Thomas Roddy on “looking for loveliness”

Contemplating success and failure in the inner city school To recharge from a rough day of teaching, I read poetry. There, I can wrestle with something provocative, but concise. In “St. Francis and the Sow,” Galway Kinnell, imagines an exchange between St. Francis of Assisi and a sow whose fourteen piglets deplete her energy and esteem. St. Francis helps the pig to see that in her obligations as a mother, she fulfills her purpose. She is lovely, to borrow a word from the poem. Helping students realize their own loveliness, their excellence, has become my mission. St. Francis is the sort of teacher I once strove to be—kind, unflappable, and gentle. I thought those qualities would allow me to lessen the interference that invades the lives of my urban students. However, the beneficent teacher I hoped would thrive has not survived; a crankier part of my persona has emerged. My first year, I taught an intervention class for struggling readers. Among my students was a wide-faced kid named Roderick, who tested me frequently by calling me, “Son.” My response was to look at him deadpan. His response was to flash me a well-rehearsed smile. He had me pegged. Had my classroom been outfitted with a climbing wall, Roderick might have felt more at home. He was a roamer, prone to visiting his friends. One day he was especially jittery. “Roderick, please sit down,” I said. Nothing. “Roderick, sit down please.” Still he did not move. “Please. Roderick, have a seat.” Nothing. Finally I yelled, “Roderick, get your ass in the seat right now!” Roderick looked at me, picked up his book, walked to his seat, and sat down. He remained calm for the remainder of the period. When class ended, I apologized, but asked Roderick why when I approached him politely to move he did not, but when I cursed at him he did. Unfazed, he said, “That’s the way my mother talks to me.” I have shared this story with teachers and students alike. Teachers share a Hassidic shrug. Kids laugh. Given the stress many of the parents face, this is, indeed, often the way parents speak to their children. The sow represents any of us before we meet St. Francis—exhausted, with no means of finding any way to restore. I became a teacher after completing the California AIDS Ride. That experience convinced me that when group focuses on making the world a better place—if only for a week—they succeed. I wanted to bring that spirit to each of my classes, to show each of my students that he or she has the capacity to become something magnificent. I did not want any of my students to have the same isolating experience I had had, especially when it came to encountering the mean-spirited teachers who were fixtures in my high school. In particular, I did not want to be the same as my American History teacher, a scholar with the disposition of a ferret with a missing leg. He was scrappy, but jealous of the privilege around him. (He referred to the school as “[Name of School] Prep. For Boys and Others.”) In adolescent fashion, I responded to his contempt by ignoring the work that I should have been doing and could have been doing. I attended school with the scions of America’s great families. My students’ parents work for such families. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the absence of educational advantages has left profound deficits in their education. My students read and write well below grade level. Everything I teach requires adjustment or extra explanation. Summoning St. Francis isn’t as easy as it may sound. The only way to ensure work is done is to complete the assignments in class. Even at that, many times, my students write only a paragraph, sometimes a sentence or two. So I am placed in a quandary. Do I return them to their loveliness by giving them a failing grade? Do I return them to their loveliness by offering a second, third, or fourth chance? I have learned that doing so does not produce better work. Last spring I gave a take-home final. Students had to choose a non-fiction book, read it, and complete a reader response paper. Every day before the paper was due; I explained I could not offer extensions. Every day for three weeks, I allotted time in class for reading and reiterated the importance of turning the work in on time. Three submitted their papers late. I did not accept them, in spite of copious tears. Two students failed. I know I did the right thing. Students appreciate honesty above all qualities. To allow students to turn papers in late and grade without high demands are forms of lying. These actions may be intended to prove to someone that he is lovely, but, the student never gains the footing he needs to succeed. He gains my pseudo-approval, but what value is that? The best teaching occurs when a mentor does not add to what we know, but instead takes away what interferes with our ability to grow. Our greatest teachers surprise us. They make us realize that we have something to offer, even though we may have convinced ourselves of the opposite. {Thomas Roddy, Jr., teaches at Manual Arts High School, in the Los Angeles Unified School District. A version of this essay appeared in CATE Magazine in 2013.}

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