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.


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.


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.


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 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.


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.


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

Mondays with Martin: First, a Dream


David Martin

This is a piece David Martin put together back in 1999.   Still great to read today.


“In dreams begins responsibility.”

-William Butler Yeats, Irish poet, 1865-1939


Some of my high school English classes were concentration camps of pain. The boring grammar and punctuation drills seemed to never end, and I knew my case of “senioritis” was terminal.  

One day, my teacher methodically reviewed Shakespeare’s writing, again. To protect myself, I entered “dreamland.” Right then, she stopped talking and asked me a question about one of the bard’s sonnets the class just finished reading.

Embarrassed because I could not answer the question and did not know or care what page we were on in the text, I resented her intrusion into my reverie. I planned to build my own “epiphany.”

The other students laughed vigorously, but I saw a calmness and peace in her eyes that made me feel warm inside. She was sincere. She knew my mind was somewhere else important, and I wanted to go back there.  

I would have paid more attention if she looked like Gwyneth Paltrow in “Shakespeare in Love,” but she didn’t. This grandmotherish-looking teacher smiled and said with all the tenderness in her heart, “That’s all right, David, dreaming is allowed in English class.”

Her show of support and trust in me as an individual remains after all these years. I loved her for that simple act. She believed in me. I felt she understood the importance of sudden insight and the rarity of intuitive understanding.

I owned my seat in that class. My voice was heard. I belonged in that room. I had freedom and presence. It was a safe place. It was a strong place. I could bring my fragile dreams into her classroom and share them with this adult who knew where I hid my heart.

I regret I never told her any of this before she died. Somehow, I think she sensed my feelings. Years later, I was able to bring this memory to my consciousness, deal with it, and put the emotions into words.  

If anything happens in life, first there must be a dream. We are a “dream deprived” people. We don’t dream enough because we don’t see enough. To be truly happy and successful, our dreams must come true.

Creative people revolt against the world as they see it and develop a world of their dreams. They revolt to find a principle of existence. These are metaphysical revolts, people against the conditions of life, aspirations toward clarity and unity of thought. Artists in any field explore their souls, try to discover who and what they are, create meaning out of chaos, and search for their own inner compasses. Joseph Campbell said happiness comes from recognizing one’s soul and following one’s bliss.

“To thine own self be true, then as night follows day, though canst be false to any man” (Polonius, Hamlet). This is life’s mission and the purest form of love. It equates into spiritual growth, courage, irreplaceable character, and the strongest bond imaginable.

What we feel emotionally is more important than what we sense physically. Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Theologically, this translates into Karma and The Golden Rule. Intention causes effect. Angry people draw angry people. Hell is not a place where we are assigned. It is a place of our own choosing.

We spend our lives seeking our fate. Where we were born, what station in life we entered this world, what gifts we have now, none of these things prevent us from crossing paths with our destiny. We work hard not to hear messages sent to us in life, and we ignore signs in our dreams which show us the way to our future.

If my dreams could come true, I would write of wisdom and how to succeed in life. I would tell about the steps I must take to maximize the opportunity given to me at birth, the chance to taste happiness and experience a few raptures on my journey. I would illuminate the occasions when mankind becomes entirely alive. I would remember to look into the void of space on the darkest night of the year and see the brightest lights in the sky.

Like Curly (Jack Palance) in “City Slickers,” I would look for that “one thing” in life, the one thing that makes a difference, our reason for living. Our choice won’t work for anyone else, and no one can tell us what our one thing is, but our dreams will.

My daughter, Erin, 14, an eighth grader, dreams of finding anyway possible to reach home plate and score for her softball team. Returning from practice one day, she said:

“Dad, I knew you’d like to know you aren’t the oldest father of an eighth grader at our school anymore. A new student entered our class today, and her dad is older than you are. He doesn’t have any hair at all.” Dreams are egotistical, too.

After babysitting all evening for the two boys next door, she came home at 11:00 PM, feeling very mature and authoritarian. She saw Mom and Dad watching television and eating popcorn, waiting for the ball to drop in Times Square to signal the start of a new year.

She said, “What’s going on here? Where is the party? Are you two dreaming? Get up, Dad. I want to dance.”

She dragged me out of my chair in the living room and onto the kitchen floor. We danced for 20 minutes until I was laughing so hard tears ran down my cheeks. She tore off a green leaf from one of the indoor plants, held it over my head, and yelled, “Mistletoe!” so I would kiss her on the cheek. We twirled and hugged. When she was done, I knew this year would be filled with wonder and dreams.

I hope to find a doctor of dreams, a healer to those with hidden scars acquired from the well-fought war, one who breathes life into the lost and malcontent, one who provides hope for broken hearts and puts wind beneath their wings.

This dream doctor would carry me to the unknown and back, over the bridges of understanding. I would become a professional pilgrim. Travelers learn the most by telling their own stories. I would become observant and tell my own.

With my dreams, I invent myself. I sense a new vision that allows me to see through the fog of life. I observe a new dose of reality that documents the pain but is also a healthy vitamin. I learn to dream, create, and heal.


“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

-Albert Einstein, 1879-1955.


Summer Camp Approaches

2018 Summer Camp for Creative Writers

Grades 4-12, College, and Adults

Dream! Believe!                                     Imagine!

    Have Fun!                                     Explore! Laugh!      Think!   Soar!  Share!

      Create!  Reflect!                              Discover!

                            Write On!

This is our 19th year of creating a Fine Lines writing summer camp for students of all ages. Join writers who add clarity and passion to their lives with the written word. We will have fun with sentences, learn to play while developing poems, stories, essays, and discover creative corners of our minds that we did not know existed. Metaphorically, we will take our journals under “shade trees” and talk about issues that matter. We will swim around important “buoys” on our writing journeys. We will row boats to “lighthouses” that show us our own paths through the fog of life. We will take our minds for “jogs” to libraries.

Where: University of Nebraska-Milo Bail Student Union

Nebraska Room – Second Floor

6001 Dodge Street, Omaha, NE 68801

When: July 16-20, 8:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.

Use PayPal or make checks out to Fine Lines ($150/person). The registration fee includes a camp T-shirt, snacks, guest speakers, editing help, and possible publication in the Fine Lines quarterly journal.

Click here to register!