America is churning these days. We have so much work to do, so much justice and goodness to build that it sometimes feels overwhelming. In these days just past the Charlottesville events, we are reminded again, how racist, violent, and cruel our country can be. We have to name these realities and face them or they will never change. In this context, next week I begin my twenty-ninth year as a teacher. So these days, I’m revising my syllabus, re-considering methods and assignments.
As a teacher, I am lucky. Very lucky. I teach with remarkable colleagues at a Jesuit high school in Washington, D.C. We have good students, wide academic diversity, and decent racial and ethnic diversity. Perhaps most importantly, we have a positive spirit in our school. Most of the students like to be there. Naturally, we have the normal teenage issues. Our students are working out who they, what they believe, just like most young people. Our students are a bit driven, pushed for grades and accomplishments probably more than they should be. Those pressures rarely yield good results. Sometimes they bring forth very bad results. Overall, I am fortunate to teach in this good place.
Most of my life has been lived according to the academic calendar. So the end of August feels a lot more like the beginning of a new year than January ever does. As the summer comes to its end, in terms of time away, the new year begins with new classes and new students. Next week, I begin my twenty-night year teaching and I still feel very fortunate and passionate. I love this work. Watching young people discover the power of literature, seeing them struggle with a difficult text and then come to know it, these are cherished moments. They don’t happen every class period, but they happen often enough for me to know these moments well. I’ve taught for eighteen years in high schools, from California to Arizona, to Washington, D.C. I’ve taught for ten years at the college level, from Notre Dame to American University here in Washington, D.C. These have been beautiful years, coming to know some outstanding young people along the way.
I re-connected with two former students this past summer and I think the story is worth telling. Judith was in my first Freshmen Seminar class at Notre Dame. This was back in 1988. We read a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. and studied some liberation theology through the life and work of Jean Donovan and Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. We had great discussions and I read some terrific writing. I remember Judith as a particularly engaged young person. She had questions. She pushed me and her peers. Earlier this summer, I was reading at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York, and while Judith and I had been in touch via Facebook, I had not seen her since she graduated from Notre Dame, more than twenty years ago. When I saw her before the reading in that venerable place for American poetry I was elated. She had just finished law school and was getting ready to start her bar exam preparation. Yet here she was in the Nuyorican Poets Cafe to hear her old teacher read his poetry. Needless to say, the embrace was big. I was there with Derrell, also a former student who now lives in New York. Derrell is a much more recent former student, only graduating from high school a couple of years ago and still an undergraduate at St. John’s in NYC. Derrell currently writes for the St. John’s University student newspaper and for several online sports sites. He was one of those remarkable students in my American Literature class who asked great questions, took his writing seriously, and saw the power in the literature we read. Introducing the two of them felt like quite a connection. These two former students, both doing remarkable work in the world as thinkers, writers, activists, remind me that it’s important to take our daily work very seriously.
So this year, we’ll read Anne Bradstreet and Jonathan Edwards, Puritans whose worldview is likely quite different from our own. We’ll read Red Jacket and Black Hawk, both watching their cultures’ destruction. We’ll dive into the life and work of Frederick Douglass, George Moses Horton, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Emily Dickinson. We’ll read Walt Whitman, Harriett Jacobs, Frances Harper, Paul Laurence Dunbar, T. S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Audre Lorde, Martin Espada, Leslie Marmon Silko, Lucille Clifton and many more. We’ll see what they might offer us today.
This one fragile life we have is short. Its fragility becomes more clear to me everyday. Yet, I am more convinced now than ever, that teaching literature and writing, talking about these important texts with young people, can make the world more just and beautiful. With America in the turmoil it’s in today, it matters. It really matters.