Middle School Teacher
St. Christopher's School, Richmond VA
There exist certain qualities a veteran teacher has over an instructor fresh out of college. The ardent tone and unmistakable methodology are already in place, and whatever ideas of hi-jinx that students had intended to pull are systematically shed by the end of the day. However, the nature of my room assignment confused the boys. Though I arrived at my alma mater, Saint Christopher’s Episcopal School, as a well-seasoned teacher in 1993, I had inherited the room reserved for newbies. To be exact, it was the room with Janus-like heating and cooling, insufficient chalkboard space, and too many bulletin boards to maintain. Whenever another vacancy became available, that teacher routinely would move to the more desirable quarters. Accordingly, everyone in the middle school from teacher to parent, from student to alumni, knew of the rookie room. It was mine, and I loved it! Despite its dim appeal, I had an affinity for the cracking plaster walls and the rolling oak floors. The blackboard had flecks of cloth breaking through the hard surface from decades of overuse. When I brushed my palm along the surface, the gritty bumps felt as if it were a cryptic message in Braille from one generation of teacher to another. Fifty years earlier, when he was a young man and starting out on his own, my father taught in the same room.
Besides the strictures of grammar, vocabulary, and reading, the thrust of my class would be writing. My predecessor left a daunting gap for me to fill. A master teacher who inspired her students through evocative and sound rhetorical skills, she was the end of a vanishing breed – the writing instructor. She had been my teacher, and I retained the tools she had given me: how to write, how to reason, how to rewrite, and how to show scenes through the written word.
My first weeks were disappointing. The students said very little, and the assignments I gave were unimaginative and boring. Though technically sound, the pieces that they submitted had no “oomph”, were thin on imagery, and rarely went beyond a single handwritten page. No one took any risk; no one dared to open up – especially me. The worse insult was when I overheard my brightest student say to another classmate: “I’d rather diagram sentences.”
After a month, with the intuitive feeling that my classes were the most monotonous and tiresome ones being taught, I was certain that word would spread from the carpool line to administration and I’d be out by Thanksgiving.
Our school chaplain, Rich Weymouth, sensed my panic and reached out to me one weekend. Rich was perfectly matched for his calling; his street-smart spirituality asserted both hard-won genuineness and caring engagement with the world and its people. He wanted my truck - and me – to help him with an errand. Using whatever resources he could muster, Rich collected second-hand chairs, tables and supplies to furnish houses for Habitat for Humanity residents. Houses, coincidently, that he had a large hand in building.
Rich possessed a huge heart, was totally other-centered, and in moments of doubt, he had a knack for being piercingly affirming. Maintaining a conversation while we gathered items, Rich modestly, as if it were hardly worth mentioning, revealed to me how when we show compassion and kindness, the reward centers in our brain light up…. and they offer a chance to rewire the way we operate. He then acknowledged the moment of inspiration when he chose his career path. It came from a sermon he heard on Romans 5:1-5, and it transformed him:
"... we rejoice in our sufferings,
knowing that suffering produces endurance,
and endurance produces character,
and character produces hope,
and hope does not disappoint us..."
I did not know what toils Rich Weymouth confronted, but he certainly was a man of character who knew how to spread hope! He lived a life of giving, and at considerable cost to his bank account. He would borrow my truck (and sometimes me) on weekends … and he always returned it filled with gas.
Rich inspired me with his words, and it reminded me of another source of inspiration, Tom Davenport. I took tennis lessons from Mr. Davenport. He was the happiest man I ever encountered, and he was deaf. A war buddy of my father’s, Mr. Davenport lost his hearing during the Battle of the Bulge. Always smiling and encouraging, he taught a stroke by physically grabbing my arms and running me through the motions as if I were a mannequin. Unable to utter a word or hear me whine, my missed-hit became his missed-hit – and his success became my success. If I didn’t master the movement, he’d pull me through the motions over and over again until I got it right. Oftentimes the task being taught was tedious, but the lessons paid off. I realized that school existed for the drudgery and magic that occurs between the teacher and the student. And it occurred to me, the only way to make an impact was to act like Mr. Davenport and Rich Weymouth…people who imparted wisdom through demonstration and example.
The next week, I framed pictures of my colleagues participating in sports from their younger days. Blown-up photographs covered the walls: the history teacher driving down the lane to make a layup, the science teacher anchoring a race at Penn Relays, and the math teacher climbing El Capitan in Yosemite. Underneath the Honor Pledge, I hung a picture taken from the 1942 yearbook. A sepia-toned faculty composite of twelve men, looking dapper and hair slicked to their temples, placed as a reminder that I was not the first Mr. Bruner to inhabit this space.
I also recalled the cavalcade of favorite teachers who filled me with ideas and showered me with insights, asides, and anecdotes when I was a student. To me, listening to them was like going to the circus every day. That was the fun of it. Their lessons, intended and unintended, were taut and quickly paced, jabbing me with curiosities, notions, and their own vulnerabilities. Their stories helped me understand the things I didn’t understand before. Moreover, my teachers at Saint Christopher’s were not perfect – and were unafraid to say so. From the top down they had been good team captains, but they have also been good players. The humble mathematics teacher having a bad day knew that the Headmaster understood bad days. Students having a bad day understood that the teachers knew bad days. So I chose to be vulnerable and to show my life. If I could be open and authentic by sharing my stories, perhaps it would give my students the freedom to do the same.
Stories are meant to be experienced – some with depth and some with complexity, but it takes a few whacks to get things right. Hence, revisiting and revising thoughts allowed a path for softening the edges, making connections, and pinpointing emotions – the right words in the right order. Within the craft, there is a place for anyone to be a storyteller. My students began to hunt me down between classes so I could proofread their rough drafts. Discussions became animated, and the boys treated the red ink from my editing pen as though they were winners in a game of "Mumblety-peg". The next set of essays made gigantic leaps in style and description. The boys wrote and revised with alacrity. Each day, they begged for me to read another. When a grade was finally awarded, they wanted to know the next topic.
Saint Christopher’s School is a living, vibrant place. The school’s mission of faith in many ways mirrors my own personal journey that started over 25 years ago. I did not envision that I would still be doing the same thing the same way – but I do. I figured there was a saturation point where teaching got harder the longer I did it … unlike bricklaying, which must get easier … and I’d move on. The key is the relationships, one-on-one, between students and adults. I was drawn to the way that an Episcopal school promotes cooperation, tolerance, and commitment to service while attuned to the spiritual journeys of those of other faiths, as well as those of a no faith background. A place where rigor and character are valued, and hope is always within sight.
What distinguishes our community is the fact that Saint Christopher’s is a school with a soul: a net that bounds one generation of students to another – to the past and legends long gone, and to the future and stars yet to be. Many of my students today are the sons of those writers from that first class. Our community secures its moorings in one specific line from “A Boy’s Prayer” by William Dewitt Hyde: “Keep me ready to help others … at some cost to myself”.
I teach because I get to sit in a room where we all reveal bits of our own hearts,
sometimes in plain view and sometimes ever so lightly, as if it were hardly worth mentioning … and full of twisted wit and spirit.