Bodies were flying and testosterone was pumping on a hot, humid, late afternoon at Durham's Jordan High. It was the first intrasquad scrimmage for the junior varsity--blue versus white. No one was sitting down. Chants were shouted by the kids at their teammates:
"LB's! Watch that draw!"
"Dog Pound! They Do Not Score!"
"Watch the ball! Strong right!"
They were engaged, and adrenaline ruled the sidelines.
The coaches huddled with small groups of players, reminding them what they already knew. Head coach LaDwaun Harrison had the defenses primed and anticipating. Coach Ngozi Collins watched the offensive and defensive lines, looking for focus and concentration. Another coach was counting down the clock in a real time, real game cadence.
Each play was like a dance, 11 teenagers moving as one unit toward their opposites, and the coaches were choreographing it all. Wearing a Jordan High jersey and Carolina shorts, the offense coordinator, Stuart Albright, listened to his running backs, spoke to the quarterbacks, and sent them into the fray.
The running game was really good that day. Number 30 pounded for three touchdowns. "Be careful! Be careful!" Coach Albright yelled after one nice run. "Kids get hurt when they let up," he tells me later. "Injuries happen when the kids relax before the play is over."
After practice, the coaches held hilarious tryouts for punters. It was serious, but it was fun, too. The JV team had great team spirit; they were ready for their first game.
Stuart Albright is "Coach Albright" 30-35 hours a week. The rest of the time, he's "Mr. Albright," teaching American Lit and Honors English to juniors. Last year he even found the time to write a book.
Blessed Returns is his story of one summer spent teaching in Camden, N. J. Written as a journal, it's an honest, tender account of an idealistic college student's full plunge into the real world. This is a coming-of-age story about yearning and wide-eyed wishes for social change. But he doesn't back away or sugarcoat; scene for scene, Blessed Returns is vivid, and sometimes very funny.
After practice, Albright and I decompressed in a local coffee shop. I asked him the usual questions about football, teaching and writing. Then I asked him why he lived in Raleigh when he had to be at school in Durham nearly every daylight hour.
He laughed, "I love my kids. But I need to get away sometimes. When I go out in Durham, my kids are my waiters in restaurants. I sit behind my kids in the movies. I need a break."
Just as he said that a girl walked by and smiled, "Hi, Mr. Albright."
Independent: How's back-to-school going, from your teacher's perspective? As a parent, I know the grace period is about over; summer is really in the past. All the social excitement is being replaced by homework and calendars. How have your first few weeks been?
Albright: Extreme apprehension in the week leading up to school. Lots of teacher dreams/nightmares involving the worst case scenarios. Then the kids arrive, and there's no time to think. Only to act, and, hopefully, to teach in a way that serves the good of others. I hate the beginning of school. But by week two everything settles into place.
Blessed Returns is such an accessible, honest journal of your Camden summer, the highs and lows, personal and professional. Did writing the book help you assimilate the teaching experience?
Most definitely. It really was a cleansing experience to get these jumbled thoughts and memories down on paper in a narrative format. I kept a journal that summer, and the details from that journal served as a rough outline for the book itself. Journals are very personal and intimate, and I tried to carry this sense of intimacy into the writing of the book itself.
I want readers to feel as if they are seeing a young man's soul laid bare to the world, warts and all.
You described some harrowing substitute-teaching moments, writing honestly about doubt and fear, and wanting to avoid the troublemakers. Nationally, more schools are coming up with "anti-bullying" policies. What works in the classroom--what's fair given your experiences?
If you treat students with respect and show no tolerance when they disrespect each other, 90 percent of the problems get solved. You have to be real with kids. Honest. Show them you care about them as unique individuals who matter in this big, sometimes faceless world. Sadly, some kids get to high school without this basic framework of respect. It can often be taught, but not always unfortunately.
Schools are expected to solve all the wrongs of this world--and why not, since schools are perhaps the most effective means of achieving social change in the world! But how can you ask schools to do such a thing without following up this rhetoric with policy support--better funding, smaller teacher-to-student ratio, more modern facilities, family support.
I get tired of political leaders talking about standards, and how teaching is the most noble profession and blah blah blah, and yet so few people make the connection that though we may say we want schools to be better, we as a society are often unwilling to put our money and physical labor where our mouth is.
You obviously appreciate the sports-as-life-learning metaphor. Not many of us could put up with the two-a-day practices in August's 90 degree heat. How has coaching football at Jordan helped your teaching relationships? Do you teach some of the student-athletes you coach?
I love coaching, especially with a team sport like football. Football really is a great metaphor for life: overcoming obstacles, putting the good of others above your own, trusting others, accountability, work ethic, humility, respecting authority.
I've taught 60-70 percent of the young men I coach, and with many of the others, I've taught their siblings. I'm one of the academic advisors for the team, so I get to work with many of these kids to help them with tutoring, SAT prep and college readiness.
How's the writing going now? Will you share your book with your current students? Is it in the school library?
I don't see myself as a very good writer, at least not yet. But I love the process. Very few of my students knew I was writing a book until I announced the publication at the end of the school year last spring. The library will start carrying copies later on in the fall semester.
And a question that's probably on everyone's mind, at least in your Jordan community: Are you keeping a journal about your Jordan High years?
I kept a journal while I was teaching in Boston--could be a novel there! But I haven't been able to jot much down while I've been in Durham. I never throw anything away: cards from students, press clippings about students in the news for both good and ill. Sadly, some of my former students have fallen on hard times and are serving prison sentences. I save pictures of my students to help keep memories to the near surface. This tends to help a lot.
It's now five years since your Camden summer. You're still teaching. What early career lessons have proved most valuable?
I love teaching, but it's an exhausting job. I couldn't recommend it for just anyone. You have to have the spirit and soul and backbone to deal with almost any crisis imaginable.
People talk about wanting to make a difference in the world. Teachers do just that on a daily basis.
As far as lessons go, I've learned from veteran teachers how important it is to have a life outside of teaching--a spouse, a family, a hobby wholly unrelated to literature, for example. I've become a better teacher as I've allowed myself to fall in love, to foster friendships with people who are unlike me, and to develop my faith and spirituality.
Blessed Returns is all about teaching in the very real world. You've chosen the very real world of a high school in Durham. How's the year shaping up? What's been your favorite classroom moment so far?
I like teaching at the high school level because it is the last hope for many of these kids to be influenced in a sheltered environment, before the world really gets hold of them. They look like adults, and occasionally even act like adults, but they are most definitely not entirely grown up. I like the discussions and conversations I can have with a high schooler.
I like JHS in particular, because it has incredible economic and racial diversity--40 percent white, 40 percent black, 20 percent other minorities. Few schools can match this diversity. We do an excellent job of maintaining high expectations for our students.
My favorite moment just happened. One of my students in creative writing read a story about the death of a family member to the class. Then another student followed, reading her story about Hurricane Katrina. You could hear a pin drop in both instances. All 35 students sat in awe as the beautiful and vivid words poured out of these two young ladies. I have so many amazing students like these. They keep me coming back year in and year out.
Contributing writer John Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.