Recently, I found myself contemplating my teaching career—which spanned nearly three decades, thousands of children, and experiences rife with range and richness. Before I became a teacher, I was a reluctant draftee in the United States Army and, in what I’ve since realized was one of many divine appointments in my life—I became a Chaplain’s Assistant. Interesting because prior to my time in the military I had never entered a church!
After my time in service, I met Janie and we started our family. We attended college in earnest—Janie an aspiring teacher—my goals, more circuitous, involved a legal career. I imagined I’d convert my degree in Criminology into a career as a Probation Officer and eventually study law. God had other plans! I realized that the primary influences in my life, outside of family, were teachers. One teacher, Mr. Brown, the subject of an earlier blog, was singularly responsible for a shift in my career plans. Teaching, I now know, is as much a calling as a profession.
We enjoyed highly successful teaching careers in California before moving to San Antonio, and often maintained that our move here was for love of the city and to work more closely with underprivileged children. Early in my career Janie introduced me to a poem that became the first memorized poem for my students, every year since:
Dare to Dream
Choose a wish, find a dream, pick a wishing star,
Let your hopes and spirits soar—high, and free, and far.
Reach for the unreachable, stretch to touch the sky,
Know no dream you treasure—is too far away or high.
Believe in the impossible, then work, and try, and do,
For only those who Dare To Dream—can make a dream come true!
After teaching for several years in San Antonio, I heard about a school on the east side that was struggling with accreditation due to chronically low scores. There was a third grade opening in this predominantly African-American school and I felt called to apply. I got the position and began the year that stands out as the most difficult and triumphant in my teaching career.
The beginning of the school year began as I imagined. The children were difficult and unruly. I had long since discontinued the practice of reviewing students’ folders—in favor of starting at point zero—clean slate. We went about the business of building bridges! The neighborhood was riddled with violence and drug traffic. For many of the children, and parents, teachers were viewed with disdain or distrust. The stories they shared included gang wars, drive-bys, and broken families. We started the year with the poem, “Dare To Dream” and began conversations on truisms—statements universally accepted as true, like “A journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step” and “Only those who dare to dream—can make a dream come true”.
I prayed over them out loud and eventually, with them, as they petitioned for family members and pets, and only occasionally for themselves. We grew. We learned. We dreamed. We planned excitedly for our rendition of a classroom play entitled “E. Scrooge”—a play my classes had performed for years. The script is 27 pages long and includes speaking parts (with accents) for all! We converted the classroom to mid-1800’s London. And, the production included lighting, wireless microphones, fog machines and more.
That year, we decided to actually design and build modular stages! Third graders! With the help of Home Depot, who provided materials and expertise, we built the stages. The students designed, measured, and used drills to build the stages. They were not, however, allowed to cut the wood! They problem solved, and learned, and wrote. Eventually, they performed the play multiple times in our theater for every class, as well as dignitaries from the community.
When it was over, we discussed the truisms in the play. They concluded that Scrooge’s conversion from penny-pincher to generous man was because he realized that he was, and we truly are, our brother’s keepers.
One of my students actually brought the scripture to class earmarked in her grandma’s Bible.
Genesis 4:8-10 (NKJV)
8 Now Cain talked with Abel his brother;[a] and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.
9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?”
He said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
10 And He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.”
The students scored well above the district average on the state tests that year. As a last project we designed and created a large mosaic wall hanging. Several students drew their conception of the theme, which is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam”. They titled the piece: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” I’ve lost touch with these students and often wonder how they’re doing. I began teaching at Thomas Jefferson High School for the next 8 years and continued to use the stages until my retirement. They are now used in my yard for holiday decorations.
When I think about that year and those wonder-filled children, I’m reminded of the words of Marva Collins (a ground breaking educator who worked with the inner-city children of Chicago), “Every child is a born achiever”. And now as I finish this piece, my eyes drift, as they always do when I’m in this room, to the breathtaking mosaic displayed on the wall, in proud remembrance of the classroom of 3rd graders who dared to dream, and turned those dreams into a masterpiece.
Published by Dean Evans