We hear so many negative things from the classroom these days, everything from banned books to guns to video-addicted kids, it's hard to imagine that anything positive happens in the places where the young are supposed to learn.
I'm almost 53 and that was the point of view I had when I began teaching for the first time in my life last fall.
After years as a businessman I was in the throes of writing my first book. The financial privation inherent in that decision (it can take years to write a single book, usually with no up-front money for an unheralded, first-time author) necessitated that I take on other work for income. To help ease the burden, however slightly, I accepted a position as an adjunct professor teaching freshman composition at the Community College of Baltimore County (#CCBC).
The pay was so low it was practically a volunteer position.
Entering the classroom for the first time I had plenty of reason to feel apprehensive. There was, of course, a wide age gap between the kids and me, and I worried that they wouldn't be able to relate to a diminutive, balding man who looked like he was hours from the undertaker.
That situation was only exacerbated by a cultural gap. Except for one student, I was the only white person in the room.
Most of the class was comprised of African-Americans, many of whom grew up in or around Baltimore City, with a few Latinas, a couple of Asians, and a brilliant young black woman from the nation of Cameroon who was serving in American armed forces.
I soon discovered an extraordinary group of people in the students. Most were struggling to pay for school and held jobs that were 20 or more hours per week. Few owned their own cars, so their education began with learning the hard realities of complex bus schedules and what it feels like to wait for public transportation in the rain and cold.
Unlike the common misperception of entitled post-millennial students, many of my kids were in school hoping to gain enough career skills to work hard for the rest of their lives. Their aspirations included backbreaking careers such as nursing, lawn care, and the military.
We had our dreamers, too. One extraordinarily bright young man wanted to be a poet and a song lyricist; so he wrote all of his papers in verse. Another had his sites set on going to film school and writing and directing movies. A third left a secure job as a letter carrier because he wanted to pursue a career as a veterinarian of exotic animals like snakes and lizards.
Few of the kids came to the class with acceptable writing skills. Most admitted that they didn't freely read books, newspapers or magazines, and that they came from homes where those items were scarce. Many of the kids spoke in a thick, "black-vernacular" style English that hindered their grammar and lessened their chances for long-term academic success.
After reading their first, short homework papers I despaired. I was certain that I had made a disastrous choice in becoming a teacher. I could immediately see that the stakes were very high for the kids and I doubted that with my meager skills as an educator that I was up to the task of getting any of them where they needed to go.
But then something interesting happened. Many of the kids engaged with me on a level I hadn't expected. They read the assigned material every week and arrived at class eager to participate in our discussions.
Our first unit highlighted the differences in black and white culture in the United States, contrasting Standard English with so-called black-vernacular. Naturally, many of our discussions centered around race.
Unfortunately, our class began just weeks after the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer, so those discussions had the potential to be heated or even ugly. I braced myself for the possibility of regrettable ideas or language being thrown around the classroom.
Instead, I found something I didn't expect. The students weren't at all bigoted like many of the adults we had recently seen on the news hurling insults and blunt instruments at each other.
I found the young African-Americans were particularly broad-minded. A couple of years earlier their city was burning in race riots sparked by police brutality accusations. Some of the kids were from Baltimore city, went to city high schools, and grew up on disadvantaged circumstances. They heard the ugly rhetoric directed at them, and saw the dissatisfaction in elders from their own community.
But none of them, not one, was a hater. All of them denounced violence and expressed a belief in the good and bad in all people and races. While there was a general wish for justice, the class discussions were far from one-sided. The controversy surrounding the NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick especially sparked spirited debate. Some of my black students saw him as a hero, taking financial hits for a bigger cause. But others saw him as unpatriotic, throwing away a lucrative career to demean the country.
As for me, a man who has basically lived in a segregated world since I left high school, I became the most eager student in the class. The kids taught me how beautiful, how open, how forgiving, young minds could be.
I was overwhelmed by their decency.
By the end of the class I felt that every student's writing and critical thinking abilities had improved dramatically. But no one learned more than I did.
I worked a job for very little pay and discovered how enriching it was to give away everything I knew about writing. I found that investing myself in the success of others was more meaningful to me than any success I had enjoyed as an aggressive businessman.
I wasn't teaching kids how to write so much as I was teaching them how to be civilized. I was showing them how to find their voices, how to make strong arguments on paper, how to back up their opinions with hard facts, and how to consider ideas opposite to their own. I felt like I was curing them from an ignominious disease. I felt like I was throwing them a lifeline out of the swirling currents of ignorance and anonymity, the very things that were then (and now) swallowing their country.
I admit that I walked into the classroom hoping to make a small paycheck. But I walked out the richest man in the world.