A Mentor or Just a Nightmare

Throwback pic when I was thin and my students weren’t adults yet.

On Friday June 16th, my first sixth-grade class at Thornton-Donovan School graduated from high school. Already an emotional day as they were the most talented, genial class I’ve ever taught, the tears really started flowing when one of the co-valedictorians gave his address. In it, he lauded a select number of teachers who exhibited a fearlessness in their teaching that enabled him to become the young adult who will pursue engineering at Cornell University in the fall.

And there I was sitting with the rest of the faculty as he closed his speech explaining how I had changed his life by teaching him how to write and how to take pride in the work he produced and how I had continued to push him to produce his best regardless of the circumstance.

As if that did not validate why I work so hard at what I do, the same student further honored me on Monday when he asked me to participate in his Eagle Scout Court of Honor. An Eagle Scout myself, I jumped at the chance to escort him to stage with his father (also an Eagle Scout). What I didn’t expect, however, were his closing remarks where he awarded me a mentor pin for pushing him to finish his Eagle project and attain Scouting’s highest rank.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – that it’s a pin, so who cares – but, to me, that pin stands as one of the most significant awards I’ve ever received. And, as I joked with my student afterwards, he had managed to make me cry twice in the span of four days after not one drop fell in our nearly-six-year relationship.

In all seriousness, though, acting as a mentor is a role I have never taken lightly – whether it be a paid or unpaid position – for how crucial a positive role model can be in a youth’s development. And I do consider this to be a tantamount function of my job, as I mentioned in “The Business of Changing Lives.” Yet, while I embrace this as an opportunity to effect change in a child’s life, I sometimes wonder if I’m the right guy for the job.

Why?

Well, the easy answer is that I’ve always had a poor self-image, that I’m constantly filled with feelings of inadequacy. What’s more is that when I look in the mirror, whom I see is not necessarily the best role model: I smoke cigarettes, I’m brash and rude sometimes – arrogant too – and, occasionally, I perform this magic trick where I make mid-grade scotch disappear spontaneously, but I reserve this slight of hand for the weekend as I have a strict no-drinking policy during the week. Have you ever tried to teach kids with a ripping hangover? If so, you’re probably a busy work/flip on the video teacher who does not take the charge you’ve been given all that seriously.

Anyway, I’ve made some poor decisions over the years and I’ve certainly hurt my fair share of people in that time too, so who am I to be parceling out advice, to be molding the minds of the future?

At the same time, much in the same way parents always want their kids to have more than they themselves had, I want my students to have an easier time growing up than I did. So, I take my experiences – both positive and negative (and obviously school/age-appropriate) – and weave them together with my lesson plans to produce an anecdotal teaching style. And I think this candor endears me to my students because they see that I’m someone who’s real, who’s not going to give them the rose-colored perspective of unicorns and rainbows that they get from so many other people.

And I readily admit that I am as fallible as the next person, albeit with an advanced understanding of the English language and how to use it to articulate thoughts in the clearest possible way – among other skills. I’m certainly not the teacher who is the unquestioned authority or the one who has to be right all the time even when he/she’s wrong. I had plenty of those growing up, cut from the cloth of “Do as I say, not as I do!” And I vowed never to become that type of teacher when my time came.

I guess that this particular student’s words really struck me, for they made me reflect on all the good and the bad I’ve done. Yet, as I was staring down into the abyss of crippling self-doubt, I remembered all the hugs and congratulatory handshakes and fawning thank yous from the parents and their kids – the same kids who used to clean desks in my classroom when they misbehaved, the same kids whose homes I called when they copied their homework, the same kids who vehemently did not want to engage in the writing process because it was too much work. These are the kids who reaffirmed my belief that despite my myriad of shortcomings I am actually an okay teacher.

Who changes lives sometimes.

And maybe, one day, I’ll even consider myself worthy of such a lofty responsibility.

Celebrating National Pink Day

In celebration of June 23rd’s National Pink Day, and plying off a Tweet from Rachel Thompson about bullying awareness in pink, here is a post from  August 25, 2015 titled “The Underside of a High School Education.” In it, I compare my wildly positive experience in high school with others that were wholly negative.

Yesterday, I heard a name from high school I hadn’t heard in years. He was the kid who elevated himself at the expense of weakest, easiest targets – putting down the ones who didn’t talk much, who walked to their own beat, who had interests divergent from the norm.

Recalling him conjured up memories of all those forgotten kids – the picked on and discarded ones I haven’t considered since I graduated from Holy Trinity High School in 2005.

I remember the boy who was getting pegged in the head with the basketball nearly every gym class because he was short, nerdy, and Asian.

I remember the girl with the overbite getting castigated because she looked like a dinosaur and had the posture to back it up.

I remember the ones who were shamed for their obesity, their acne, their hairstyle, their sexual orientation, their glasses, their taste in music, their masculinity, their femininity, and the myriad other reasons kids get picked on for.

Man, they must have hated high school, I think now even though they weren’t even an afterthought when I heard someone else make fun of them back in the day. That was just the way high school always had been and always would be. I never considered it from the other side even though I myself had been made fun of in middle school.

While I contend in my July 17, 2015 blog “High School Inside and Out” that those high school years gave me a sense of who I was and who I wanted to be, others have converse views on those same years.

And I completely understand why.

[Read More…]

Throwback Thursday: Righting the Wrongs of Student Writing

Originally posted on May 12, 2016, “‘Righting the Wrongs of Student Writing” extols the value of taking pride in what you do and doing it to the best of your ability. And contrary to what my boss thinks, not everyone can teach kids how to write. Look at where I work. Look at where other teachers work. There are teachers who can convey complex material to students, and there are teachers who cannot. Lumping them all together in one category makes the bad, worse, and worst look much better at the expense of the good, better, and best.

And while that’s not right, I guess in every job I’ve ever worked, there’s always been sloven, indolent workers who show up to collect a check and not much else. But, again, everyone pulls their own weight.

Including the boss.

Writing in middle and high school is not sexy. There, I said it. It’s not a PowerPoint presentation or a website or a task-based assessment or an immersive project. It doesn’t have glitter or glue or reside on a gargantuan poster board bereft of content. Worst of all, it can’t be done in groups.

If only every kid were this excited to write an essay via Clipartix.com

If only every kid were this excited to write an essay via Clipartix.com

Translation in the minds of students: No fun.

Whether the assignment be a critical response paragraph, a character sketch essay, a business letter, a comparative paper, or the dreaded persuasive model, each  takes planning and time and you actually have to think about it before you do it. Whoever would have thought that in order to excel you have to think? Unfortunately, far too few of my students.

[Read More…]

Toasting the Staff

On April 17th in “The Overlook Journal Rises,” I shared the letter I wrote to the Thornton-Donovan School community lauding the young journalists at Thornton-Donovan School.

In continuing this trend, I salute the staff on what has been the most productive, professional year of any I have moderated at T-D:

In the waning days of last year’s summer vacation, I wrote a letter detailing my expectations for The Overlook Journal. In it, I bemoaned the previous year’s failures and reaffirmed my belief in the need for accountability from the editors to the general staff. Honestly, though, I had no idea what the year held for the student journalists at Thornton-Donovan School.

However, I knew what I did have, which was Editor-in-Chief Quincy Campbell ‘19. This young man cut his teeth doing interviews and producing feature pieces on deadline during his freshman year. During this time he proved himself to be a tireless worker who would not cease until the task was complete. I had faith in him early on that he might be a potential candidate for the top-spot at the paper once the seniors padding their college resumes moved on.

My faith in Quincy paid off. From running the meetings to coordinating with copyeditors to working with writers to posting the finished pieces, he oversaw and participated in every facet of the newspaper’s operation. Moreover, through the strength of his own character and his belief in himself, he established a prideful culture at The Overlook Journal. He genuinely cared about what the students wanted to write about, what their interests; furthermore, he was willing to put in the time to help them produce their best work.

Dedication resonates with kids – with most, really – a principal that has not led me astray in my professional career. Quincy’s certainly did, as he drew together students of various interests and skill levels – some returning members; some who wanted to improve their skills; some who didn’t even enjoy writing – to form an eclectic team with even more diverse interests. The most recent of the 65 articles – an all time high – confirms this: a feature on warm-weather fashion, a blood diamond piece, and coverage of Thornton-Donovan School’s Arts House Café performance.

For all of Quincy’s excellence, the staff deserves the ultimate commendation – especially Quincy’s Assistant Editor-in-Chief Cecile McIntosh ’18 – for respecting deadlines (sometimes) and consistently producing quality pieces each and every week (most of the time) with few excuses (again, most of the time). Their effort was unparalleled, and without them there would be no Overlook Journal. I look forward to seeing what more can be accomplished next year, namely a physical newspaper.

While I do not set expectations in an attempt to avoid disappointment, Quincy established a new standard for extra-curricular achievement not seen since Sederick Dawkins ’13 – or “Saint Sederick” as Mr. Fleming endearingly calls him – demanded a better student newspaper at Thornton-Donovan School.

Quincy’s story is still being written, but I do now believe a new saint has ascended at Thornton-Donovan School.

Congratulations on a year that is now the benchmark for success, Overlook Journal staff. Thank you for your commitment to the paper and to each other, and I hope you have a restful and safe summer.

With more gratitude than you can ever imagine,

 

Andrew Chapin

Middle School English Teacher

The Overlook Journal Moderator

Thornton-Donovan School

 

Throwback Sunday: The Father Son Baseball Game

Originally posted on March 27, 2016, “‘The Father Son Baseball Game” comes just in time for Father’s Day. A happy and a healthy to all the fathers out there. This piece recounts how I came to realize that my father, the man I warred with through my teenage years, actually is not only my inspiration, but he’s also a reflection of me as I am of him.

Scary how that works out.

Roughly 15 years ago, my father and I went to Port St. Lucia, Florida, to see the New York Mets in spring training. My memories are scattered of the actual events, but I can recall the clunker of a rental car that didn’t have power windows, the 10 bean burritos we had because it was Good Friday when he landed, the pizza place where we grabbed a quick bite later that first night, the terrible movie Exit Wounds that I watched on HBO after my father conked out, the flaming fields in the distance where methane gas was being burned off of the landfills, the steaks we ate that night – none of which has anything to do with baseball.

However, I will never forget that human bouncy castle plopping and plodding toward second base. Bearing down on the second baseman who looked like a minute child in comparison to the monolithic man and the Mets marquee acquisition that 2001-2002 offseason, Mo Vaughn was safe, bouncing off the dirt, thump! thump!

“You’re outtttttt!” the umpire bellowed from the middle infield. The crowd, still in shock that the Fat Man attempted to swipe the bag, didn’t respond immediately, for they were trying to process the anomaly they had just witnessed. Then came the serenading of boos from the Tradition Field crowd. As my father explained, the ump just wanted to go home. It had been a long day in the Florida humidity. For all of us.

That was when I was a freshman in high school rebelling against my parents’ decision to send me to a Catholic high school after being a public school student my entire life. I was leaving behind my friends in Bellmore, people I had known nearly my whole life, and going to a place where I knew absolutely no one, and if you’ve ever met me in person, I’m pretty awful with first impressions.

Since I didn’t want any part of the school or the required uniform, I spent a lot of mornings figuring out new ways to fake sick – whether it be throwing up while brushing my teeth, taking an uncomfortably hot shower to become feverish, or developing a phantom cough. My mother certainly placated me by calling me out of school whenever I had a sniffle or a stomach ache or honestly probably just an itch. It was the same appeasing behavior I shake my head at now as a teacher.

I’ve always said and I truly do believe that my high school years for me were the most formative years of my life. I discovered myself after a depressing freshman campaign spent avoiding my peers and plotting my exit. These were also the years where I ferociously fought with my parents about every facet of life probably down to breathing, years where I discovered the dangers of drinking excessively and of trusting people who are untrustworthy and of finding genuine friends. For a long time, I felt as so many of my students do; that is, they’re the only ones who have ever experienced the pain of growing up, that their parents have absolutely no idea what they’re going through, that they just want to control them and not allow them the freedom to mature on their own.

And, as I tell my students, looking back on those tumultuous years, I know they will eventually realize their parents were right about a lot of those senseless quarrels they had with them. Moreover, they’ll begin to see their parents in themselves. That was never more evident than when my father and I made our triumphant return to Port St. Lucie, which I’m pretty sure is the gateway to the River Styx, last weekend with President Obama’s historic trip to Cuba in the background of our trip.

[Read More…]

Real Talk about the Word

I’ve said the N-word before. I’m not proud of it, but I was callow and young and stupid then.

I can blame my homogeneous white neighborhood I grew up in, the public/private schools and even the college I attended. Hell, I can even blame some of my elders and their old-world prejudices.

But none of that makes it right.

That was before I had ever come to know a person of color, have a conversation with a person of color, or understand a person of color. Now, though, I understood why that word must go.

Period.

[Read More…]

Throwback Thursday: ‘Hold Fast to Dreams’ For a Better Tomorrow

Originally posted on February 1, 2016, “‘Hold Fast to Dreams’ For a Better Tomorrow” recalls my time teaching high school English in Bridgeport, CT. There, I learned many hard lessons about opportunity and closed-mindedness, about expectations and no expectations, about believing in and enabling children to take pride in their work , in themselves. Ultimately, every student just wants a teacher who cares enough about the child to believe he/she can achieve something, anything.

Everything.


I’ve spoke about it before. I’ve written about it before. And I will, on both fronts, for the rest of my life. It’s not a nightmare I had at night. It’s one I lived, and, on some levels, continue to live.

When I first started student-teaching in Bridgeport, CT., in the fall of 2009, I was as green and idealistic as any first time teacher is. I was going to effect change; I was going to be a nurturer; I was going to be a mentor; I was going to lead my students out of academic purgatory and into the light of brighter future.

At least that’s what I thought when I gave that ninth grade regents level class (That was closer to sixth grade in reality) the free-write I thought would change their lives. I was going to ride in on the white horse and liberate them from the tyranny of low expectations and apathy and substandard teaching and just a general lack of concern and teach them the virtues of taking pride in their work as a representation of themselves.

Then, came the hard truth:

[Read More…]

This is the End

My unpublished manuscript ‘Knowing When You’re Too Young to Grow Up’ chronicles Andrew Brown’s struggle to reconnect with his best friend Pete Goodman as a lurid secret Andrew has never told threatens to break them apart for good.
As I mentioned in “A Reintroduction: The Prologue,” I intend to post edited chapters every few weeks. Here’s a sample from the Epilogue. As always, feedback is STRONGLY encouraged via the contact tab or comments section.

I saw Becky yesterday in the hospital, went to visit her for lunch – really, was given permission to visit her. She was admitted shortly after me, I think.

“Hey, Beck, what do you think?” I asked, holding up my bandaged arms from my wheelchair. “I figure I’ve got a head start on Halloween with this homemade mummy costume.”

Zab, my personal slave/aide from Somalia, got a kick out of that one, standing right behind me – always nearby.

“You’re such a dope,” Becky squeaked out in what might’ve been amusement, “but at least you can laugh about all this.”

“It’s either laugh or cry, you know, and I think we’ve all done enough crying. But I could’ve helped him. And I did the exact opposite. I fucked him.”

I felt her dry, spindly fingers on the top of my head. I was bowed in front of her like confession.

“Andrew,” she said, her whispering voice almost a secret, “look at me.”

Becky had more tubes than veins running into her, having wasted away to 80 pounds or less. She looked like a damn cancer patient with her scraggly, thinning hair and stick-figure arms, lain out on that bed.

[Read More…]

Throwback Thursday: Discovering the Will to Win

Originally posted on February 9, 2016, “Discovering the Will to Win” recalls how I found myself coaching a middle/high school girls basketball team. Being hazardously awkward, I can barely put one foot after the other, so the irony here is obvious; however, in having to teach a subject – er, sport – that discomfited me, I saw some of the most profound examples of personal growth and, even better, teamwork. And, participating in that process, I became “Coach.”

Unfortunately, Thornton-Donovan School did not have enough girls to field a team this year, so I look forward to the return of the T-D Lionesses next year.

Athletically, I have never had the will to win. I wasn’t much of an athlete in my early adolescence. I played baseball, but it was too competitive, I was too thin-skinned, and I was really afraid of the inside heat. Needless to say, I quit before middle school.

I played basketball in town leagues throughout high school. I got into working out around this time too because I was tired of being the chubby kid.

I joined the swim team junior year with my college resume in mind. Then, that was pretty much it for me and exercise, ignoring that I worked out in college for the first half of freshman year as if the girls I was trying to get were actually interested in that (thankfully, they weren’t).

With my limited athletic prowess – I can barely walk a straight line – and the fact that most of the stereotypical jocks I knew were bullies, idiots, meatheads, or all of the above, I developed a loathsome hatred for sports. I frankly did not see their importance in a youth’s development for a long time.

When I was hired at Thornton-Donovan School as the middle school English teacher, I was floored that they didn’t have a gym teacher or a set gym class. It was fascinating since I believe gym is the biggest joke in all of education, from two standpoints – that gym teachers actually design and enact real lesson plans and that kids actually use the gym period in a worthwhile way. Neither of those is true in any way. T-D was focused on what mattered – academics and educational experiences. At the time, I couldn’t have agreed more.

Coach Chapin coaching the girls to victory. Photo courtesy of Hudson Ardizzone-West.

Coach Chapin coaching the girls to victory. Photo courtesy of Hudson Ardizzone-West.

Then, my perspective started to shift in talking to one of my colleagues the summer after my first year. He wanted to start an intramural sports program. Would I be interested in helping out? Without a valid excuse, I agreed despite my reservations.

[Read More…]