Mondays with Martin: What My Students Taught Me

This David Martin essay captures a great deal about what it means to teach.  It’s also funny.  (And should have been posted earlier this week.)

 

David Martin

In forty years of teaching, some unusual classes have come my way. In elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, community colleges, universities, graduate schools, business workshops, and retirement homes, the students have been challenging and pleasant, unpredictable and insightful, unprepared and inspiring. The following sixteen English classes gave me a true education because the students taught me how to listen.

JOURNAL WRITING — “BIC 101”

For this class, knowledge was needed in athletic taping. There were a lot of wrist sprains because so much volume was produced. Assignments were graded by the pound. Just like chopping boards in karate class where the person swung his hand through the object, the journal writer wrote through the pain. Students learned to quickly switch to the other hand, when their normal writing fingers fell quietly limp by their side. I read every page, and they knew it, because all the writing came back graded, stamped, or commented on. No one could hide in this class, and usually, I knew more about each student than the school counselors did. Frequently, a counselor would appear at my classroom door and want to talk about “Freddie” or “Lilly,” because I encouraged all students to write about what concerned them at school, at home, and in life. This was a great way to “back into class” and informally work with student issues, while teaching composition at the same time.

GENERAL ENGLISH — “Duck”

Slow learners with low metabolism traditionally filled these classes. They often exhibited symptoms of chronic jock itch. Alex asked to be excused to the restroom every time I assigned in-class work. The last time he was in my class, I said he could not leave to avoid the classwork, so he stood in the middle of the room, loudly cleared his throat of more phlegm than I thought any human being could possess, and spit a large volume of sputum twenty feet over the heads of students through an open window, as they gagged and laughed. He earned an immediate pass to the principal’s office and never returned. Now, every time I hear someone clearing his throat, my impulse is to lower my head.

REMEDIAL ENGLISH — “Little Birds”

Corrective surgery was performed on an out-patient basis. Much physical therapy was advised. Once, under all the rubble, I found an honor student, who had fallen in disgrace, because she was brilliantly disorganized. She regained her throne and earned a scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute. The journal I encouraged her to keep became the right side of her brain, where she could impulsively place her many thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Enthusiastically, she opened it every five minutes to jot down thoughts worth keeping, and every evening before bedtime, she organized them, so logical order entered her world before she went to sleep. Her grades improved within one week’s time. We are all little birds with broken wings. We just need someone to care about us and help show the way through the fog of life.

ETHNIC LITERATURE — “From Around the World”

Diane arrived in class at 8:30 AM dressed in buckskin and tennis shoes with a United States flag draped around her shoulders, alternately singing the national anthem and saying, “I don’t feel well.” I soon found out she was drunk, because an agency was removing her daughter to a foster home and committing Diane to a psychiatric hospital. She won a second place award in a city-wide essay contest titled “One Nation under God,” when she addressed the inequalities her Mexican American brothers and sisters were experiencing in this country. She was scared while she wrote the paper and asked me, several times, if she should give it to the judges, because she was afraid of being deported. I told her to do what she honestly wanted to do. She walked silently up to my desk, laid it down without a word, and walked out of class. I was as proud of her, then, as when she received the announcement that she had won one of the three prizes. Ethnic writers are probably the only true original writers we have left, because their eyes haven’t experienced cultural assimilation. Conviction, determination, and resolution can surface in our students at any age. We must be ready when it arrives.

ACADEMIC ENGLISH — “The Price Is Write”

Most of these students were college prep types. If they didn’t know the answers, Mom and Dad bought them wholesale.

HONORS ENGLISH — “Are You Ready?”

I had to throw out the teaching style that says, “Follow me, guys.” I was forced to bring in a new format, “There it is, ladies and gentlemen. Go get it. There will be a test afterwards and pro scouts from Yale, Harvard, Vassar, Dartmouth, Wisconsin, Stanford, John Hopkins, and UC-Berkeley will be here to time your SAT sprints with hand-held stopwatches, so be ready.”

ENGLISH METHODS CLASS — “4 Steps”

English majors may acquire the essence of all Teachers College education through four easy steps. Simply put into practice the following: make your students believe that you see them, hear them, understand them, and will try your darndest to help them every day.

COLLEGE COMPOSITION CLASS — “Check Them at the Door”

I don’t have to stand when I talk to maintain silence, but this class got very quiet, when a uniformed policeman showed up to finish his degree. He brought his partner to patrol the hall, while class was going on. Eventually, I had to ask both of them to check their guns at the door, because a female student who was a tank driver for the National Guard was becoming annoyed. She stood up in class and said, “This is not Dodge City. You should not wear uniforms to class, and it would be a good idea to leave your weapons in your cruisers.” They did.

JOB CORPS ENGLISH — “It’s Part of My Job”

My football coach liked to tell his team, “When you make a tackle on defense, keep your head down but your eyes up. That way you can see which way the ball carrier is moving, and you will protect yourself from injury.” — Many years later, I had to tackle a student in front of his barracks and sit on him until the police arrived. He began sniffing glue in his room, came to class very high, and tried to set the building on fire after receiving the assignment “How did you spend your summer vacation?”

LAMAZE ENGLISH? — “Tell the Paramedics to Go to the Second Floor”

As varied as my experiences have been, at least, I did not have to teach the English class my friend taught to a junior in her high school. This teacher got to deliver a baby in the girls’ bathroom next to her classroom between passing periods. The student was so small that none of her friends noticed she was pregnant, and even her parents did not know she was expecting.

ADULT NIGHT SCHOOL — “No Empty Cups”

This simply meant fifteen-hour days. Sometimes, it is known as the “red-eye” class or “Caffeine-College.” Every ten minutes, I changed what we did in class, and every thirty minutes, I asked the students to stand up and move to accomplish a class objective. This kept them from falling asleep at their desks. I talked to them while they moved and got to know them better when the class “shifted.” They didn’t know I was still teaching, as we laughed and told each other stories about our families and what happened during the day. Universal education never stops.

BUSINESS ENGLISH — “Everyone Uses It”

Teaching a toilet paper salesman to write is a unique experience. All he was interested in was figuring volume sales, analyzing the folding technique of “crunchers” and “wadders,” the numbers of sheets per visit, and studying Thomas Crapper and Mr. Whipple. Wizards come in all shapes and sizes.

HOSPITAL ENGLISH — “It’s Time to Operate”

Here we patch and mend like a M.A.S.H. unit. After a period of time, we send the students back to the front lines. I remember Tommy not being able to write anything of consequence, until he started to trust me. When this happened, he allowed himself to cry over his mother’s death, a year before. Between the tears, he was able to scratch out an essay that would have earned a B+ in any teacher’s classroom. He did all the other class assignments, but he came into my classroom every Friday afternoon for two months, sat in his seat, and reread that paper, while I worked on student grades. Most of the time, the room was silent. Once in a while, he would ask if he could reread the paper aloud, because he thought he made an improvement or two. When I asked to see the paper and reread it like it was a first time submission, I gave it an A+ grade. I handed it back, and he smiled, then cried, again. He thanked me for listening to him, as he left the room for the last time. The rest of the school year, I saw him in the hall, frequently, and he always had that letter folded in his shirt pocket.

STRAIGHTJACKET ENGLISH — “Never Close Your Eyes”

Instructors of these classes try to keep the students awake without allowing them to injure themselves, fellow students, or teachers. John was up, down, and “off the wall” every day, but he never changed his blank, expressionless face. When I asked him to write on the class assignment, he looked at me and said, “Why would I want to do that?”

TERMINAL ENGLISH — “Do Your Homework, Then You Can Eat Supper”

Here the patients will not recover in their lifetimes. Teachers of these classes are like nurses in coronary wards. They must be rotated regularly to prevent burnout and severe depression. Bernie was a favorite student of mine. He misspelled words like “was,” “does,” and “God,” but he is now an athlete at a state college. Once in a while, I will receive a postcard or an email from him. The last time he contacted me, part of the message went like this. “Hi, Teach. I may pass my English class this year. The new, young teacher likes me, she said, because I make her laugh. Thanks for your help last year in that writing class. Can you send $100? I am getting too skinny.”

CEMETERY ENGLISH – “Her Last Goodbye”

Mary had writer’s block, because she couldn’t forget that her grandmother died on the family’s porch swing. She was Mary’s favorite relative. Her grandmother was resting on the swing and asked Mary to fix her a cup of hot coffee. Mary went inside to the kitchen, made the coffee, brought it to her, and set it on the table next to the swing. She forgot to bring the sugar and cream and had to return to the kitchen for them. When she came back to the porch, her grandmother was sitting up straight with the coffee steam spiraling upwards past the smile on her face. Mary could see the light was gone from those loving eyes. Fourteen-years-old and without another person in the home to help, she had to deal with the rescue squad, the police, and the coroner. Mary went on to win a national writing contest when she got over her writing block caused by this personal situation. She asked me to go to the cemetery with her to say her last goodbye. Her mother and father approved, so we both took our journals with us and wrote in them as we sat by her grandmother’s grave. Mary still writes to me, all these years later.

 

Listening is the most important part of any conversation, and most of us do not try hard enough to master this skill. People who were born to be “radios” need good listeners. I wish more of us would develop this talent. The students in these classes taught me so much, and thank goodness, I let them teach me about life. One girl said, “You seem to care more about us than other teachers do. You hear what we are saying.” Surely, that is the best compliment I have ever received. In every class, each student was a unique, bipedal poem.

“I will do what’s right.

I will do my best.

I will show others I care.”

-Argyle, TX, Elementary School

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