The other day in the library, as I was diligently preparing my annual lecture on Emerson I call “I’m Not Lying: Who’s that relying on Self-Reliance?”, I saw one of my ninth grade students running around with a trash bin on his head and pencil cases covering his hands. Given that I have the great fortune to be his English teacher, I knew he had a fair amount of work to do that did not include such horseplay. Sometimes science teachers require their young learners do physics or physical science experiments in the open classroom (on campus), but I’d never seen this experiment in my over twenty years of teaching at Red Rock High. I have seen the young Einsteins test for some nasty bacteria in the faculty bathrooms (yuck!) and wear their DNA in vials around hickey-covered necks. A few work stations away, I spotted Johnny Dean diligently studying science with some other seniors on the basketball team. Instead of hitting the same note I often hit with this particular ninth grader, I led him over to Johnny Dean and asked Johnny to talk to him about how to become a successful scholar-athlete here at RRHS. Johnny was not surprised at my request; I had already asked him to do the same with other rambunctious kids before. One boy was so out of control, Johnny and his mates had to take the boy to the locker room to calm him down. I don’t know what they did but their “peer mentoring” worked! That young Tasmanian devil ended up behaving like a prince for the rest of the semester before he unexpectedly left the school. The reason that Johnny is my “go to guy” when it comes to these types of incidents is because he really knows how to succeed in high school as well as in the competitive athletic arena. He is one of the most efficient and hardworking students here at RRHS, hands down. I have no doubt that he has the skills, attitude, and heart to succeed at the college or university level.
Early last year when I had Johnny in my eleventh grade American Literature course, he asked if we could meet. I was impressed at his initiative so soon in the year. Most students wait until they receive a disappointing grade on their report card (wanh wanh—game show fail sound) or major assignment before they ask for a one-on-one or mano-a-mano as I coined the term. Johnny calmly discussed his learning challenges with me, and how he approaches the humanities which are difficult for him. We talked about close reading, supplementary books-on-tape, and the importance of the writing process. He was so adult about his learning philosophy; I hadn’t seen that level of maturity much in my over 4200 days of teaching teenagers. I offered some guidance pertaining to the particularities of my course, and then Johnny said he was what I refer to as a “learner-as-doer.” That means that he likes to move, build, create, hit. He asked if there was a way he could earn extra credit by doing kinesthetic (my term, not his) projects along the year. All the students know that I’m not big on extra credit; I think kids should do what’s expected and do it well, right? Some teachers (cough, US Hist, cough cough) give out extra credit willy nilly at the end of the quarter or semester just before grades are due. Like Halloween candy or free samples at Rocky Mountain Fudge Factory (yum!). I didn’t want one of those cut and paste reports that the kids get straight from the Wikipedia. Not this educator. What Johnny proposed was more like an independent study or tutorial. Once a month on Sunday, Johnny came to my low-rise townhouse and worked with his hands while I lectured him on the unit we had just completed or were about to start. Turns out, his father is a super at Crapi (accent on the i) apartments near the bowling alley and has taught Johnny how to do most everything in home repair. At first, I was quite hesitant about sharing my Sunday (Call it: Richard Time) but my days spent with Johnny were quite meaningful. I read him narrative and lyric poetry as he built bookshelves; I discussed syntax and diction choices in Anne Fadiman’s At Large and At Small as he replaced the hideous vinyl with Bruce wood flooring. I found so many remarkable aspects to our meetings. Johnny always came on time with his tools (and lunch!), having already consulted his father on the intricacies of whatever project we’d decided upon. He really concentrated on his work (such accuracy!) and on the topic I was lecturing on. Sometimes I felt as if I was a tutor at Cambridge or Oxford as I drank my Only Natural cleansing tea and watched Jonny hang bi-fold interior closet doors. It was so nice not to have to get out of my softies, no harsh deodorants or chemicals on my body or his. Johnny more than earned his B+ in my course. You should see my townhouse. I wish I’d had the foresight to take before and after photos. Truly amazing work.
Johnny had the same systematic building approach to his writing. He raised an idea from one of my Sunday lectures then started using the text to provide evidence. He’d run outlines by me during our “working man’s lunch breaks” and I would help steer him in the right direction. He had this endearing habit of sitting on his lunch pail (more of a cooler actually), so I’d dust off my own traveler’s ice chest and sit on that to remove any hierarchy between us. I hate to be repetitive, but it was such a refreshingly mature way to deal with writing. I have so many talented writers whose lack of discipline submarines them when it comes to creating evolved work. Johnny had that internal engine that never dropped the ball (pun intended). Writing wasn’t exactly his strong suit (nor was spelling. Wonder if it’s generational?), but he hammered on. I believe Johnny, like my favorite scholar-athletes, has figured out how to apply the work ethic he learned as an assistant super at Crapi (accent on the i) and basketball player to his academics. When I teach metaphor, I often use the example “a man is a house” but after meeting Johnny, I realize that it’s important to find the man who can build the house. Johnny is that man.
It takes hands to build a house but hearts to build a home (and classroom),
Richard Fulton Winter
1998 Arizona Junior Humanities Excellence in Teaching Award—Honorable Mention
Class Sponsor of the Alternate Student Council
Author of The Bard’s Gentle Graces (poetry chapbook)