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

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.

 

Monday with Martin: Nurturing the Writer’s Garden

This post from David Martin goes back to the very beginning — 1994.  In it, David describes how he came to see how important personal writing could be as an educational method.  Check it all out below.

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By David Martin
By David Martin

This year I tried to make something special happen in my classroom. I decided to teach what I knew was right for me and my students. I sacrificed the tired, traditional composition format of grammar, mechanics, and the five-paragraph theme. I instituted a new divine trinity: the first person pronoun, writing from direct experience, and the journal.

So far, I am not sorry with my decision. In fact, I see tremendous improvement in my students. In previous years, I taught the following levels of English composition: pre-remedial, remedial, hospital English, terminal English, pre-civilized sophomores, academic juniors, twelfth grade night school, creative writing, and college undergraduates (freshman and advanced upperclassmen). Many students from each level told me quietly, in secret, so none of their friends would hear that they felt writing to be fun again. They told me they learned self-discovery through their writing.

I was most inspired, however, to find proper punctuation magically appearing where necessary, when the students believed what they were writing was important and someone was going to read and believe what was written, inside and outside the classroom. Passion, al kinds, entered into their papers, to stay, to grow, like seeds well nurtured in a garden.

My high school is an above average, college prep school. The faculty and administrators are very happy with the schools image and success. It provides good teachers and good education for the average, above average, and the gifted teenagers. I saw a way I could add to this quality by increasing the warmth and humanness in English class. I offered a place of caring for the individual student with personal journal.

In my high school classes, one day a week is devoted to journal activities. By far, the most successful writing-teaching technique I have used to incorporate the personal journal into all my lessons. I feel strongly that my students’ writing improved with the journal that 20% of my class time is concentrated in this yearly project.

I prepared a list of over 300 topics for students to write about if they could not find interesting ones of their own, but I always gave them a choice of topics on which to write.

The first day of class, students had to design the own coat of arms by cutting pictures from old magazines to pictorially represent the following characteristics of themselves: 1) one important item of their past, 2) one important item of the present, 3) one important item of their future, 4) one important item of how others see them, 5) one important animal that symbolizes their personality, 6-7) two favorite quotations which illustrate important concepts wit which they identify.

Each student must bring an open loose leaf, three-ring notebook with rings two to three inches in diameter. I store them in my so they are always available to me, and I may read them at my convenience. The students take loose-leaf paper home with them and when the assignment is finished the next day; they simply insert the pages into their notebooks. This prevents loss of books and increases neatness and orderliness.

I read the notebooks weekly. Each student writing is titled which lets me read selectively when I must, but each page is at least spot read. I always leave a check on each page to let the student realize that his pages have bee read even if I don’t comment on each one.

When it comes time for grading the journals, I inform the writers that the grading in done by the pound. Effort and quantity are the primary qualities I am looking for. I only make positive comments in the journal. I never make a negative one.

This writer’s garden receives only nurturing and fertilizer, never any poison or salt. With this system, I have seen changes in students’ attitudes towards English class within two weeks time. This positive reinforcement of the writer’s individual communication greatly affects not only my classes but the students’ self-confidence and their outlooks on life in general.

This year-long project develops into a warehouse of feelings, emotions, ideas, and personal revelations. In less than nine months, it surprises me every year how many students tell me, “Mr. M.! I was re-reading my journal last night and I don’t feel the same way about…that I did in September and October.” The students’ ideas move and evolve through their writing and because of their writing.

Frequently, I give students a topic and four minutes time to finish writing their ideas. Usually, they will write one-half page per four minutes. In a forty minute period an average student will finish four to five pages. This is half of their weekly writing assignment for the journal. I give “A’s” to those who produce 10 pages a week.

I try not to let the students come up for air on these days. Just as they start to breathe easily, I give them another topic. I always let them leave room on their paper, as much as they want, so they can go back and finish any uncompleted thoughts when they relax. In this way, they start in class and can finish as much as they choose.

Jokingly, I say to switch hands if their first one gets tired while writing. Even the slow composition students enjoy the challenge after a few times because they make so much progress in their journals. The ones who can’t think of something to write about must find new excuses not to write.

The journal is simply the biggest project undertaken all year. Neatness, effort, pride of ownership, creativity, they all count, but quantity is paramount. Some journals are all letters; some are all short stories; some are all possible mixtures. I don’t care, as long as they write. All prose papers written in class or for class may count.

Creativity is encouraged daily; we write at football games, at museums, in study hall, looking out windows. Seventy-five pages at the end of the semester are required for a “1.” All other grades are pro-rated on a percentage basis.

Extra credit may be earned in excess of 100%. I have given journal grades as high as 300%. If the students want to write, I never put a ceiling on their productivity or their earning potential. Write on. Right on.

I write every assignment that I give my class. I read them out loud to each class and treat all the students as if they were in my small group. This breaks barriers more easily than anything else I have found when it comes to getting reluctant student writers to share their work in class. My children at home keep a journal, and sometimes I bring their work to share with my high school students.

One student graduated a year ago and continues to write. Her production now includes thousands of pages, only a few years after graduating from high school. Once every two months, she brings her notebooks to me so I can read them.

This student and I went to her grandmother’s grave in a local cemetery one day so she could say important words to her that she never had a chance to speak before this favorite relative’s death. The student’s invitation was the most unusual one I ever received. After clearing the trip with her parents, we found the grave and sat down in silence. One hour in the cemetery with this student was a guaranteed stimulus for writing. She has not quit writing in her journal since.

I try to have fun with the journals in many ways. I include stickers with funny sayings on them. “Far out! Now you are going to town! Excellent! Teeeerrrriiiiffffiiiicccc! The stickers remind some of elementary school, but when a student of mine does not get one, I sure hear about it.

My students stopped complaining about how much writing they were doing after the first quarter, when they saw that I was not going to stop expecting them to produce, and neither was I going to quit writing myself.

When they saw that I was passing out grades in excess of 100%, they became believers. If a student writes more than 10 pages per week, I liberally pass out extra credit grades, resounding praise for that person’s enthusiastic composition, and send their best work in to the Fine Lines editors.

Journaling is the greatest tool that I have found for encouraging students at all levels to write, to improve their writing, and to enjoy writing. No matter how slow students might be at the beginning of class, if they don’t give up on writing. I promise it won’t give up on them. No matter how good students might be upon entering the class, if they continue to write in their journals, I promise them they will improve.

I tell all my students that if they keep their faith in their journal, their journal will keep its faith in them. Writers must write what they mean and mean what they write. Write on. Happy journaling. Keep the faith.

Mondays with Martin: Work Blissfully

This essay from David Martin dates back to 1994.  As always, there is plenty of good advice to be found here.  Enjoy.

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By David Martin
By David Martin

People spend too much time running away from things they should face. We run away from threatening people, embarrassing predicaments, scolding mothers, belligerent fathers, crying sisters, awkward brothers, boring husbands, silent wives, suffocating jobs, stifling homes, uninteresting schools, and tough homework. However, more people run away from themselves than from anyone or anything else.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “No thing is at last sacred, but the integrity of our own minds.” If this is the case, most of us have little that is sacred, even less integrity, and we don’t know our own minds. Fear of the unknown and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were a great pair. Remember? “There is nothing we have to fear but fear itself.” I think Emerson would agree with FDR. They suggest if we knew our own minds, there would be nothing to fear after all.

I give myself notice. I accept the challenge. I will say the truth and live accordingly. This process will sting at times, but I vividly remember what it was like to live behind facades. I was afraid of trying new ideas; I did not enjoy each day. I wasted good friends, and I forgot how to live. I want the real me to be on the surface of life, swimming in the sunshine. I hope to be more like the “Sage of Concord” with my feet on the ground and my head in the air. I must make life’s journey by myself. I may only care for other people, but in the final analysis, I only learn what I teach myself.

I do not have to run anymore. I am not competing against anyone in this life, unless it is I trying to achieve the true potential that resides in me. I go at my own pace. I don’t have to be Gandhi or Jesus Christ. I only have to be myself.

I know I am a seeker. I know my drummer beats at a progressively different tune than many hear. I find it hard to pay attention to the rhythm that is in my mind alone. It is hard to leave the herd and dance my own dance.

I was an average student in school. Infrequently, I would reach for an “A” and achieve it, when I felt motivated by the subject matter. I remember one day in twelfth grade, however, when I wanted to learn for the fun of learning. I wanted to absorb all I could about why the mind works the way it does. I also hoped to see the shocked surprise on the faces of all those gifted girls who traveled all the way from kindergarten to high school graduation. Just once, I wanted to show those intelligent girls who always got better grades that I could beat them at their own game. I felt they thought they were much better than I was, and usually, they were. Most often, I didn’t think I could compete with them, so I did not try, but this day was different.

Mrs. Kaiser’s twelfth grade psychology class intrigued me. She was a big woman with a strong, German accent. A quiet and stern lady, she ruled her class with a no-nonsense approach to teaching. When she tried to smile, her lips formed a thin, straight line that barely curved at the corners. She never repeated herself twice, nor did she have to. Everyone listened intently rather than get burned by her piercing stare when a mistake was made. Everyday, the class valedictorian and salutatorian answered all her questions, while the rest of us watched.

One day, this woman and human psychology appeared warm and human. Something clicked inside me during class discussion, and I started answering the questions she did not think to cover or the class all-stars did not mention. She looked at me in an odd way. She leaned her head to the side, and her reading glasses rose slightly, when she stopped talking to the class to look at me directly, coolly, without speaking.

I did nothing wrong. I couldn’t figure out what happened. I dressed well. I sat straight in my seat. I didn’t talk to anyone. I smiled at her. I was alert, and I knew the material. What was wrong? She never said a thing to me the rest of the period but went on with assigning the class a unit test for the following day.

That night, after supper, I puzzled over those looks and the stare Mrs. Kaiser gave me in class for no apparent reason. I felt angry, but I didn’t understand why. What was the matter with her? I did everything correctly, and she still acted upset with me. I wondered if I would ever understand teachers. Probably, she thought I was too slow to be in her special class.

I reread the entire unit that night, which was something I never did. I even read a few extra chapters because they were interesting. I spent all evening preparing for that unit test. I went to bed early, so I would have plenty of rest to tackle her intimidation the next morning. I ate a good breakfast, which I knew would give me enough endurance to persevere through her class.

When I took the test, I was calm. I answered the last question before anyone else did. I looked around the room and was surprised how much time was left in the class period. The other students were still struggling with the last few questions. I forced myself not to turn in my paper first. I stayed in my seat and reviewed every question one more time. I took the full period and turned in the paper two minutes before the bell rang. On purpose, I was the last person to lay my test on Mrs. Kaiser’s desk. As she took the test, I looked her in the eyes and smiled. She noticed that. Her eyes met mine, and I grew more confident because I could see her puzzlement.

She asked, “Is there anything wrong, David?”

“No, Mrs. Kaiser. I thought this was a most interesting group of chapters we studied in the last few weeks. I wish the entire book and this class could be so informative about why humans do what they do.” She stared at me without saying anything.

The day following the test Mrs. Kaiser passed out the graded exams. She returned my paper last and mentioned that I received the highest grade of all. Without raising her voice, she looked at me and said, “I never thought anyone would score this highly on my difficult test. Certainly, I never thought it would be you, David. Well! Well!”

I thought she smiled. It appeared that she did not know how to handle the situation, so she dropped her eyes, turned her back to me and the class, and we started working on the next unit.

This nearly negative reinforcement did have a positive effect on me. I knew that I made an impression on her. I was interested in the subject and tried to do my best. When I decided to study hard for the exam, I was surprised that the material flowed through my eyes, effortlessly, because my interest pulled the pages through my mind. This was one of the few times in any classroom when I felt completely relaxed. I found myself studying psychology for the simple interest of learning, not to achieve a grade, or to impress the teacher. Unconsciously, I discovered synchronicity.

This surge of energy occurred when I studied the topic simply for my own enjoyment. I now know that I waste my time if I do not find myself absorbed in the message of what I am doing. This is the only way I overcome my fear of failing and achieve my potential. Thanks to Mrs. Kaiser and those students in my class, I now see my potential reflected more completely when I blissfully enjoy my work.

Mondays with Martin: I Write; therefore, I Am

This David Martin essay dates back to 1993.  The advice is as sound as ever.

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By David Martin
By David Martin

A person with a good education is able to use the past to prepare visions of beauty for the future. When Picasso sat in front of a blank canvas, he did what all writers must do when they face the blank page. They must make something from nothing.
Writers must see the world with the eyes of a child, the newness, the freshness, the miraculous, to improve the way we see life and ourselves, to make a poem out of each day, carpe diem.

“Youth is happy because it has the ability to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old” (Franz Kafka).

“Cogito, Ergo Sum” (Descartes).

“I feel; therefore, I exist” (Thomas Jefferson).

“I rebel; therefore, I am” (Albert Camus).

“I ought; therefore, I can” (Kant).

“I want; therefore, I am” (Tolstoy).

“Sometimes I think, and sometimes I am” (Valery).

“I doubt; therefore, I believe” (Fishwick).

“I labor; therefore, I am a man” (Stimer).

“It was woman who taught me to say I am; therefore, I think” (Shaw).

“I party; therefore, I am” (Greg Gruber).

With my apologies to Descartes and others, we probably identify our personal search for beauty in life more closely with one of the above thoughts, but we come together as fellow Dragon Slayers to affirm the validity of the interpretation of these attempts to find the meaning of our earthly existence. We, as a group, acknowledge in one another our own struggles with questions about what it means to be alive.

A profound teacher of mine liked to say we all seek one person in life who we trust and one who will say, “I see you as you are. I hear you clearly, and I want to help you.” When we find that mentor, confidant, or lover, only then we will learn who we really are. Only when we change our life perspective from “I” to “We” will we put into action what it means to be who we really are.

Sometimes, one must travel far to discover what is near. This lesson is taught in the wonderful children’s book The Treasure by Uri Schulevitz. In this old folktale, the main character, Isaac, has three dreams (prayers) where he goes from his little village to the capital city to see the King in search of his personal fortune. Finally, he begins his journey on foot because he is so poor. When he gets to the palace, the King is on vacation and won’t return for many days.

The Captain of the King’s Guards watches Isaac deal with his frustration and despair. When the old man proves he is not a troublemaker, the Captain mentions something very suprising. The Captain tells of a dream he had the previous night about an old man who had an unknown treasure under the floor behind his stove at home. Isaac goes home to find the treasure he saught in his own home.

This story illustrates a basic truth few of us realize about our lives. The beauty in life, our treasure, is not in great places, in great adventures, or in great things. Our wealth is found in our ordinary lives, where we live each day. How we spend that treasure is the next question.

Education is putting reason to work. Using our intellect to make the choices we are called upon to make is the “stuff” of life. We must make these choices flower. To not make them produce is to ignore our creativity. We must go with our best intentions and not look back.

“All the problems of the world could be settled easily if (people) were only willing to think. The trouble is that (people) very often resort to all sorts of devices in order not to think, because thinking is such hard work” (Nicholas Murray Butler, American educator, 1862-1947).

“There are few earthly things more beautiful than a University. It is a place where those who have ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see; where seekers and learners alike, band together in the search for knowledge, will honor thought in all its finer ways, will welcome thinkers in distress or in exile, will up hold every the dignity of thought and learning and will exact standards in these things: (escerpt from a speech delivered By John Masefield at the University of Sheffield, England, 6/25/1946).

A well functioning university or any good school is beautiful because a true education emancipates the student. Barriers collapse around the educated. Writing and the crafting of words liberate the heart and soul of the knowing. Education answers the question: Why should I care? Why should I be concerned? Enlightened people feel compassion, suffering, and engagement for those areas they understand.

Mankind craved drink long before he wanted to read books. Gutenberg’s first printing press was a converted winepress. Our basic, more primitive needs must be satisfied first, but the miraculous in education is to take the common, the primitive, and rise to a higher ground. Our use of words will accomplish this as much as a Picasso panting or pressed grapes.

Educated people must say what they mean and do what they say. Words are important and demolish existential barriers. Uneducated people are trapped by mores, become prisoners of their age, and are hobbled by societal norms. Educated people live simply and pride themselves on their self-reliance. They press out excesses in daily life and allow the creative juices to flow without fear of being dammed.

For what do people want an education in the first place: money, fame, security, prestige, power, or because they want to understand? A rich man whose pockets are lined with gold is not my primary example to follow in life. The person who dies with the most toys does not win the race I am running. Money is just another wall. Nothing changes for the rich. They live to themselves, and they believe their lives are better, simply because their bank account is fatter.

In the world of nutrition, we now know fat is the number one cause of physical illness in this country. Writers and artists who do not struggle to find the source of truth in their craft, those who sacrifice their art for an easy way out (more money, a softer position), those who yearn to be comfortable before producing, will live a shorter artistic life just as the person who wallows in doughnuts and fried foods will live a shorter natural life. A prison by any other name is still a prison.

Mondays with Martin: Dragon Slayers

Editor’s note: This David Martin essay dates back to 1993.  The points made here are still as important ever.  Take a look and think about your own writing.  And there are dragons out there waiting to be slayed.

* * *

By David Martin
By David Martin

It is now 3 a.m. Lightning and thunder pound my head. I am tired and can not sleep.

An awful dragon chased me for 5 ½ hours tonight. Our battle sounded like the thunder and looked like the lightning of my dreams. I heard my sword crash against the fire breathing monster’s neck, and I awoke to hear real monsters clash with Zeus’ bolts of fire in the sky.

The monster of my dreams aroused the emotional “donder and blitzen” that took place yesterday at our monthly Dragon Slayer’s meeting. Those flashes of insight and the sound of truth now stir in me to write once again.

Outside, Mother Nature’s rain falls softly. The natural thunder and lightning keep calling my attention to life’s rebirth, baptismal cleansing, and regeneration. It’s never too late to start over.

Our discussion went from patience to parking lots, nuclear holocaust to Nikki Giovanni, a search for passion to paternalism, native desires to Nietzsche, individual courage to Camus, a creative swim to Schopenhauer, and a quest for real education to erudition. My mind became tired and excited as a result of our four-hour sharing. I feel there is much electricity in this group of writers. It is no wonder that Donder and Blitzen are now more to me than just two of Santa’s reindeer.

If Giovanni said there are no conversations, just intersecting monologues, what would she say about Sunday afternoon? Our sharing and discussion prove that good exposition and feedback occur when writers commit to their tasks.

No one really knows the mind and soul of another. Friend, husband, wife, child, do we really know who other people are? Probably not, but yesterday’s attempt was a huge beginning. Let the flow of written words never stop, as we follow our quest to write ourselves into our destiny.

“I can feel again . . . there but for the grace . . . it is the moments I like . . . memories last longer than experiences . . . suffer in order to create . . . passion and pride. . . courage to be . . . over the edge . . . eye of the tiger . . . it is a question of vision . . . a search for truth . . . be the rebel . . . personal battlegrounds . . . celebrate our 26 letters . . . a struggle to be authentic . . . .”

These glimpses of everyone’s participation are sparks for much contemplation and great composition. Don’t be satisfied to talk about them. Write them down. Develop them before they vanish. We must challenge our dragons before they disappear.

I try not to worry about the past. What is done is done. Just let me learn from my mistakes and move on. I pray I don’t repeat the same errors. I hope to move to a higher ground. Then, if I make more mistakes, at least, they will be new ones.

I use to spend so much time worrying about the “boo-boos” I made, people I hurt, and opportunities I lost, that I only made myself depressed. When I learned that my unhappiness was only sublimated anger at myself, I decided I was not progressing by hurting myself, so I stopped it. I am only human. Yes, I made mistakes. I will make more, I am sure, but I don’t want to dwell on them. I choose to think of the future, to emphasize that aspect of my life, to accentuate the positive things I can influence. The little things I know will be affected by my attention.

Living is endless “being,” a continuous growth. There is no finish line; just life in a marathon and small victories tacked onto each other. An ending is a new beginning. I try to keep my eyes on the road and relax behind the wheel. Instead of going around and around in circles repeating the same mistakes of the past, if I can slowly, continuously, move to a higher level, my circles will become spirals. That is enough for me.

The only responsibility a river has is to flow to the sea. I don’t have to be anything else but the river I was created to be. My mission is to simply live what I am. If I am the Missouri, I don’t have to be the Amazon. If I don’t do what the Missouri is supposed to do, that is my only mistake.

Rivers don’t go upstream. I don’t have to push the current. The current will flow by itself. The river’s job is simply to be patient, take the curves and bends as they come, and ride, ride, ride to the sea.

The Greeks said happiness was attaining perfect balance and moderation in all things. When I am not happy, I find that parts of my life are more emphasized than others. Often, I notice my unhappiness comes about when I am thinking only of myself. When I want something so badly that I crave nothing else, when I am obsessed by possessing something, when I am greedy, then my displeasure with life is at its highest point.

When I quit worrying about the getting, when I begin thinking about the giving, my happiness returns. When I am aware of serving others or something larger than myself, when I volunteer my time, when I let good things pass through me to someone else, my happiness returns. It is not the taking that is important; it is the touching. It is not the getting that counts; it is the giving.

If someone asked me, “What are the Dragon Slayers all about?” I would say they are about all of the above and more. Individuals have their own personal dragons to overcome, and according to Joseph Campbell, we may have more than one. The dragons can be many things: possessions, fears, ideas, jobs, school, teachers, wives, husbands, children, and egos. The monsters are concerns in life that prevent us from being ourselves and pursuing those things that let us become happy.

Campbell used the idea of following one’s bliss to find rapture and defeat one’s dragons. The barriers in our lives block our pathways and prevent us from going down the yellow-brick-road to Oz where we will surely be able to find ourselves a brain, a heart, and the courage we need to be successful.

Dragon Slayers travel the road of life searching for its truth through writing. Once the truth, as we see it, is found, the next step requires action. Knowledge is the knowing, but wisdom is knowledge in motion. We want to do more than just find the dragons. Going past those monsters to a better emotional and physical world creates the thunder and lightning that I hear. Let’s confront those dragons. Let’s keep our faith! Let’s write on!