Students Teachers and Teaching

John Thompson: A Valentine for My Students

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John Thompson, historian and teacher, read David Denby’s tribute to the importance of teachers on Valentine’s Day and was inspired to write a Valentine to his students.


He writes:



Thank you David Denby for your “Valentine for Teachers.” You wrote the unvarnished truth that explains the teacher-bashing of the last generation. “This rage” is due to a dilemma “that’s hard to talk about, and so it’s often avoided: the dismaying truth that we don’t know how to educate poor inner-city and rural kids in this country. In particular, we don’t know how to educate African-American boys.”



We know how to educate poor children of color but our segregated society doesn’t know how to scale up systems that treat all of our kids with the respect they deserve. My book, A Teacher’s Tale, is a valentine to my students. They taught me how to teach to “the Heart,” not just “the Head.” Its subtitle, Learning, Loving, and Listening to Our Kids, previews doable solutions. (Other than the obvious exceptions, the names below are pseudonyms.)



During my first semester teaching in a neighborhood school, I learned that our kids’ emotional and moral consciousness is the first rock on which great education systems must be built. Davina did not ask permission to get up and walk across the room. As I kept teaching, I wondered what was in Davina’s mind as she went to the far back corner. She acted as if she owned the place, but then again, there are worse things than students taking over their own classroom. She took a seat next to the only white kid in the room, a new transfer. Davina put her hand on the girl’s hand and said, “Honey, you look scared. Don’t worry. You will be alright.”



Yes! If we build on our kids’ decency, our democracy will be alright. And, we must stop this ceaseless focus on remediating children’s weaknesses and build on their strengths.

Teaching a challenging and authentic curriculum is one way to demonstrate respect for our kids. Some will recoil at reading aloud New Yorker articles, such as Marshall Frady’s “Children of Malcolm” and Connie Bruck’s “The Takedown of Tupac,” in classes where most of the kids carried felony raps, and reading comprehension ranged from 2nd grade to college level (with most being around 5th or 6th grade in comprehension.) But my kids had the background knowledge required to understand the stories’ deepest themes and how they fit into the Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois traditions (which were in the Standards of Instruction that I was required to teach.) For instance, to place the story of the hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur in its proper context, a reader had to, “Listen while I take you back and lay this rap … About a snitch named Haitian Jack.” If the New Yorker told the story of Tupac, “Shug” Knight, and “Biggy” Smalls so that middle-aged whites could understand, then it was comprehensible to these kids who knew these rappers’ stories.



At the beginning of his freshmen year, my Black Nationalist, Akili, challenged me daily. During his senior year, he borrowed every issue of my New York Review of Books. One evening we were shocked to learn that it was past 6:00 and we had been talking for hours. He had wanted to discuss Herbert Gutman’s theory about the black family. Akili said, “You are the coolest white man I’ve known. Here we are having an intellectual discussion. You respect my brain.”



The first rule of teaching should be: Listen to the students and they will teach you how to teach them. Above all, teaching is an act of love. A transfer student asked whether I had black kids, imitating my Okie accent and saying that I always talk about “ma kids.” From all across the room came shouts, “D.T. has hundreds of black kids!” One announced, “Yeah, D.T. is a playa!” High fives were shared throughout the room.



The way to scale up high-quality instruction is invite the full diversity of our society to participate in the team sport that is teaching and learning. Nothing could be more exhilarating than the cross-generational sharing of what we love. For me, it was daily pick-up basketball games and as many interactions as possible where my students and the city’s movers and shakers schooled each other. But, our kids all have different personalities and they need a diverse range of mentors.

The following passage, which starts in 1999, is just one example of why teaching in the inner city is the greatest calling that I can imagine but, I’ll admit, it’s my personal favorite:



By that time, my relationship with a former student, Brandy Clark, had grown especially intense. Brandy was a survivor of some of the worst generational poverty and abuse in Oklahoma’s “Little Dixie.” A turning point in our relationship occurred during a camping trip to the Grand Canyon. Our other traveling companion was Abbas, a black Muslim student. The road trip debates were endless. Being part Mexican, Filipino, and Chickasaw Indian, Brandy defined herself as both black and “multi-generational, multi-cultural,” and that upset Abbas, who defined himself only as “black,” saying he was “just keeping it real.”



My travel partners also sought clues about the secret lives of white people, and that gave me the opportunity to tell, with a straight face, why my people refuse to bring an extra change of underwear on extended camping trips. The punch line, “you all on the right, change with you all on the left” brought howls of derision, giving me a chance to reply, “just keeping it real!”



Hiking out of the Grand Canyon, Brandy introduced me to the hikers as “grandpa.” “He’s old,” she added, “I’m looking for a place to dump his body when he dies.” At the same time, Abbas reclaimed his “Indian roots” that explained his ability to scoot back and forth, discovering one new world after another. Abbas would rush up breathlessly, “I just met some Sikhs! Sikhs are monotheists in the Punjab who believe in …” Or, “this Polish family taught me …!”



The thin air and the hiking were tougher on Brandy. During a break when we were close enough to the top to see that victory was assured, she blurted out, “Nobody has ever done that before!” Nobody in her family, Brandy clarified, had ever encouraged her as I had when she struggled up the canyon. She had been warned against the trip because hiking was “just something that white people did,” and she wouldn’t be able to keep up.



Brandy was supposed to be preparing for her university scholarship audition, but she slacked off on that task. Procrastination was unlike Brandy, and her answers were unsatisfactory so I made her schedule an appointment at the Drama Department. As we pulled out of the school parking lot, Brandy said “D.T., you are going to yell. I missed my audition. … I can’t compete with those white girls from the rich schools with years of experience.” “You’re damned right I’m going to yell and yell,” I replied, “But by the time we pass 63rd Street, I’ll calm down, we’ll get it together, and you will win that scholarship!” Sure enough, Brandy swept them off their feet.



… In 2006, on the eve of taking her certification examination in preparation for moving to New York, I mentioned how I always said that I loved her “like a daughter,” and I wished that I did not have to put the qualifying phrase on the end. The next morning when driving Brandy to the testing center, we stopped for breakfast. Brandy then introduced me as, “my dad.”



During the next four years, Brandy and I shared our days’ school experiences during nightly phone conversations. Brandy’s observations about her middle school in Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn were so similar to mine. Brandy said that the poverty in the projects of New York City and Oklahoma City was comparable. It was only a matter of degrees: violence and racial conflict in Oklahoma City were worse. Our state was first in incarcerating women and third in locking up men, so children brought gang loyalties with them to first grade.



Brandy now teaches in California and I’m even more convinced that she’s a genius who embodies what it really takes to provide the education that all of our kids deserve. And, guess what? This Christmas, my Jewish in-laws were visiting when Muhammad, the real “Abbas,” knocked on the door. The resulting conversation drew on close textual analyses of the Quran, the Torah, the New Testament, and contemporary politics. It was like we were back in school, sharing the joy of “teaching with an open door, an open mind, and an open heart.”

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