As a teacher of writing back in the day…some twenty years ago. I struggled with these strange expectations. I still struggle with finding the confident words to say...here I am world. I wonder, did Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, Jose Marti, Federico Lorca Garcia, or Langston Hughes spend much time writing persuasive essays in their school days? What were they learning about writing?
Welcome to my trip down memory lane. I discovered, my old teaching journal cleaning up my basement this morning. Looking back to that time, when I lived and taught writing in the desert. I found today in yesteryear my 1997 teaching journal… That faithful year of miracles coming true... Andrew would become a writer, and I would be well on my way to becoming Dr. Turner. Below is my journal entry:
I call Andrew my little Miracle, because when he first came into my class he never said a word, never wrote a line, but always had the most beautiful smile. Andrew was not difficult, but he just never really participated. Make no mistake though Andrew was close to making some wrong turns’. He was in my prayers everyday. I had to push and push him, and still he only gave an answer when he had to, with reluctance. At one point, we thought perhaps Andrew should go to another teacher whose teaching style was more traditional, but when this suggestion was made to Andrew he requested not to be moved. Andrew began to speak up in class after the meeting with our director- but still he never wrote. Andrew passed most tests, and could write a neat tidy paragraph on almost anything, but I always expected more and he caused my heart to ache. I wanted him to write, to really write, and something inside me knew he could.
So, I ached with caring (as Mem Fox wrote in her book Radical Reflections for English teachers) to see any real writing from Andrew for three long years. Andrew had no difficulty in math or science classes only English classes. Actually, Andrew is very bright, he is no special needs child in the general sense. Andrew just hated to write. He would say, "I just don’t feel like writing." At the beginning of this year, sometime in January as we were getting ready to begin work on our poetry publication and prepare for our spring public readings something happened. Andrew handed me some pieces of paper at the end of class, and said “Jesse, do you want my poem”? I was over the moon, all week long I cherished “Andrew’s poem”. I read it repeatedly. This class I teach is an Upward Bound writing class, we meet every Saturday for two hours so I had plenty of time to think about what to do the next time class met. I was so excited and happy with his poem I thought this is not just a poem this is a great poem. I typed it up, and made copies for everyone in class and had it enlarged to poster size!!
Andrew practiced and read his poem in public for the first-time last semester. He was wonderful. Andrew has not stopped writing since. When Andrew read Ofelia’s poem "Ocean Power" at the ocean last week-he began "We O’odham people have important things to say about life, and we need to write them down on paper like Ofelia. Ocean my name is Andrew. I just might become a great O'odham writer some day like Ofelia Zepeda”. Then he read-and I had to turn away just for a moment, to dry the sweetest tears any teacher has ever shed. Later Andrew said “Hey teach, I did OK didn’t I”?
I know that Andrew, went on to graduate secondary school that year. He was the first in his family to ever accomplish this task. He went on to Johnson and Wales College of Hotel and Culinary Arts. I visited him while he was there. He was lonely for the desert. He left after his first year, and joined the United States Air Force. That was some twenty years ago. I lost track of him then.
Now, I find myself trying to track him down. Tracking people down after twenty years is always scary for teachers. I am hoping things turned out well for him, but I don’t know. Last summer, I returned to the Tohono O'odham nation for the first time in two decades. I met some former students doing well, and heard some heartbreaking stories about others. Our teaching stories, both lift and break our teaching hearts. On most days, I live with no news is good news, but I owe Andrew a thousand thank you(s) for helping to make me a better teacher and better person. So friends, wish me luck, and pray for a good update.
Teachers, don’t you let them fool you? We teach in a time of wonder and possibility, not conformity. Keep those beasts of conformity outside your teaching door, and teach your students the possibility of the written word. My teaching deeds are really quite small. But, when that owl calls my name, lay this teacher down to sleep, and know my only question is... Did I do some good, and is Andrew safe and well?
Still, in love with the desert sun,
Still, not quite confident,
Still, willing to take that leap of faith,
Still, longing to be a better teacher,
And yes, hope still lives in this teaching heart.
Jesse The Walking Wan Turner
If you want to listen to the song that inspired my walk over the Avon Mountain this morning it's one of my favorite covers of "Teach your children well"(Cosby, Stills, and Nash) by Play For Change https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5AuFDHdrrg