I know there are those who would quickly point to the advantages of teaching. They would argue I have more time off during the year, great benefits, job security and a host of other things.
To a large extent, they would be right. But those things are slowly fading away. More and more the time off I receive is brought about because of budget cuts and the district saves money by not having to pay me for those days. Like many in our country, our benefits are continually cut while our rates continue to climb. As far as job security goes, well, I’ve been doing this for a lot of years and although I’ve heard of the word ‘tenured,’ I’ve not seen nor experienced it in any form in my district.
Honestly though, I’m not complaining. I made the choice to go into teaching and overall it’s been a good choice for me. After all, every job has its good points as well as its bad. Yet lately it seems like the bad points have been outweighing the good and I stop and wonder why I continue to do it.
Yesterday, I was reminded why.
One of the classes I teach is American Literature. The 11th graders who make up the class are also enrolled in U.S. History, so it’s my hope that through literature, I can help show the human side, the human perspective of historical events.
I tried to do that the other day with Patrick Henry’s speech to fellow delegates at the Virginia Convention of 1775. Most people are familiar with at least part of the last line of the speech, where Henry –attempting to persuade his fellow delegates to go to war with England—says, “…as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”
I tried to put the speech into context. I gave the speech my best heartfelt, soulful reading. I spoke with passion, asked students questions and, overall, was met with blank stares, heavy sighs, and weak attempts at hiding cell phones.
The harder I tried, the less the students seemed to care. I could begin to imagine exactly what Patrick Henry was up against at the convention. In a last ditch effort to get students engaged in what is one of the most perfect persuasive speeches ever written, I turned to the white board and wrote “50 points extra credit.”
For some reason, the words ‘extra credit’ gets students’ attention and 50 points in my class is a decent chunk of points towards their grade (which I really don’t give a damn about. I’m much more concerned with what they learn rather than what letter grade they have). Of course they immediately asked me about the catch. I told them all they had to do was come to the front of the room and give a heartfelt reading of the last paragraph of Henry’s speech. That’s it: just the last paragraph. Of course, I reminded them it had to be a serious reading with as much passion as they could muster. I also guaranteed them that the rest of the class would listen respectfully and give them a well-deserved round of applause when they were done.
Kids aren’t stupid. One quickly asked if the points earned were on a scale depending on how well they did with their reading. I assured them it was an all or nothing proposition. If they did it and gave it their full effort, they received full points. If they went up and made a joke out of it, they received nothing.
There was whispering. There was quiet contemplation. For most 11th graders, standing alone in front of 35 or their peers is a very frightening thing.
Finally, there was the first volunteer. Then the next and then the next. Just to remind folks about the speech, here is Henry’s final paragraph the students had to read in front of the class.
“It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, ‘Peace!
Peace!’ –but there is no peace. The war has actually begun! The next gale that
sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our
brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that
gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be
purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almight God! I know not
what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
Pretty heavy stuff. Read well, it’s also very powerful. It’s difficult enough to be a real challenge for students. Yet each student gave it his or her best shot and they did well. Hell, it was going so well I would have given them 100 extra credit points. It seemed as though with each reading the students were better understanding the piece and trying to put more and more passion into it.
And that’s when it happened.
The one student who I would have never guessed would try it stood up and walked to the podium I’d set up at the front of the room. She’s not the best reader in the world. She has difficulty with fluency. She told me early on in the school year that she simply would not read in front of the class. But there she was.
She started off rough. She had trouble with the word ‘extenuate’ which caused her to give a short, nervous giggle. The class remained dead silent. She struggled the first half and stopped at the word ‘brethren.’ She struggled with the word twice and then her eyes started to fill with tears. I told her, “It’s okay. It’s okay to pause, take a slow, deep breath and then continue.” She did and fought her way through the rest of the paragraph. When she got to ‘…give me liberty or give me death’ she raced to the finish.
It was something I hadn’t seen in years. She raised her eyes from the text and looked out on the class of students. There was a moment’s pause of dead silence.
Then the class erupted in applause, whistles, and shouts of how proud they were of her and for her. Her eyes filled again, but this time she was smiling.
I am very circumspect when it comes to any kind of contact with students. But I walked to the front of the room and gave her a hug. It goes without saying I felt proud of her and admired her courage. I also felt fortunate to be there to witness it.
And then I realized.
This is why I do it.