The Stories They Tell: A Teacher Remembers Her Students

I remember my students by the stories they tell. For the past 33 years, I have been challenged, moved, and most of all transformed by the young people I have encountered in my inner city classroom.

There was Steve Woods whose angry outburst of “That’s whiteman’s bullshit!” during my introductory lesson on Cry the Beloved Country sent me on a decades-long journey to re-educate myself. Or Carlissa Russell who during a discussion of feminism and African American literature, screamed at me –“Mrs. Pincus – to you this is just political. To me it’s my life!” Or Terrance Jenkins whose nearly twenty revisions of his play Taking Control taught me that it is often their very lives my students are trying to control and revise.

Then there was Duane.

It is April 1998. Duane is not doing the senior project that he needs to complete in order to graduate. Duane has been struggling. He has taken to avoiding me, the mentor he has chosen to marshal him through this complicated research process. And even though I know it won’t be easy, I find the strength to confront him.

At first, he will not look at me. His head is bowed and his chin is dug deep inside his chest. I talk in what I hope are soothing tones, trying to encourage and convince him to do the work. Suddenly he jumps up from his seat. What’s the fucking use anyway? Bull’s out there crazy! They gonna kill you. I have no future. What’s the fucking use? What’s the point in doing this? What’s the point of graduating? I’m gonna fucking die!!!!!

When he finishes, he sits back down, assumes the same tucked position while his words echo in the silence.

Slowly, he begins to tell his story. It is one of violence and anger. He lifts his shirt to show me his scar where the bullet entered his body.

I take a deep breath and try to gather the pieces of myself that have been shattered by his story. What can I, a white woman, a mother whose son is the same exact age as Duane say to him. In telling his story to me, his teacher, in school, Duane has transgressed a boundary and ripped through the silence that separates students from their teachers. He has made the call. I must make the response.

Duane, I say, touching his arm. Are you positive you’re gonna die? Are you so sure that you’re willing to bet your future on it? At least consider the possibility that you could be wrong here. You’re not always right, you know.

There is a long silence because I have run out of things to say. I am overcome by a desire to get up and run away and never see Duane again. Then through the silence, his response. Thrusting his notebook towards me, he says, Show me how to do this. Step by step. I’m confused.

As I reach across to Duane, I suddenly remember another story – one from nearly thirty years ago. It was the first day of school of my senior year in AP English and Mrs. Laskin asked us to write an essay –something like how I spent my summer vacation. My friend Steve had died from a heroin overdose one month to the day after his 18th birthday on August 9, 1969 – one week before Woodstock, one month after men had landed on the moon as I watched the small black and white tv with a group of scagged out boys. I began the essay with the silent ride home from the cemetery, with his best friend Dock ripping the funeral sticker off the windshield. I wrote about my confusion and guilt – how I had spoken to him the night he died and he said he was just going to stay home and watch tv and how he must have changed his mind and how I should have known and been there for him.

Mrs. Laskin gave me a B-minus on that essay – a grade I now know teachers give when they don’t know what to say about a paper. It’s a safe grade. It will raise no eyebrows and cause no complaints.

Looking back, I wonder. What did Mrs. Laskin think of the young woman sitting before her who was in so much pain? How might my life have been different if she or anyone in that school had responded to what I was saying – the story of my life I was trying so desperately to tell her?

Teachers have a responsibility to listen to our students. We must make sure that we never give into despair. We must gain strength from our students’ stories of struggle, courage, hope and possibility. In urban classrooms today, the stories are all we have and they are what will save us.

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  1. When I noticed your title the show ‘Kids Say The Darndest Things’ came into my head for some reason.

    Anyway, I think the most important thing you’re showing here is that there isn’t a physical barrier between teacher and student, only the one that is conceived by both. This is evident because Duane was avoiding you because he felt as if he couldn’t talk to you, and you, I assume, felt surprised when he finally opened up to you.

    Basically, I’m getting a sense of Teaching 101. I noticed that, supporting what you said last year, the teachers that don’t demand respect seem to gain the most of it. Most of my teachers this year, luckily, are ones that know respect is mutual and that teachers aren’t an overbearing force with absolute power. Also, the anecdote about your past teacher just shows that teachers have to make many decisions when dealing with their students. “Do I respond to her writing? Do I probe and ask her about her life? Do I just grade her and continue our teacher/student relationship?” are questions that I assume were going through her mind. Your decision proved to be beneficial to the student and to you, so choosing to probe was a good choice in that case.

    To be honest, in my ealier years I’ve always thought of teaching as passing out predetermined textbooks/novels/worksheets and coaching students through them. However, as my years of being a student progress I’m learning that many teachers enjoy going off on a tangent and talking about life – teaching us through their experience. Those are the discussions I look forward to because the information gained is much more valuable than knowing the value of y at x=4 or why Romeo and Juliet couldn’t be together. They’re also what you’re known for – we still talk about your stories and discussions (most notably the one about if you were forced to choose between your kids and your coffee, you’d have to think it through).

    So, your title works both ways. Though teachers remember their students, students will remember their teachers and the stories they tell, too.

  2. Sometimes the stories seem so small and yet they may be significant after all. I recently connected with a student I taught when she was in third grade in 1974. (My first teaching year.) She is now grown and a mom of 4 kids. When we reconnected on Facebook, she wrote a note about how bizarre the timing was because she was just talking to her 14-year-old son about me. He had to decide which foreign language to study and she told him the story about how her third grade teacher taught her French. It was a hard year for her as her parents had split up and she was a quiet and sensitive girl with too many deep thoughts to convey. She kept to herself most of the time and I tried to gently draw her out because I could see she needed to communicate something. I remember that well. What I didn't remember was that she told me she wanted to learn a foreign language so I spoke French to her and set up an independent learning project for her where I taught her simple conversational French and let her work on it in class. She says now that it was just what she needed at the time. She needed to know that someone was paying special attention to her. That simple act of speaking French just to her and not other students helped her to know she mattered to someone. It was such a small story to me — a distant memory that did come back when she reminded me — but to her, it was an epic tale with lifelong resonance. Oh, Marsha, you are so right about the import of stories — all stories big and tiny. It's a wonderful and powerful essay you've written. Thanks for reminding me why teachers matter way beyond the numbers…

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