Teaching, Tragedy and Comprehension
No one can teach for any length of time without being touched by tragedy. Students get terribly sick. Students experience death in their families and we ache for them as they bring the grief on their faces into the classroom. Sometimes, students die. I have experienced these tragedies many times in my teaching career. Suicides. A devastating diagnosis of cancer for a nine-year-old student. Parents who were killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11.
One particular tragedy stands out for me above all others. Van Johnson was one of my first students as a wet-behind-the-ears 8th grade social studies teacher at Bristol Junior-Senior High School. He was tall, handsome, with a winning smile and a 70s' style Afro that entered the classroom before he did. Van was bright, capable, curious, motivated, challenging and thoughful. He was always engaged in class, always had his hand up (or, truth be told, often didn't have the patience to raise his hand and just blurted stuff out) and multi-talented. In addition to being a top student, he was a pitcher on the junior high baseball team I coached and a performer in the school plays I directed. When I started a branch of the World Affairs Council at the school, Van was elected president. The future seemed very bright for young Mr. Johnson.
During his senior year at Bristol, 17-year-old Van Johnson drowned. He and some friends were celebrating their impending graduation with a late night swim at a nearby lake, when tragedy struck. For all his talents, Van was a poor swimmer. It was foolish for him to be in that lake, but he was, after all, just a kid trying to have some fun.
These memories of Van came rushing back to me as I read an article titled,Will Simone Manuel Encourage More Black Children to Swim? in today's New York Times. The article refers, of course, to the Olympic champion swimmer, Simone Manuel, an African-American who won two gold and one silver medal at the Rio Olympics. The article outlines the hope of many public health experts, swimming advocates and African-American parents, that her charisma and success will lead to more minority children learning how to swim.
Among the many gaps between white and black, majority and minority, rich and poor in this country is a swimming gap. This swimming gap kills. It is estimated that about 70% of African American adults and children cannot Russ on Reading: Teaching, Tragedy and Comprehension: