or another.  I had not yet finished grading a paper whose contents would factor into one of the essay questions on the test.  It was after 5 AM in the morning.  My favorite black-and-white Highway Patrol reruns were playing on This TV.  As I labored to finish the last few papers, I could hear myself vowing to do better next time.

It is a constant refrain with teaching.  Each year, for nine years now, a new collection of one hundred young faces or more arrives just around the time I have finally stopped fretting about how the previous group will fare.  Did we cover enough in the time we had?  Did I do my best? Will the impact last?

I have a feeling these dreams never really go away, even after professional teaching days are over.  Educators know the dreams,  like hope or empathy, settle in the very core of our existence.  They become an essential part of our visions not just for ourselves and our loved ones, but also for the world.

Teaching is a challenging profession.  The stakes are more than high.  But I suspect anything less consequential would hardly be worth the prize.


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