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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

A Teaching Story: Martel

NOTE: I wrote this essay over five years ago, then later read/performed it at a local theatre fundraiser. I’m posting it now as a follow-up to last week’s March 1 blogpost, “Aging in a Violent Place.” In that one, I mentioned how I'd taught college writing to students who'd graduated from Chicago public high schools.

Lately, I’ve been telling people about Martel, the young black man in my writing class at a local community college. It’s a “developmental” writing course designed for high school graduates who can’t read and/or write at the 12th grade level. And though some have tested even lower than that, they’ve been passed along by the Chicago Public School system, receiving proper diplomas, a crime of sorts, when you think about it.

But, as they say, “it is what it is,” and so Martel—and Janice and Alecia and John and Hector and the 15 other students who fill my class every Tuesday and Thursday morning for 3.5 hours of reading and writing.

But it is Martel of whom I’m especially fond. When I first saw him walking in the hall that first day, he looked liked so many other young inner city black men: jeans riding low on his hips, underwear showing; baseball cap on backwards; talking on his cell phone. My first thought, of which I’m not particularly proud, was: this kid’s dealing drugs.

But over the course of the last 12 weeks, what I've learned is that Martel is really dealing in hope and hard work, and in a trust in me so palpable it’s scary, a trust that I can help him learn to read and write and speak his way into the good old American dream of opportunity for all.

It won’t be easy for him and he knows it.

On a recent day in class, while students were quietly starting on their essay assignments, he came up to my desk and whispered, “I’m not sure what to do.” The assignment—based on one of our readings—was to write about how high school students passed along without learning basic skills are cheated by the system. Part of the assignment was to describe examples from their own experiences—or those of friends, neighbors, and family members.

I quietly prompted Martel with a question or two and he whispered back, “Maybe I can write about my cousin, he in jail for dealing drugs.” He said this matter of factly, the way a white kid from Rolling Meadows might say, “My cousin’s at Notre Dame on a scholarship.”

And just a week earlier, while meeting in my office, Martel showed me another essay he’d started, this one about his brother, a high school dropout who was getting his GED. Why’d he drop out, I asked. Because, Martel said, every day when he walked to school he was hassled by gangbangers.

Martel then added that he’d been turned down for a job he’d recently applied for at UPS. “How come,” I asked. “The way I speak,” he replied in his clear true voice, a voice tutored in the black English of his neighborhood.


I first started teaching writing 25 years ago, as a graduate student in English at the University of Illinois. And along with many of my fellow grad students turned teaching assistants, I’d grown resentful of my freshman students. Too many had poor writing skills and little motivation to do any better. I’d had to spend hours of prep and class time going over the basics, doing endless grammar drills, marking papers that took more time for me to read than students had spent writing them.

Of course, I’ve have much preferred to have spent those untold hours analyzing Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” researching American Indian creation stories, and arguing the latest literary theories.

Then I read a book about the literary chasm that often exists between people like me—lit geeks—and the students we generally teach, and about how we, the teachers, might better learn to bridge that gap, and thus dial down our resentment in the process. “Imagine,” the author wrote,” that at least one student in your classroom has a heart bigger than yours.”

 And now so many years later, in this school and in this class, that student turns out to be Martel.


“Teaching, like writing, is an experiment,” wrote writer/teacher Donald Murray. And so over the years in our classrooms we fiddle around with assignments and teaching methods and weighting grades—all the day-to-day whatnot of the teaching life. But, as Martel has reminded me, that’s the easy part.

The challenge in teaching, as in all human relationships, is a spiritual one, I think, one grounded in authentic connection and truth-telling: How do we daily show up for our students, listen to their stories, pay attention to their struggles? How do we accept them where they are, yet challenge them to be more?

Truthfully, I know of no other way than to imagine the size of their hearts.

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