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Mondays with Martin: There is More

Editor’s note: This “Mondays with Martin” originally ran back in 2006.  It’s still important reading today.

 

David Martin

In 1990, one of my English classes was filled with downtown, street-wise, tough high school teenagers who were one step from expulsion. All of them failed English class before, at least once, some of them several times. They did not want to be in school, and they couldn’t wait to leave those classroom walls. They did not do homework for other teachers, when it was assigned, and they stared at me like they dared me to teach them anything. Half of the class was black. The rest were Caucasian, Latino, Vietnamese, and Native American, but the meanest looking and most physical was a white boy named Jack.

This group of “at-risk” juvenile delinquents was quiet, like the silence before a storm. If they misbehaved, they knew their days as students in that urban high school were over, and the street was the only thing they had waiting for them. Most of them knew what that meant: gangs, hard work, prison, and an early death from drugs. They all had friends or family in one of those places.

Jack never talked to anyone in class, including me. For all I knew, he was mute. From the first day of class in August to the week before Thanksgiving, he did not talk to anyone. He turned in enough work to maintain a passing grade, but when I asked him a question, he shrugged his shoulders and refused to reply.

He never took his eyes away from mine. Whenever I turned around, after helping another student or when I looked up from my desk, his eyes were on me. After a few days, I was leery to turn my back on him. I started doing things in class, so I always faced him. He sat in the next to last seat in the second row from the door, and I planned all my classroom activity, so I had one or two rows between us. Jack only let one student sit behind him, George, who was everyone’s friend and always seemed happy. George was slow and had behavioral development issues, but he tried to read and write, even though he was four grade levels behind his peers.

Some of the girls in class had children. Carlotta was nineteen-years-old and had three. It was forbidden in school to flash gang signs, but when she wasn’t paying attention to me, I could see her give a sign to another girl across the room. She was pretty and smart, and all the boys spoke to her every day, except Jack. When she spoke to him, he glared at her. After awhile, she ignored him.

Some of the boys were scarred by fights, and they never relaxed, even in class. They were always looking over their shoulders, like the worst thing that could ever happen to them was be caught off-guard or surprised, and where they came from, they were probably right.

The first day of class, I walked through the door and looked at this collection of races and attitudes, of dark sunglasses and darker souls, of defensive body language and silent despair, of low motivation and lack of hope. I said to myself, “Oh, Lord, why me?”

The next day, when I saw the principal, I asked him, “Why me?”

His answer was, “No one else would take the class, and we thought you could make them work. You’ve coached seven sports. You get along with any student who tries. Give them a chance. They all know that if they don’t do what you tell them, they will fail the class and won’t be allowed back in school.”

I agonized about how to teach this unusual collection of young adults who did not fit into any group in the school. How would I get them to write essays, learn poetry, and read the standard curriculum? They didn’t do those things before, so I knew I had to try something different. I threw the school’s traditional way of doing things out the window, metaphorically. I decided we would write every day and keep a journal of our own work. Our writing notebooks became our textbooks, and I graded their work by the pound. In this class, the sweat that appeared from pushing a pen across the lines on the paper would earn credit. Three days a week, I would bring ideas for us to write about, and two days a week, different students would bring ideas from their personal lives for the class to write about. In effect, they would share in teaching the class. We sat in a circle, and everyone was equal.

Chemistry started to build between us. Slowly, trust crept into the room, silently and unseen. I would not let students enter class, if they didn’t bring their journals every day. I brought photocopies of chapters from many classics, and we read those, often out loud. Text books scared these students, but they would read, discuss, and study anything that was photocopied. One reading I handed out that created the biggest stir from these young, angry rebels was “The Song of Hugh Glass” in A Cycle of the West by John Neihardt.

I introduced Neihardt’s epic poem and talked about defeat and victory, rejection and acceptance, revenge, and forgiveness. I thought I saw Jack’s lips move in response to something I said, but when I called on him, he shook his long hair that touched his shoulders and refused to speak. I knew he wanted to ask a question, but he would not verbalize it. He sat there in his long, black, leather coat, years before Columbine, and I thought, “Will I ever reach this one?” When I read his journal entry about Hugh Glass’s true story, I felt a strong passion come out of his pen that started to show a different aspect of his character.

Over the next few weeks, everyone helped read Neihardt’s long poem in class, except Jack. We slowly read every word, and I took my time, like I was walking beside Glass and giving a “play by play account” of this unusual, adventure experience. Outwardly, Jack gave the impression that he was too good to participate or too cool; however, his journal relayed another story. After each verse, after each page, we stopped and talked about what we read. I helped interpret many words and put the lines in a context everyone could grasp. Each time I looked up, Jack’s eyes met mine.

When he turned in his notebook to me, as the others did, every Friday, I made sure to write something about his thoughts on every page. All my comments were positive. I believe in the power of positive reinforcement, and he had so much rejection in his life that I did not want to add to that long, negative list of “downers.” I was surprised to find out that he was a deep thinker. No one could see what he wrote but me. I was amazed. His words were philosophical and intellectual. The sentences and paragraphs were not filled with the anger he generated with his body language and glacial stares in class. There was a good mind leaking out between the lines of his writing. Was there a heart in there, too?

I read to the class from “The Song of Hugh Glass”:

“Alas for those who fondly place above

The act of loving, what they chance to love;

Who prize the goal more dearly than the way!

For time shall plunder them, and change betray,

And life shall find them vulnerable still.

 

A bitter-sweet narcotic to the will,

Hugh’s love increased the peril of his plight;

But anger broke the slumber of his might,

Quickened the heart and warmed the blood that ran

Defiance for the treachery of Man,

Defiance for the meaning of his pain,

Defiance for the distance of the plain

That seemed to gloat, ‘You can not master me.’

 

And for one burning moment he felt free

To rise and conquer in a wind of rage.

But as a tiger, conscious of the cage,

A-smolder with a purpose, broods and waits,

So with the sullen patience that is hate’s

Hugh taught his wrath to bide expedience.”

 

Jack shifted in his seat and rocked back and forth. He leaned forward and squeezed his pen so hard that I thought it would snap in half. While I asked other students how they interpreted those words, Jack stood up, slowly, left the group, and went to the windows and looked outside, quietly. He stood there for twenty minutes and only left when the bell rang to end the period.

The next day he wrote about rage and anger for ten pages. There were no paragraphs, just a stream-of-consciousness writing, like Holden Caulfield on steroids. He told of the injustices he witnessed, a death in the family, depression, fear, no strong male presence at home, loneliness, all the “phonies” he met in his short life, unable to control his anger, and why his court probation was connected to fighting.

The next day, I asked the students for permission to print some of their work in a four-page pamphlet that I would bring to class and share with them. Each person would get a copy, and they could take extra ones home for their family and friends. I got a verbal acceptance from everyone in class, except Jack. When I looked at him, he simply nodded. That was the first, positive gesture he made since school began months ago.

In 1990, our school had ten, old Apple computers, and they were always in use with a waiting line of teachers hoping to use them, so I bought my own and planned to do the layout of the student writing at home for our first, little publication. I didn’t mention my ideas to the class again, because I was preoccupied with learning how to turn on my new computer so it would not explode in my face, teaching myself how to run a desktop publishing program, not swearing loudly while my own children were at my desk, grading papers from school, doing lesson plans for all of my classes, getting enough sleep to stay awake in class, and staying sane.

Many weeks later, I walked into class, and without saying a word, I started passing out our first class newsletter. All the writing came from students in Jack’s class, and I could hear a few gasps and “Wow’s” as they started reading their own copies. By the time I got to the next to the last row passing out the copies, I heard Jack yell out loud, “What is this?”

All the students and I jerked around like we had been shot. Jack talked, and he was on his feet and walking toward the front of the room. He was 6’ 4” and weighed 225 pounds. He should have been on the football field daily after school, because he was such a good athlete, but he had such a poor, grade point average, the head coach would not let him come out for the team.

As he strode down the aisle, I thought he was coming for me, but when he got to the front of the class, he turned and walked directly through the open door out of the room into the hall. He stopped out of sight of the other students, turned around, and motioned for me to come into the hall with him. I told a student in the front seat, “If I am not back in five minutes, go to the office for help.”

I walked into the hall and said, “Hang on, Jack, you can’t leave our class.”

Jack surprised me. His eyes got wet, and he began to cry. Tears came down his cheeks. With much anger, he asked, “Why did you put my writing on the front page?”

I didn’t know if he was going to hit me or what. I said, “Jack, your writing is consistently the best writing in the class. It deserves to be on the front page. You have talent. I hope you write a lot more, and I am proud of you.”

Then, the tears flowed heavily. “No one ever said I had talent in school before. What do I do, now?” He hung his head and stared at the floor, as water splattered on his shoes.

I felt him change in front of me. I placed my hand on his shoulder. “Go down the hall, and get a drink of water. Take ten deep breaths. Then, come back into class, because this is where you belong. From Monday to Friday, from 2:00 to 2:50 p.m., this is your home. Hold onto that notebook, and tonight, write into it like you are writing to your best friend. Tell it what you are thinking. Hold onto your pen, like it was your life-line. Don’t let go of it, until you are so tired of writing that you have no energy left. Whatever you do, tell the truth with your words. Make every word ring with honesty. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Just write. Tell the truth. When you are done, let your “new friend” talk back to you, and all you have to do is listen. Write everything down. You don’t have to show it to anyone, unless you choose to do so. Now, go get that drink of water.”

As he turned to leave, he stopped and moved toward me. I froze. He looked at me. I will never forget those black eyes looking down into mine: part animal, part divine, part confusion, part determination, part anger, and part pride. Those eyes haunt me still. Then he hugged me and said, “Did Hugh Glass ever survive?”

Tears came to my eyes, and I had to look at the floor. I said, “Come on, I will go with you. I need a drink of water, too.”

As we walked down the hall and back to the classroom, several students looked out the door, trying to find where we went. When Jack and I entered the room, the other students wanted to know where we went. Jack smiled. It was now the week before Thanksgiving, and none of us had ever seen him smile in class.

As he sat down in his seat, he said to the other students, “Come on you guys; relax. I want to see what happened to that mountain man. Can you imagine crawling 100 miles after being half-eaten by a grizzly? That is some kind of courage. I don’t think I could do what he did.”

After that day, there were many more class newsletters. Jack’s writing was in most of them, and he was the primary inspiration who sparked that anemic, classroom pamphlet to grow into Fine Lines, now a quarterly magazine for new writers of all ages. What started as a classroom motivator to encourage marginal students to write more after they saw their work in print and read by other students, teachers, and administrators became a publication which is used today in all grade levels: elementary, middle, high school, college, and graduate school.

Jack’s grades slowly began to rise. He came in to see me after school and asked for help with his homework in other classes when he needed it. He still had to check in weekly with his probation officer, but he did graduate from high school. I found out, years later, that he stayed out of jail, worked his way through a two-year community college, graduated from a small, four-year college in another state, majored in journalism, and got a job with a small newspaper in South Carolina. He moved on from there, and I do not know where he is today.

I remember the last entry of Neihardt’s All Is But a Beginning: Youth Remembered, 1881-1901. An old man tells of his youthful vision quest and how he felt like a failure after experiencing the three-days and nights of fasting on a lonely hill praying and hoping Wakon Tonka would appear then provide a spiritual message as he entered manhood. The old man admitted he had no great dream to tell when he returned to the tribe.

“If I have no vision to give me power and guide me, how can I ever be a man? Maybe, I shall have to go far off into a strange land and seek an enemy to free me from this shame.”

Then, just as he had this bitter thought, a great cry came from overhead like a fearless warrior hailing his wavering comrade in the heart of battle. “Hoka-hey, brother – Hold fast, hold fast; there is more!” Looking up, he saw an eagle soaring yonder on a spread of mighty wings, and it was the eagle’s voice he heard.

“As I listened,” the old man said, “a power ran through me that has never left me, old as I am. Often, when it seemed the end had come, I have heard the eagle’s cry, ‘Hold fast, hold fast, there is more.’ ”

Mondays with Martin: Beethoven or Baseball?

David Martin

When I write at a computer, I often hear instrumental music with a piano leading the melody. I never notice words or lyrics. As I place my fingers on the keyboard, I sense a concert hall and a quiet audience, waiting. I hear a symphony in the background, and I see Ludwig van Beethoven in my mind.

Why music? Why the piano? Why Beethoven? More importantly, why at the computer? After years of wondering, the answer became clear to me one night, as I tied sentences together and coasted into the 3 a.m. darkness.

When I was young, my mother and I argued weekly about how much time I should practice the piano. There was a nice Baldwin in the house, and she wanted me to play it.

One day, I heard Mother talking to her friends about classical music. The name “Beethoven” came up in their conversation, and I paid attention every time his name was mentioned. “He was the best German composer,” she said.

At first, I was curious if I could make my fingers please Mom, and I was serious with my lessons for awhile. I practiced, diligently, so I could perform at a planned student recital a few months away. Would she think I was a little Beethoven? The stage fright I experienced at that small gathering killed my interest in playing. I knew Beethoven was beyond my reach.

However, the biggest competition for my piano playing time was baseball. I wanted to play centerfield for the New York Yankees when I grew up. Mickey Mantle, I imagined, was my big brother. I was the oldest child in my family, and I needed a brother to look up to, so I picked him. Fast, strong, able to hit on both sides of the plate, and unstoppable chasing fly balls that would be hits against other outfielders in Major League Baseball, he was my hero.

I loved the grass in “my office.” It smelled good. I thrived on the isolation in the outfield and knew it was my job to manage the players on either side of me. I dared batters on the other team to get a ball past me. That did not happen often.

The respect I got from the coach and the rest of the team motivated me to concentrate on the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand on each throw, so I could get a jump on the batter’s swing, as he made contact. I had to cover more ground than any other player. I wanted to be the best I could be, and I felt excited when I caught a line-drive on the run, grabbed a pop fly out of the sun, and threw a frozen rope from deep center field to home plate before the opponent on third could score.

My fingers were meant to throw baseballs, not find middle “C” on the piano. I liked the feel of my hand around the leather ball. I felt the gift of strength in my arm, and if I kept practicing, I would receive more praise from my coach and teammates.

Every Saturday at 10 a.m., God bless her, Mother would make sure I was seated on the piano bench doing my scales to warm up before practicing the new piece my instructor assigned for the next session. Weekly, this routine took place. My desire to improve was not as great as hers. While she dreamed of “Moonlight Sonata,” I dreamed of the Chicago White Sox visiting Yankee Stadium.

In the spring, one Saturday morning, my life changed. As I sat on the piano bench absorbed in a new piece of sheet music, three of my closest friends knocked loudly on the front porch door, only a few feet away from me, as I was lost thought.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.

I nearly fell off the piano bench in fright.

One of the boys yelled, “Hey, Dave, we’re going to the baseball field, and we need you to practice some plays. We want to win that first game of the season. Come on.”

Quickly, Mother said, “Tell them you can play in about an hour, after you finish your piano practice.”

“But, Mom, they need me now,” I replied.

“Your promise to me comes first,” she whispered.

The boys on the porch were all older friends from the neighborhood. They played infield positions, because they did not like the outfield. They thought playing there was boring and too much work. They felt better on the dirt, and they needed me to back them up in the outfield.

I was not going to win this contest. Either my friends or Mom would not like my decision. I could always do piano practice later, like my friends said. They would not wait forever. I knew I would be grown up soon, and the Yankees would call me.

Mom’s hands slowly folded across her chest. Her eyes filled with tears.

Beethoven or baseball? I knew that I loved centerfield more than the piano, so I made my move. Fifty years later, I still feel my legs slowly sliding off the piano bench and moving toward the front door.

“Mom, I’ll be back after baseball practice,” I reassured her, but I did not hear her say anything.

As I reached for my leather glove, she reached for the music pages.

When I stepped through the door onto the porch, the oldest boy put his arm around my shoulders and said, “We need you, buddy,” and the other boys agreed.

As I started down one of the many roads I took to reach manhood, I imagined my piano music being torn in half.

Today, in my mind, I sense a bust of Beethoven behind me when I type, and I always write with his music in the background. His powerful notes calm me and let me find inner paths to explore with words. I have no fear of him, anymore, so I write on.

I find time each day to type a little “music,” and sometimes, I talk to him. The music of reflection is a solitary tune. I roll through the storm clouds of life listening to “da-da-da-dum,” as I hear notes coming from the keyboard. The letters that make my words become piano keys, and I don’t look over my shoulders anymore.

Composing my “music” on paper shows me I learned to listen, while playing the piano and running in the sun. I learned the most in both activities when I did not talk, because there is power and strength in finding silent spaces during the day.

The secret of composition is to not think of the ending and what comes before the last page. The best plan is to write one sentence at a time and measure the steps, thoughts, and days in key strokes.

Today, when I watch a ball game, I recall all the fun, challenges, and respect I received at such an early age playing with my friends. Those days defined who I would become many years later. I liked sports, and I could not get my fill. I would love to return to those games and play them one more time.

I raise my hands above the keyboard, once more, and hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with those famous four notes. I am still practicing, Mom. This time I hope to make music, as I struggle to form complete sentences and developed paragraphs. I listen to Beethoven’s notes, but I write my own internal rhythms and play my own tunes.

Mondays With Martin: Who Knew?

David Martin

 

 

 

 

 

 

Editor’s note: This essay from David Martin was initially written when Fine Lines was “only” 25 years old.  It’s a little older now, but the essay’s message is just as relevant. 

25 Years: Who Knew?

Fine Lines is dedicated to the development of writers and artists of all ages. Our publication started out as a classroom newsletter in 1991 and has now turned into a 50 state writing network and a 501 (c) (3) non-profit educational organization. The first issue was four pages long and allowed many students new opportunities to show others their clear thinking and proper written expression. Each online, quarterly issue is about 300 pages of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art by “authors and artists in process.”

Now, 25 years later, Fine Lines receives creative writing from authors of all occupations: prose articles of medium length, reflective essays on diverse topics of life experiences, what one learns through the writing process, and poetry in all forms. We have printed writing from a six-year-old, a 94-year-old great-grandmother, ministers, janitors, doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers, and students of all educational levels. In this quarter century of effort, we published writers from every state in this nation and 38 foreign countries: Argentina, Azerbaijan, Australia, Barbados, Bhutan, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Dubai, Egypt, England, Germany, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Mexico, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, Scotland, Sicily, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Togo, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Vietnam, and a US Navy aircraft carrier in the South Pacific. Who knew this wonderful development would happen to a little journal like ours?

To paraphrase George Orwell, good writing is like a window pane, and the editors of Fine Lines hope to assist developing writers see through their windows more clearly. The bottom line of our work is to help writers develop their full potential. Often, we see ourselves as “writing coaches” and value reader participation in this endeavor.

Our Fine Lines mission is to provide a beacon of hope for the misunderstood, share a global vision of improved literacy, embrace the passion of human diversity, understand the need for clarity in all communication, and create the lives we desire through the written word. Led by dedicated volunteers who provide creative oversight, we are an inclusive, nurturing, writing community engaged in the thoughtful pursuit of beauty and truth.

Composition is hard work, and we are proud to show its rewards in each issue. We hope readers share with their friends, students, and fellow writers who love creative expression and celebrate our language. Join us in forming the lives we desire through the written word. Writing of life’s experiences, emotions, and discovered truths brings order to chaos, beauty to existence, and celebration to the mysterious.

In our four anthologies each year, many authors attempt to improve the world through constructive composition, clarifying their views of the world and using words to develop better pictures of humanity. At the beginning of the latest technology age, it took 40 years to sell 1 billion computers, 20 years to sell 7 billion cell phones, and 5 years to sell 1 billion digital tablets. This record teaches us not to settle for the here and now. Dreams show us the world we wish to inhabit. With proper written expression, we can do better and go farther.

Each issue is a collective art gallery of emotions and feelings. There are so many stories behind each page and new-found joys of using words to communicate with others. How nice it is to be heard. How wonderful it is to share a warmth of rhythm and a flow of understanding from one human soul to another. Our stories are simple gifts. Our writers find inspiration by not running from their passions. They compose with purpose.

People of reason need poems, songs, and stories that bring life to the page. Facing the blank page is the first step of creation. Our creative writers deeply inhale that open space. They breathe in and out and become sisters and brothers of that nothingness. In happiness and celebration, they use metaphors as medicine. They write every day to heal hearts and souls. They invite the lines to take them in. We are a collection of broken pieces, but with the help of others, we can restore ourselves. Nature gives us grace to start again with a new blank page. We must tell our stories.

“Everyone on this road is going somewhere” (Roy Rogers). My father believed that and lived an unusual life. He had so many stories that he was the hit of every party he attended. He knew every cowboy in the county, and they knew him, too. He felt potential was overrated. Having the ability to do any job, accomplish any goal, and complete any project required two things: passion for the task and a tough discipline to see the work completed. Artists, athletes, and cowboys must learn to finish their jobs. “Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion,” said Friedrich Hegel. However, those people who deliver as much effort in the fourth quarter of their lives, as they do in the first quarter remain the most productive.

Fine Lines strives to be a motivational manifesto for new writers of all ages who have stories to tell the world. Our editors search for the purity of characters’ messages. We are looking for our homes. We are searching the place to do our best work. We want to know where we will be safe. What is your story? What do freight train whistles mean? Do you hear music in unusual places? When that one person whispers your name, how do you respond? When sleep is hard to find, what does the light rain falling on the roof mean? This is what we are all about. Slow down. Look people in their eyes. Touch them with words. Share your voice. Help others. Make yourself available to the world. Write it down.

Hope is alive for “young writers of all ages” in our publications, and self-expression comes to the surface in all creative forms. We mark their growth process line by line and page by page. Fine Lines echoes Umberto Eco, “To survive you must tell stories.” Each Fine Lines issue is an inspirational journey. The most important door to view the world of knowledge is through an open mind. We take the 26 letters of the English language, rub them together in sentences and paragraphs to start fires that turn into essays, songs, and poems, as the light of wisdom winds its way toward understanding who we are and what we must do with our days. There are so many ways to pray.

Move to the front row of your life and capture the most important part, the “now.” Life is influenced by diverse mediums: dance, theater, poetry, electronics, and cinema. They are an ongoing exploration of the world. Use the anticipation, excitement, and doubt in life to appreciate the calm moments, which prepare us for the chaos that follows.

“How does anyone grow a national literary journal with no staff, no money, and no advertising?” The first answer is “Most don’t try.” The second answer is “Fine Lines found a small group of dedicated volunteers, a couple of administrators who looked at the big picture of literacy and schools, teachers who recognized our potential, a lawyer who wanted his colleagues to write better like our authors do, and students of all ages who loved the idea of sharing their ideas with the world.”

The need for increased literacy is prevalent, and we want to do our part to speak for those who have no voice. We want to let good grow. Words bring hope and magic in so many ways. When things don’t go the way we want, we turn the page. We evolve a little each day. Stories matter. Words matter. Who knew?

Dedication, writing daily, giving our journals personal names, and encouraging them to come alive in front of our eyes, like children, can make us better writers. “Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work” (Chuck Close).

Through the past 25 years of organizing, editing, publicizing, and communicating our mission, Fine Lines has played a part in cultivating a new generation of writers, artists, and insightful souls who appreciate the value of creativity. The work has been our engine of change and growth; the readers have become our products. We work to cultivate the value of creativity. It is my hope that we will succeed for twenty-five years more.

 

Write on.

 

David Martin

 

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