Today is the Tenth of December, a date celebrated by American short story writer George Saunders in his collection published this year. The title story “Tenth of December” is so powerful and important that I feel compelled to write this essay exploring Saunders’ vision and insight. Of course, the best thing to do as a member of the extended St. Andrew’s family is to read the story in its entirety. I simply cannot do the story justice in the following pages.
The story revolves around the random and miraculous connection between two outcasts: a boy named Robin and a 53-year-old man named Don Eber. Robin is the victim of persistent and lacerating bullying at school, and the treatment of the boys has worn him down. He has random thoughts of suicide. Don Eber has terminal cancer and desperately wants to spare his wife and children the burden of taking care of him as he loses independence, dignity, and life.
Robin creates a dramatic narrative of heroism and adventure to strengthen his confidence and identity. He ventures out on a freezing December day to confront the Netherworlders, an imaginary species that opposes him but ultimately honors his dignity, mercy, and style. Don Eber decides to enter the same woods to commit suicide by removing his hat and coat and succumbing to the elements.
What makes the reader care deeply for these characters is their love and reverence for life. As they go through their day, their language is creative, authentic, lively, humble, and humorous. Here is Robin imagining a conversation with Suzanne Bledsoe, the new girl in his class from Montreal whom he depicts as a victim of Netherworlders guile:
Look, Suzanne, I know you don’t know my name, having misaddressed me as Roger that time you asked me to scoot over, but nevertheless I must confess I feel there is something to us. Do you feel the same?
Suzanne had the most amazing brown eyes. They were wet now, with fear and sudden reality. (p. 218)
Here is Don Eber’s thinking of the goals in his life, the experiences in his life that would go unfulfilled following his death:
St. Andrew’s joins the world in mourning the death of the great South African leader and human rights activist Nelson Mandela, a man described today by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town as “ a colossus of unimpeachable moral character of integrity, the world’s most admired and revered public figure.”
As a school dedicated to the proposition that education leads to spiritual, moral and ethical transformation and courage, St. Andrew’s drew strength and purpose from the example and spirit of Nelson Mandela.
For those of us who witnessed the strength, arrogance and power of the apartheid system, it seemed impossible either to imagine the destruction of the system or a peaceful resolution to the inevitable conflict to come. Over 80% of South Africans lived under an exacting and meticulous system of control and authority; the imprisonment of Mandela for 27 years only seemed to emphasize the impossibility of change. But slowly the world began to be moved by the plight, the struggle, the dreams of a new South Africa, and we began to see the possibility that a global protest and rejection of an outmoded and outrageous regime of racism. At the same time, we in America forced ourselves to look anew at the unfinished journey towards racial harmony and reconciliation in our own land.
Mandela went to jail as a man who had begun to turn to violence as the only weapon left to shake the power of apartheid, but he emerged 27 years later as a eloquent spokesperson for truth, reconciliation and peace. Archbishop Tutu describes the transformation:
I was readying myself for a game-deciding penalty shootout when a St. Elizabeth’s player came out of nowhere, ran onto a bouncing ball, and scored with only moments left in the second overtime of Wednesday’s state soccer semifinal. Hundreds of St. Andrew’s fans who spent hours in the freezing night stood silently in shock and disbelief. Confusion reigned as we watched the St. Elizabeth’s team celebrate against the backdrop of our boys, crushed, some lying on the turf, others with their hands over their faces.
And then it happened.
Charlotte Bristow ’14, standing near the front of the stands, turned and began leading a cheer. Her classmates quickly joined in and soon the entire fan base began cheering. It wasn’t ceremony. We were compelled to thank the boys for their effort against the #1 seed in a game they had every right to win. We celebrated and gave thanks.
The next day, my partner in communications, Amy Kendig, received the following email:
In this, my first essay of many to come on the art of teaching, I would like to reflect on the opening moments of a class and share a
few observations about the importance of this transition for our students and teachers. All of us in the world of education know that our schedules are imperfect; with our current understanding of teaching and learning, most of us would prefer daily schedules that provide long, sustained periods of teaching, coaching, and working. The forty, forty-five, and fifty minute classes provide good opportunities for the kind of teaching and learning we want to explore, but the students each day at our schools make too many transitions from subject to subject and class to class.
With this challenge in mind, great teachers use the opening moments of each class to do a number of subtle and important things. We want to greet each student and gain a preliminary sense of the readiness of the class to do good work in the coming period. If the energy is high, low, or moderate, teachers will react and adjust accordingly – all in pursuit of the ultimate goal of each class: that it serve as a work of art; that it develop crucial intellectual skills; that it give students the opportunity to move specifically towards the exhibition of mastery at the end of the year.
The best classes capture the attention of the students immediately, perhaps with a compelling, essential question that is good enough, complex enough, and powerful enough to bring the students right into the very essence of the day and course’s work. We as teachers can also open the class with a quiz or challenge that gives the students an immediate opportunity to work, to do the work of scientists, mathematicians, and historians.
Ultimately, our classes introduce students to the scholarly conversations that have fascinated writers and thinkers in our fields. This week, for example, as I teach Hamlet, I try to make sure my students understand that the questions we explore and discuss in class are ones that critics and scholars have pursued for hundreds of years. These scholarly conversations are compelling, authentic, and available for our students, and these questions help ignite student attention and learning.
The opening of class, then, has to be sharp, compelling, welcoming, focused, and ambitious. Every moment counts: the stakes for teaching and learning are high. The opening moments set the tone, pace, and direction of all that follows.
I sat in on Elizabeth Roach’s English 3 class, discussing Act III of “Hamlet” during a double period this morning. I noticed a couple of intentional directions to her teaching which greatly influenced class discussion. These are approaches we can all use in our disciplines:
- Elizabeth began the class asking students for questions they had about the reading. She made sure they had a question, and she pushed them to identify the significance of their question – “Why is this an important situation?” Thus she honored her students’ confusion, affirmed their curiosity, and highlighted key areas for the class to consider during the rest of the class.
- After a student made a comment, Elizabeth would repeat the comment back, asking the student to explore a part of his/her comment further. She always used the student’s name. What happened was that Elizabeth kept the student engaged, honored his/her thinking, while pushing him/her further. Students rarely said something and then were quiet: Elizabeth kept them focused and exploring.
- Elizabeth “cold-called” on students who were not participating initially – but on a couple of occasions, the student then spoke a second time, as if being called on started the intellectual engine for the student. Her question to these students was an invitation to join the conversation.
- There were a couple of times during this double period where Elizabeth moved into the discussion with “So, how does…” as a way to synthesize the discussion; to focus them on a larger significance to the discussion; and to transition to the next point. It was her signal to the students that now is the time we are going to look for a larger meaning, or put together all the pieces of what we’ve been doing, or pivot to the next moment.
As we all continue to teach vigorously and purposefully, let’s keep in mind how we orchestrate and lead our students through the class period. We want to keep them all engaged, all performing, all knowing that they are making significant and important contributions. We also want them to know what is crucial in our discussions.
I learned how to simplify complexities during the three years I taught special education in LaPlace, Louisiana. I broke down subjects like algebra and works of Shakespeare into small, manageable pieces that appeared easy and less intimidating. I made them accessible, pretty, and simple. We know that life doesn’t work like that.
One of the reasons I love working at St. Andrew’s and being around St. Andreans is because we embrace life’s complexities, regardless of how challenging and unattractive they may be. We faced them head on in a week filled with tremendous happiness, success, loss, and sadness. Tad’s thanks speaks volumes of the place he describes as “the core of his being” though I suspect, based on this obituary, that his father influenced much of that core. Tad shared moments of his father’s last days with students this afternoon in Chapel. With students giving him their rapt attention, Tad softly shared how the time away gave him opportunity to conclude that St. Andrew’s was indeed good. Then he asked us who wanted to join him in making it great.
Two days earlier, Dr. Muqtadar Kahn spoke from the same pulpit about his experience and hope for the struggle for democracy in the Arab world. The next day, Governor Markell told students that showing up is just not good enough anymore and that their opportunity required them to lead a life that matters. Will Speers described their visits beautifully yesterday.
Parents Weekend was, by all accounts, an absolutely spectacular weekend and we thank you all for celebrating and supporting the entire student body. We took a breather on Monday with a well-deserved free day, but we aren’t planning on resting. There’s much more work to be done.
The St. Andrew’s community was privileged to hear two speakers this week reminding us of our connection to Delaware and the larger world around us. Both individuals gave a relevance to our classes, relationships and community service; they challenged us to work hard and listen empathetically.
On Wednesday night, University of Delaware professor Dr. Muqtadar Kahn returned for the third time to speak in Chapel. A national and international expert on the Middle East, Dr. Kahn’s message of integrity and hope resonated powerfully with our students. He reminded us that all visionaries had a rebellious faith within them, and that we must marshal that energy and commitment for the betterment of others. At one point this summer, Dr. Kahn and another scholar were engaged in a serious debate through social media about who was to blame for the violence in Egypt after President Morsi’s departure. Dr. Kahn admitted to us that when he discovered that this other scholar’s son was killed in the violence, he realized his thinking about this national situation had to be refocused to this man’s personal tragedy. He urged us to remember the people involved in these conflicts, and to try to find ways to communicate more effectively with those we oppose.
On Thursday at School Meeting, Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware spoke to the community. His basic message to the students — that they must work hard to seize their chance in this global world — exemplified why determination and grit are crucial to the work of our classrooms. Gov. Markell also made reference to Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to illustrate the necessity for engaged, positive action.
In the aftermath of Parents Weekend, a time naturally devoted to families and individual student work, these two speakers trained our eyes and minds outward. They helped us see the relevance of our religion classes and history classes like “Middle East”; they affirmed the students’ commitment to community service; they showed us the necessity of a diverse student body living in a residential community; they encouraged us to wrestle vigorously with the core questions of our classes; they reminded us to live lives of meaning, without regret.