Mark Forrester: For Danny

Mark Forrester was my mentor during the first semester that I taught in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Maryland in College Park. But he is so much more that a teacher—Mark is a father, a husband, a poet, and a true friend. I hope readers will enjoy his blog on what it means to be a witness to one’s students.

When I think of former students, as often as not my first impulse is to offer an apology.

Danny was a junior in college, a student in my professional writing class. He showed up for class every day, on time, and sat in the front row of the classroom. However, the work that he submitted often seemed careless and reflected an immaturity that also appeared when he spoke up in class. He would offer loud observations that were irrelevant to and threatened to derail our classroom discussions. He embarrassed another student by noting that her name was also that of a videogame character.

Not surprisingly, I quickly grew frustrated with Danny. I was not rude to him, but I’m sure I directed more of my time and attention to those students who seemed more engaged and willing to learn.

On the last day of the course, I overheard Danny discussing the treatment he was receiving for autism. Would I have treated him differently if I had known this from the beginning of the semester? I’m not sure what specifically I might have done differently, but I know that my attitude would have been changed—and in teaching, a change of attitude can mean everything.

MF: College Professor
Mark Forrester

Of course, Danny is not the only student I have had in my career who was struggling with difficult circumstances. I have had students who were suicidal, who were in abusive relationships, who were dealing with eating disorders, who were sick and overworked, who were facing criminal charges, who had been sexually abused by a parent, who had a parent who was dying, whose best friend died that semester, whose parents were going through a bitter divorce . . . along with many other challenging and emotionally overwhelming situations. You cannot teach long at any level without encountering enough genuine tragedy to make Dickens seem like Pollyanna in comparison.

Few of us still subscribe (at least consciously) to the old-fashioned notion that our students come to us as empty vessels, eagerly waiting to be filled with knowledge. However, it’s often easy to forget just how un-empty those students really are. For a student like Danny, a teacher may be able to make adjustments in their teaching style. But when a student is struggling with the imminent death of a beloved parent, how can a teacher hope to make the distinction between cumulative and coordinate adjectives seem important?

The answer, of course, is that you can’t. In the moment, such matters are not important to the student, and they should not be important to the teacher. For that matter, the injustices imposed by prison privatization and the dangers posed by global warming will not seem important either. While it is a noble pursuit for a teacher to want to serve as a witness on behalf of their students, it is too easy to assume that you know best what needs to be witnessed.

A good witness must be an active witness. To be an effective witness, you must start by being an attentive listener. You must know where your students stand, what the content of their vessels really is, what they need and what they are ready to learn. Many problems, perhaps including Danny’s autism, carry the additional frustration of making it more difficult for the student to speak up about what they are facing, meaning that the teacher must do more than listen. We must observe carefully, we must empathize fully, and we must assume the best of our students—no matter how many times we have already been burned by that assumption.

We must first allow our students to witness to us.

So, Danny, I am sorry. I did not listen when I should have, but I hope that I am a better listener now.

Bio: Mark Forrester is a high school dropout, former chef, and haiku poet. He has taught literature and composition courses at the University of Maryland for 24 years. Mark is an Assistant Director of Maryland’s Professional Writing Program, and in 2014 was honored with a Philip Merrill Presidential Scholars award for mentorship.

Holding On by Le Hinton

Le Hinton is the author of five poetry collections including, most recently, The Language of Moisture and Light. His work can be found in The Best American Poetry 2014,  Little Patuxent Review, the Baltimore Review, and outside Clipper Magazine Stadium in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, incorporated into Derek Parker’s sculpture Common Thread.

My father died on Monday, May 7, 2001, due to complications from diabetes mellitus. His kidneys had been gradually failing, and he had been in the hospital for a while, again. The Friday before his death, I took some extra time for lunch and visited him in the hospital. I was going to Baltimore for the weekend to see three baseball games. The Yankees were playing the Orioles in a four game series, and I wasn’t coming back until Sunday. I’m a Yankees fan and was looking forward to getting away from work and the unreal world for a while. The Yankees had already won the Thursday night game.

Le Hinton
Le Hinton

When I got to the hospital, Mom and the nurses were standing around Dad’s bed. He had had a hypoglycemic episode and was just coming around. He was drinking some orange juice and Mom was helping him eat his lunch, opening one of those still-tricky-to-open milk cartons that haven’t changed in decades. He was lucid and happy to see me. We talked for a while about how he was feeling, how work was going, and what else I might do besides immerse myself in baseball over the weekend. My sister, my nephew, Dad, and I had all gone to a game at Camden Yards back in ’92, and he wanted to compare notes later. When I had to leave, I leaned down, hugged him, and told him I’d see him on Sunday. I also spoke the most significant words I may have ever said, “I love you, Dad.”

The weekend was a good one. The Yankees won all three games. One of the things I love about baseball is its pace. It allows the time to savor, anticipate, and reflect on each play. That weekend baseball provided me the time to contemplate my life with Dad. Between innings, between batters, I thought about him and how important he was to my life and the lives of my six siblings.

I remembered the time when I was about 13. An older boy was teasing me because of my speech impediment. Since he was bigger than I was and I was with my friends, I did the dumbest thing I could think of. I threw a stone at him and broke his glasses. He didn’t come after me, so I continued walking with my friends. By the time I got home, the boy had come to our house. He wanted me (us) to pay for his broken glasses. I explained to Dad that the boy was making fun of me. Dad made it clear I couldn’t go around throwing stones or anything else just because someone is heartless and unkind. He had already told the boy to go home and that he wasn’t getting any money from us. He let the boy know that if I threw a stone at him, he must have done something to deserve it.

Another time, when I was learning to drive, I drove over a pothole and the rear passenger’s side tire blew out. I was expecting Dad would fix it, but he said, “You were driving, so it’s your tire to change.” He watched out for traffic and gave me some guidance, but I was the one responsible for the tire changing. “It comes with the territory.”

All of those memories and more whirled through my head and heart all weekend. However, by the time I got back to the hospital on Sunday, Dad had taken a turn for the worse and wasn’t conscious. At one point that evening, I was alone with Dad. I held his hand and whispered to him “I’m not ready for life without you. I don’t know enough yet.” The next day he passed away before I was able to get back to the hospital. Again I had some time alone with him. Again I held his now-cold hand and this time said, “I guess you’re saying I am ready.” I thought about the time when I was three and Dad would lift me up and try to have me stand on his one hand, balanced high above his head. I was always scared and would hold onto him. But I got to the point I could let go of him, stand on his hand, and almost touch the ceiling. So, it seemed appropriate that day, May 7, 2001, that on my birthday, I’d have to find my balance and let go one last time.

Le’s poem, “Our Ballpark,” is part of Poetry Paths in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and can be found outside of Clipper Magazine Stadium. The project places poetry in public locations throughout the city.”

Clipper Magazine Stadium
Clipper Magazine Stadium

Our Ballpark

This is the place where my father educated us:
an open-air school of tutelage and transformation.
This is where we first learned
to count to three, then later to calculate the angle
of a line drive bouncing off the left field wall.
We studied the geometry and appreciated the ballet
of third to second to first, a triple play.

This moving canvas of color was our art school.
He gave us lessons on impressionistic blue skies and white lines,
the realism of brown dirt and green grass,
and the tangible abstraction of red, white,
and blue waving beyond the outfield wall.

We committed to memory his catechism of morality:
faith and opportunity, fairness and hard work.
We learned that if we are still playing, there is still hope.
But what we came to understand most is that sometimes
for your team, for your family,
a sacrifice is the most important play of the game.