Inside the Story

October 8, 2019

The students in my International Baccalaureate Literature and Performance class recently read “The Bean Eaters,” a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks about an elderly, very ordinary married couple who share meager meals and memories:

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Tin flatware.
Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.
And remembering . . .
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that
is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths,
tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.

Their assignment: to make a work of art that tells the story of one item on the list at the end of the poem and its connection to the old couple—to use their imaginations to enter the text and begin understanding it from within. They astounded me with their creativity and empathy—a poem from the perspective of the vase; a rap about tobacco crumbs, a short story about the doll; a detailed drawing of two hands clasped, a different set of beads on each wrist, and a necklace on the table featuring a necklace made of beads of both colors to represent their union.

Later that day, my 10th graders were reading an Ojibwe folktale about a foolish rabbit. They’re learning about theme and character development and narrative structure and sharing some of the stories that reflect their own cultural values. I was talking with Mona, a Somali girl in my fifth hour English 10 class who grew up in Ethiopia, in a refugee camp like almost all of my 10th graders. Her English vocabulary is very limited, but she understands humor and loves to joke around, and almost every time she opens her mouth she makes me laugh.

Me: “How was your weekend?”

Mona (with a huge smile): “I get married!” (Sad face, shakes head) “But my husband—he dead now.”

She was telling me that English is her fifth language; she also speaks Somali, Arabic, and two Ethiopian languages. I took an informal survey in that class this week and learned that 21 distinct languages are spoken by these 34 students, and more than half of them speak three or more languages.
Each day, I see 142 students. Like the old bean-eating couple in the poem, every one of them has a story to tell, and over the course of a semester or two, one of my jobs is to try to get inside each of those stories and understand it from within. Since I only have each student for about 45 minutes a day, and usually in groups of 30 or so, I have to do this in bits and pieces.

Iyesha, a student in my Lit and Performance class last year and the year before, graduated in June. I had pieced together a part of her story mid-way through her junior year, but I vividly remember the day she shared it with the class as part of a performance assignment. She told us about a rainy day when she was ten years old and a relative picked her up from school. She had grown up with a single mom, who coped with her own pain by turning to drugs and a stream of abusive boyfriends, and on this rainy Monday, she was worried about her mom. Although she had received treatment and was doing better, she and her latest boyfriend had been fighting frequently and violently, and on Friday her mom had dumped him. Iyesha hadn’t seen her since then. When she arrived at her grandma’s house after school that Monday, she heard the horrifying news: her mother had been murdered by her boyfriend.

Today, Iyesha is in college, preparing to be an elementary school teacher. Her laser-like focus: honor her mother’s memory and be the role model her little sister desperately needs. Iyesha told me that school has always felt like her “safe zone,” and that she wants to be, for her future students, “the teacher that made me feel safe.” The teachers in Iyesha’s life—especially one basketball coach to whom she opened up as she never had to anyone before—were there for her when she needed them most, and now this remarkable, resilient young woman is ready to return the favor.

Iyesha was part of a class that is really special to me. That class was the first group of juniors and seniors I taught at my current school, and the first group of students I ever had for two consecutive years. I went to their choir concerts and plays and basketball games when I could. They cheered me on when I ran my first marathon and when I became a semi-finalist for Minnesota Teacher of the Year, an honor I would not have received without them. Most significantly, they were the class that helped me achieve National Board Certification. They let me video their class and analyze and submit their work, and I think they were almost as excited as I was when I found out that I earned my certification.

Becoming a National Board Certified Teacher kept me in the teaching profession. I made the decision at a time when I was seriously contemplating leaving for a different career. It didn’t just change my teaching practice, it changed my life, catapulting me unexpectedly into a leadership role in my school and opening the door to opportunities I never would have imagined.

Iyesha and students like her are the future of education in our country. I am so thankful that so many great teachers were there for her when she needed them most. We need to do whatever we can to join them in making sure every student has teachers like the ones who made a difference in Iyesha’s life, teachers who aren’t afraid to go inside their students’ stories and help them write happier endings.

Ben Lathrop, NBCT

Ben Lathrop is a National Board Fellow. He teaches English Language Arts at Harding High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he has worked for ten years. He currently teaches Literature and Performance and English 10. A National Board Certified Teacher since December 2018, Mr. Lathrop is currently mentoring a group of 10 teachers at his school who began t he certification process this year. He is committed to excellence in teaching in his own classroom and beyond. In addition to teaching English, he works part-time as faculty adviser to the student newspaper at Minneapolis College, where he draws on his background in news reporting to support student journalists. Mr. Lathrop is married and has six children, ages 10 to 18, and two cats. In his free time, he enjoys going on dates with his wife, reading, discussing theology, bicycling, and making music