The Impact of a Backstory

This is what happens when a teacher shares his life with some students…

 

Once again, the scene was a lunchtime program that I run for some of the males at my elementary school. This year’s program has been off to an exceptional start; the students have gravitated to the speakers that come in and the speakers have relayed some inspirational yet tangible advice to these young boys. I was expressing my direction with a friend and fellow teacher at my school when he casually suggested that he contribute a few words to the program. Although he knew that over the years of running the program I had been intentional about bringing speakers to the school that were men of color, he pointed out that he would love to speak to the kids, some of whom were his former students, about his life experiences. Having spent time outside of work with my colleague, I was somewhat familiar with his backstory. I applauded his intentions on wanting to help me, so I of course took him up on his offer. To be honest, I thought that at the least it would be one of my “filler” days that would keep the regularity and consistency of the weekly meetings intact.

 

To my surprise, I was absolutely wrong.

 

As the kids gathered and started eating lunch, they mingled and casually asked me who would be coming in to talk to them. Although we had only started the program in early October, it seemed as though they were already aware of an established routine and excited by the prospect of meeting yet another adult who was there to talk to them about real shit. No “school is of the utmost importance” talks, no behave at all times jargon – real lessons for real kids. To put it more accurately, they were eager to hear from another successful adult who could talk about the importance of an education but who wasn’t a teacher. And then about 10 minutes into our meeting, Mr. Rudd walked in and casually took a seat. The ten boys, predominately of diasporic origins, didn’t say anything about Mr. Rudd’s presence until it gradually dawned on them. Yes, he was the guest speaker for the day. Maybe the fact that I would bring in this teacher who they knew, a redheaded, white guy from Peterborough, kept them silenced for a bit as they tried to analyze the reasons behind my intentions. I knew they wouldn’t be able to figure out why he was there because, in all honestly, I was still hesitant and unsure if this would be a fit. (This is for various reasons, things I will perhaps touch upon in a later blog post).

 

We started our session by recapping the previous one and I then introduced our all-too-familiar guest for the day. The boys thought they knew all about him because, after all, he was a teacher in the school and a coach of many of the sports teams they played on. A few of them started to regress into their customary teacher-student habits of behavior. Mr. Rudd noticed and called them out. I thought that this would be a waste of a session. Then he started speaking about his life.

 

He started with a narrative about choosing the easy path versus the hard path and supplemented this theme with accounts from his life. He talked about losing his father in 6th grade. He talked about being one of 4 boys out of 20,000 in Ontario to earn the prestigious “Chief Scout” award. He shared a humbling story about being on stage with the 3 other boys who had earned the recognition, all with their fathers, and winning an award that is largely tied to lessons learned through a father-son relationship – all lessons he learned without a father. Then he talked about getting the news that his mother, his only vessel of family left, was diagnosed with Leukemia. He was in 11th grade when this happened. Her situation was so dire that, at that point, everything was signed over to him – a 16-year-old boy with no brothers, no sisters. No family. Just a house in his name and an alarm clock that he could decide to turn off if he felt like not going to school that day. He talked about living on his own while his mother was hospital-ridden for an entire year and having to pack his bags for overnight stays at Mount Sinai on 3 separate occasions while his family was called in because they were told that his mom, “wasn’t going to make it through the night.” The boys asked him candid questions about what he did during this time. He told them that he was 16, living on his own, trying to cope with a fate that he already lived just 5 years prior with his father. Yeah, he told them, he partied. But he also told them that through that he still maintained good grades. With all the excuses he could have made as a teenager, he chose to take the hard way. He wrapped up his impromptu talk by answering some particular questions about his family and his childhood, and then reminded them about his earlier message – easy route or hard one? Because as bad as you think you have it, there are people that have it worse off than you, so what’s your excuse? And more importantly, are you willing to let that excuse define you and set the direction for your entire life?

 

Then he stopped talking. As a casual observer, my attention shifted from the speaker to the expressions of the young boys. It was silence in my classroom. The kids who never sat still, never “consolidated their learning” and always looked for the next rush were sitting around and reflecting, each one of them. I heard one student remark to himself, “I thought last week’s session was deep.” He didn’t say this to get a reaction out of anyone else. His energy just pushed it out of him.

 

The session ended. The boys cleaned up their lunchtime mess and left for lunch recess. Mr. Rudd left for a second too. He went to get water or something. When he came back, I was closing my classroom door and we continued to walk downstairs. We didn’t really say much for about ten seconds – we just walked. I am a self-proclaimed writer, educator and public speaker; I actually get paid to talk all day. But I was at a loss for words. I was still reflecting.

 

It was not only about the story he wove that had me at a loss. I was amazed at the delivery, authenticity and sincerity that came through in his tone. This white dude from the boonies of Peterborough stepped into a classroom filled with young minority students from the city and basically dropped the mic on them. It was teaching in its truest form. It was compassion, engagement, and relevance. Although (he later told me) that he didn’t have a direction with where he was going to go, he went somewhere and went with a purpose. My fellow teacher, a white dude from Peterborough confirmed my notions that it isn’t just Black males that can connect with Black boys. I already knew this – I mean, I full-heartedly understood it pedagogically, but that day I saw it in the flesh.

 

Take what you want from this. But I see it as an anecdote on how real teaching happens. Again, it wasn’t traditional curriculum. Actually, it was a white, country guy teaching minority boys about life. I guess the former takes precedent in the life of education. Whatever the context, I know that it was a lesson that those 11-year- olds will probably remember long before they remember that Social Studies lecture you’re laboring over on a Sunday night.

 

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Matthew R. Morris

Educator, Speaker, Writer

Matthew R. Morris is a writer, speaker, and elementary educator in Toronto. He has an M.A. in Social Justice Education from OISE at the University of Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming book, Black Boys Like Me. 

Matthew R. Morris

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