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In the Deep Heart's Core

An excerpt from the book by Michael Johnston, Ed.M.'00
Michael Johnston, Ed.M.'00, author of In the Deep Heart's Core (© 2003 Kim Cook)
In 1997, at the age of 22, Michael Johnston graduated from Yale University with a bachelor's degree in English literature and a deep curiosity about the Mississippi Delta. Determined to put both to use, he enrolled in Teach For America, a program that places newly graduated college students in areas of the country suffering from teacher shortages. After five weeks of summer training, he loaded a pickup truck with all of his possessions and moved to Greenville, Mississippi, to become a high-school teacher for two years. There he witnessed a highly unusual set of experiences for a privileged, young white man—daily struggles with racial discrimination, poverty, drug addiction, gang violence, and sexual abuse. After Johnston's teaching stint in the South, he enrolled at HGSE to learn more about how he might improve the lives of schoolchildren. Upon graduating, he and several other classmates cofounded New Leaders for New Schools, a nonprofit organization that recruits and develops outstanding new principals for urban public schools. The following year, Johnston enrolled in Yale Law School to expand his knowledge of education policy. This year, at age 28, he has returned to his home state of Colorado to become a principal at Joan Farley High School. He is currently at work on his second book, a history of Horace Mann and the birth of public education. Johnston's book, In the Deep Heart's Core, chronicles his experiences in Greenville. The following is an edited excerpt. The first day of school was approaching, and due to my own stubbornness, I was preparing to commit all the cardinal sins of teaching. For starters, I did not have a set of classroom rules. I had made a halfhearted attempt at constructing one but stopped midway. I rationalized that these were high-school students—they did not need rules posted like kindergartners. In retrospect, I believe I didn't know how exactly to enforce the rules, and the thought of having to enforce them frightened me only slightly less than the thought of not enforcing them at all. I had been given no curriculum, but I had not yet decided if I would even use the curriculum, when and if the school gave it to me. I yearned to start the first day with something expansive, inspiring, profound. I wanted to explain that in my classroom we would seek more than an understanding of prepositional phrases and literary devices, and that we would measure our success by more than the number of chapters we completed or the number of vocabulary words we memorized. Teaching would not be a simple process of writing ideas down and watching as students ingested them. Instead, I would have to immerse myself in the material with a fervor that encouraged students to follow. Months earlier, when I presented my 15-minute sample lesson at the Teach For America interview, I was confident that I had a solid understanding of my subject matter and an entertaining approach to teaching it. With 30 days of preparation and continuous access to one of the best library systems in the world, I had successfully prepared a 10-minute class. In Greenville, I would have 8 hours a night—if I did not eat—with only the smattering of books stacked in boxes in my house as resources, and I was to prepare 300 minutes of lessons each day. By the time the first day of school arrived, I was well-prepared for only the most mundane aspects of teaching. The rest I would have to learn, not from my peers but from my students. And I hoped they would teach me in time for me to teach something back. The First Day's Trial: Establishing Authority When the bell finally rang on that first day, students poured through my doorway in endless waves. Dozens of conversations erupted as students inspected the name cards on the desks. "That boy don't come to school but to get hisself a free lunch and walk the halls and go home again." "Ain't he a junior?" "Girl, that boy ain't no junior. He was a junior when my sister graduated two years ago!" "Then what he doing up in sophomore English?" "Probably fixin' to flunk. Again."
“By the time the first day of school arrived, I was well prepared for only the most mundane aspects of teaching. The rest I would have to learn, not from my peers but from my students. And I hoped they would teach me in time for me to teach something back.”
The line outside the door seemed to be growing, the space inside already exhausted. I assigned three students to a work desk in the back room, one on a lone chair by a filing cabinet, and two pulled up to the front of my desk. Somehow there were already thirty-six students in my room and two more listed on my roll who had not turned up. I was afraid that if I walked the aisles I'd step on someone. Six students sat in chairs without desks, three students sat on the floor against the back wall, and two were standing in the far corner. Book bags and legs and shoes poured over every inch of the room. The feeling was intoxicating. I could see it catching momentum in the eyes of my new students. They had anticipated English class and ended up at a slumber party. Right from the start, the series of characters and experiences that constituted this class threatened to break my faith in humanity every day. I began earnestly to believe that my position was in fact an untenable one, that my students were every bit as malicious and incorrigible as every pessimist had promised me, and that there was no real chance at success, because what they fiercely wanted was not to succeed. Only much later did I see those first few days for what they actually were: an evaluation. My students spent the first day casing their target like a sophisticated group of bank robbers who arrive some days before a job to identify the location of the cameras, the placement of the guards, the accessibility of the safe, the exact rotation of the staff. So perfectly had they done their job, so vulnerable was the establishment, so large were their numbers, that they knew success was a mathematical certainty, and they swaggered through the first week with that comfort. Ain't Our Place to Judge Nobody In my classroom, the chaos did not necessarily decline, but over a period of months some vague semblance of rapport began to emerge, and students began to confide in me in a way that I had not anticipated. As they did, I came to see real goodness, but I also saw in their eyes a world corrupted by the adults living around them. In the middle of class one day, Shatanya, an extremely quiet girl in the front row, stood because she wanted to read a journal entry generated by our discussion of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. The journal prompt was titled "Is anything worth killing for?" Shatanya had a serious learning disability that caused her to shy away from sharing in class. Today it did not, and she read a story about how her father had beaten her mother to death when Shatanya was only six years old. She had watched it all from her bedroom, powerless and afraid. She said she had forgiven her father and even visited him several times in jail, though his violence had left her utterly alone.
“The Delta I lived in began to take a different shape. Once you've seen the obliteration of a young life, the neglect and deprivation of it—although terrible—no longer stirs your soul the way it once did.”
By the time Shatanya had finished reading, the classroom was as quiet as it would ever be. I stumbled trying to come up with something to say. I was terrified that the class would ridicule her for her vulnerability, and my anxiety rose when I saw a girl in the back open her mouth. She was always the first to throw an insult, and had a knack for picking the barb that dug the deepest. "I'm sorry about your mom," she said, "but that was straight you read that. That take guts right there. I hear what you saying, ain't our place to judge nobody, you just keep on living." Soon, rarely a month passed that I did not sit with a child to discuss the death of a father or an uncle or a cousin or a close friend. We listened to Julian's story about playing Russian roulette at age 10, the way the boy hesitated to pull the trigger when he knew the bullet was in the chamber, the way Julian winced at the bang, and the sight of the young boy's head emptying onto the pavement. We listened to Trevor as he swallowed hard and told us about the moment he rounded the corner from a trip to the store and watched his cousin Bobby burn to death inside the house they had shared. In its own numbing way, this inoculated me against anything else the Delta could offer. The Delta I lived in began to take a different shape. Once you've seen the obliteration of a young life, the neglect and deprivation of it—although terrible—no longer stirs your soul the way it once did. I no longer wince at the sight of 120 kids sitting in the gym for two hours with nothing to do; I am no longer heartbroken at the news of another pregnant student or a new familiar name on the drop-out list. In Greenville's black community, like all troubled, impoverished communities with high death rates, there is an accepted lower standard for the quality of life. Those who live, regardless of how they live, already possess one invaluable gift. Anything more is good fortune. The Strength of Small Triumphs The losses were more than offset by inspirational triumphs, often subtle and small: a raised hand for the first time, a completed homework assignment, a college admission, a student who read the entire book the first night. One of these emerging leaders was Dianca, a charismatic and ebullient young mother in my second class. One morning we were discussing an African folktale in which a woman gives birth to six children, all of whom are stillborn. The witch doctor convinces the mother that each stillborn child is actually the same original child who has come back to haunt her. The mother marks the behind of each corpse with an X and buries him. When the seventh child is born, she turns him over and sees the same X on his behind. One of the midwives tries to justify this impossible occurrence by arguing that it might be a scratch caused by the placenta. As the students were engrossed in the rich mystery of this story, a series of hands shot up in the air to ask if a placenta was some sort of dark witchcraft. I began to stumble through an explanation, exposing my relative ignorance about the topic. Before I continued much further, Dianca blurted out: "I tell you what it is!" Dianca's leadership in that early instance proved useful not only in explaining to the class—and to me—the role of the placenta, but also in communicating to the other students the sense that their stories mattered too. She told us about the birth of her son, DJ.
“'Who would have thought Dianca Green would ever know the difference between an independent and a subordinate clause?' It was a momentary triumph over the incessant expectation of defeat.”
In my classes, we began to build bigger and better bridges between the texts, the students, and myself. We all became equal partners in learning. The students taught me about tragedy and resilience, while I taught them what I could about Shakespeare and J.D. Salinger. The literature revealed that we were bound much closer by our humanity than we might have imagined. When the stories grew too heavy, Dianca would chime in with some levity about DJ's antics to ease the strain in the room. Dianca's goodness and her sensitivity led her to be a leader even as she struggled with the class work. Dianca had common sense, and she worked hard. She enjoyed success in a way that makes teachers feel validated, if only for a moment. Whenever she would grasp a concept that had proved difficult, a smile would spread so wide across her face that her eyes would nearly close, and she would laugh. There was something deeply triumphant about her laugh, and yet it was laced with a distant note of despair. Her laugh proclaimed: "Who would have thought Dianca Green would ever know the difference between an independent and a subordinate clause?" It was a momentary triumph over the incessant expectation of defeat. Chessboard Lessons The better I came to know my students, the more their histories and hardships faded away. Sturdy partnerships emerged between us. We were sustained by our fierce commitment to a better future. Late one afternoon I was sitting motionless after the final bell, trying to recover from another day, recounting the horrors, clinging to the few fond memories, and counting it a success because I had survived to count it at all. I was trying to quiet my beating heart, pick up papers, and straighten books when Larry showed up at my door for detention. I had issued Larry detentions many times before his classroom disruption earlier on this day, but he never came. No one in the principal's office frightened him, as days at home were better to him than days at school. He had already experienced the most severe punishment the school district had to offer—a year at the alternative school—so it was no longer a threat. He knew he was failing my class, and it was clear he didn't respect me as a teacher or a human being. Nonetheless, I had a plan for Larry's visit, in case, this time, he showed up. And to my surprise he did. He asked where he should sit, anticipating the perfunctory hour of placing his head on his desk. Instead, I guided him to the table next to my desk and offered him the seat across from me. I sat down and took my chessboard out of my bag. "Have you ever played chess before?" He shook his head. "OK," I said, "well, I'm going to teach you. That way when you go home and your mom asks you what you learned at school today, instead of saying 'Nothing,' you can say, 'Actually, Mom, I learned how to play chess.'" Once he had learned the basics, we started a game, knowing that the lessons would be the most clear while we were playing. Larry was reticent to the point that I thought I would have to force him to move his first piece—he was so used to being wrong no matter what choice he made.
“The students taught me about tragedy and resilience, while I taught them what I could about Shakespeare and J.D. Salinger. The literature revealed that we were bound much closer by our humanity than we might have imagined.”
Eventually he loosened up, perhaps emboldened by the sense that each move was equally futile. He had a hard time recognizing when his pieces were in danger of being taken, and was not very creative about finding solutions once he recognized danger. He brooded long and hard over each move. I probed delicately but consistently, hoping that he would follow my model and attempt some risks of his own. Prepared to add pressure, I moved my bishop into an undefended position where I could capture his queen. However, he could also use his queen to capture my bishop without putting her in any jeopardy. He studied both pieces after I had moved, looking hard at them, his cumbersome fingers levitating over the board like a wrecking ball, his bulky hands paralyzed in indecision. After a long moment, he disregarded those two pieces and switched his focus to the other side of the board. He moved a pawn one space forward, then looked up at me to see if he had answered incorrectly. I could see that he felt a bit stranded, and that with his queen in jeopardy it was a good moment to impart some wisdom. Every Action Has a Consequence "There are a few golden rules to chess," I said. "The first is that you cannot survive without a plan, and in order to have a plan you must always think three steps ahead of where you are. Ask yourself, 'Where do I want to be down the road, and what am I going to do to make sure I get there?' The second rule has to do with protecting yourself as you try to reach your goal: every action has a consequence, even if you don't see that consequence right away. Before you make any move you have to stop and think to yourself, 'What good might happen, and what bad might happen?' Then you have to evaluate each possible part of the decision. What you can't do is be careless. That's how you get killed. When you just start moving for no reason, just moving because you've got nothing better to do, you can be sure somebody else is going to take advantage of your mistakes and use them to his own advantage." Larry kept his gaze glued to the board, but I could tell that he was listening to me rather than thinking about his next move, so I continued. "I want to help you understand that every move you make without thinking puts you deeper in trouble, just like chess. If you just keep drifting through each day not thinking about tomorrow, you're going to get eaten up. If you clown around in class, you miss the lesson, then you miss the assignment; then when the test comes around, you've never seen the stuff before, and you probably fail it. That cycle repeats itself, until the next thing you know you're like your friend Anthony, 20 years old and still in the 10th grade with nowhere to go. "In this board game today, I was playing against you. Sometimes you think that in this classroom I'm playing against you too, but I'm not. The reason I stay on you is because I damn sure don't want to see you walk into a bullet. With the boys you're rolling with and the attitude you're taking, right now you're making choices you're not thinking about. Choices with consequences." I slid the bishop diagonally across the board, motioning to take his queen, and then retreated my bishop to where it was. Larry's eyes did not leave me for a long time, until he slowly lowered his head back to the board and surveyed his side. For a number of minutes Larry was quiet. Not just quiet, but pensive. His eyes bored holes through the table. A voice boomed down the hall, "Anybody in here? We're locking up." I looked at my watch: it was after five. Larry and I had been at it for more than an hour and a half. We both realized we needed to go, but closure to this conversation was more important than the threat of being locked in the building. "You played a good game, Larry, and there's still a whole lot left of the game that counts. This one's just for practice. And I wouldn't have brought you here if I didn't think you could win." Larry lumbered to his feet and started toward the door, his head still fixed on the floor. I feared that perhaps I had been too hard on him, the weight of penitence evident not just in his eyes but in his slumped shoulders and the shuffle of his feet. "Do you have a ride home?" I asked. He turned back toward me but could not look up. "Yes, sir. I'll be all right." He raised his powerful hand and weakly waved goodbye, then shuffled out the door. I had heard Larry call me "Mike" and "punk" and "weak" and "cracker" and "dumb ass." Usually, when he wanted something he just said "Hey," refusing to offer the perfunctory respect that would accompany the title "Mr." I never imagined that he would call me "sir." I fell back into my chair and stayed there until I was jarred by the rattling of the chains across the door downstairs. When I drove out of the parking lot and started home, I saw Larry walking north toward his house in patient strides—eyes fixed straight ahead. I knew he didn't have a ride when I asked him back in the classroom, but that was the way he wanted it. Hope Driving home I made a detour and stopped at the corner of the park where a group of young women staggered about, ragged and starry-eyed like Macbeth's witches. They made their home in this desolate park and between highs, waited on the kindness of strangers like me. As I drove off, one loosened herself from the pack and ran after my truck. I slowly applied the brakes and waited. Before I could think to give her some money, or to ask her if I could help, she was gone, tumbling backward and then running back to the group from which she came. I watched the girls rustle and stir into a pile, the last leaf tumbling slowly back. I released the brake and eased slowly away from the park and down California Street, looking into the eyes of each person lounging on each porch, feeling them look back. First an old woman, then a group of younger boys, then an old man and woman together; each pair of eyes reflected the same thing: a sadness hardened over with acceptance, a longing dwarfed by a knowing. The blank stare I received from those faces was a mixed acknowledgment, a defiant protest against my desire to make categories where they might not exist. But buried beneath those stern flares was an embittered wish for a world where a man's goodness and badness might stand alone as the variables determining his worth, a wish that even the most impossible circumstances might afford some hope. About the Excerpt This is an excerpt from Michael Johnston's book, In the Deep Heart's Core (Grove Press, 2002). A version of this article originally appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of Ed.,the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.