Mark Cosand's Learning Story


The humidity in Louisiana never stops, minute by minute, day by day, season by season. In the summer one bathes in it, never forgetting that it is there as it weighs heavily on the mind. It is heavy enough to cut, and breath by breath it fills the lungs. In the winter it lingers in the air and cuts bone deep making a mild day into a bitter cold one with no escape from its penetrating fingers. On such a bitter day I made my first trip into another era. I traveled through time as the two lane macadam road disappeared under the cars wheels. Decades passed like the many miles I traveled. I came to a stop in front of a rundown school in the middle of Cane River Country outside Natchitoches, Louisiana. This area is home to massive cotton and pecan tree plantations in which slaves were used for labor and to maintain the economics during the antebellum period. Little has changed, except slavery is now illegal. Imagine if you will a land that is rich in beauty, heritage and history. As spectacular as all of this seems, the children of Cane River are poor. In many regards families in this part of the Deep South live like their ancestors. Small wooden shacks made of mismatched wood litter the highways and roads of the area, while larger nicer homes are far apart along the river further from the ‘Quarters’. Money in its scarcity is a delineation of extravagances such as heat and air conditioning and where one shops for food let alone the address and ultimately the generational condition of school and opportunity. During my freshmen year of college I was assigned to an elementary school in the rural area of the parish for an elementary teaching experience. I wasn’t sure I could find it, didn’t see it on the map. I was very unsure of what I would find there: I was terrified of little kids. Pulling up to the school was a surprise in itself. In the middle of pecan plantations and cotton fields was the cinder block school looking as if it had been built as an afterthought during the Depression. I remember the classroom was dark, desks were old, and books were shared; there didn’t seem to be enough of anything’Materials, resources, care. I was to learn that while care from the outside might have been missing, it certainly was not absent on the inside. Adults displayed a genuine love for the children, and to my disbelief, the children were joyful. I couldn’t comprehend why and how these kids and teachers could find such joy in what seemed so very little. Didn’t they know that students in the rest of the district seemed to have so much more of everything? As I was nearing the end of my time the kids begged me to go to recess with them Of course, I couldn’t turn them down. So we played together, and I enjoyed their joy. But, when I left I wasn’t sure about coming back, and I couldn’t name what I was feeling to cause that. I didn’t have the capacity then to understand the thoughts I was having. What I did know was that the situation these kids were in wasn’t fair, and I was ashamed as if I somehow shared in relegating them to this existence. How could I go back to this school and look these kids in the eyes knowing what I knew about most schools and, thus, what they didn’t have? But I did go back, feeling guilty all the while. I finished that course and promptly changed my major. I really believe now I stayed out of education for the next eight years because I didn’t know how to face the injustices inflicted on children, especially children of color, by a system that promised, guaranteed equality through laws enacted to protect rights, people, children. I finally became a teacher in 1988, I realized that if I was going to be true to myself I needed to be a teacher and try to make a difference for children. I was still in Louisiana, still with little or no technology, supplies and new books; teaching was a challenge. But, learning how to teach the very diverse population I encountered there was wonderful. I think that I really learned to teach in this school without the trappings of a privileged school. I learned to use my mind and creatively blending my heart with my mind to motivate kids with possibilities, and use their joy. I always made time for students and had special moments for all of them that we both cherished. I tried to supply them with materials and books they had not been exposed to. Ultimately I wanted the best for them that I would want for my own children. We all learned how to be successful. Projects were constructed to carry them beyond the bonds of their reality to see where they can go if they first trust, then suspend belief and finally, work to achieve. As I sweated through another miserable July morning painting my classroom I wondered how long this paint had been on the wall and how many kids had seen it. I knew that the kids deserved to have a brightly colored classroom that would tell them some one cared and was there to make them feel like they belonged. So I spent most of a week working on the walls and trim of that old classroom that had once been a part of the all black high school in a tiny Louisiana town. Now it served both rural and town and military students. This wide range of diversity would be ready for school in a month, what would I have to offer this new group of kids and would it be enough? I knew we would become close, all day in a room with the same students meant you all had to have patience, understanding and care for each other. Building this relationship would take some time but by the end of September we would be close and working as a team to get along and ‘be about’ learning. They would make fun of my desk with cinder blocks for legs, my thinning hair, and my ‘Yankee’ accent. I would in turn make them feel a part of me by letting them and making jokes that didn’t hurt but let them know I knew them. We would work hard, sometimes finding new ways to do things, and sometimes following the ‘rules’ put down by administrators used to tried and true methods. We would play kick ball and football at recess, and they would wonder why other teachers didn’t play with their kids. I would sit with them at lunch and trade food, and find excuses to sneak in snacks and sodas for spontaneous parties. Always this was connected to learning and celebrating ourselves and our hard work. They would teach me to rap and dance, I would teach them reading strategies and geography. We were all learning something and it paid off. The end of the school year would come and we would have to say goodbye. They would leave for Junior High, or military posts elsewhere. Those that stayed in the area would run into me at times and we could tell by the way we looked at each other that we had shared a common experience. Now they are all grown and have their own lives and I wonder how much they remember and what kind of influence I may have had on them. The one sure thing is I know how much they influenced me and motivated me to keep doing the work of teaching and building relationships. I walked into the building one morning to find a note from the principal asking to see me. A few days before a district supervisor had visited my Social Studies class, now there was a request for me to conduct a Social Studies Fair for our students and possibly take our winners to the Regional and State Fairs. In order for all students in the building to have a chance to represent their school a lot of support had to be built in. Every student did not have resources at home or parents with the same skill set to assist their child. In my classes I had to learn to appreciate the differences each student brought with them so I could give them the unique feedback they needed. Many of the students chose projects that had to do with their perspective on world events and history that intrigued them from our learning. The real learning came to the students that were able to move on to the regional and state rounds. Many of the students had never traveled far from home. So it was quite an experience for us to load a bus with students, projects and me to go to a nearby college f
or the judging of their work and possible placement in the state fair. Fifth and sixth graders don’t ordinarily eat lunch on a college campus, but they did this day. They also got to see what it might be like to be a college student. Of the twenty or so that went to the regional fair, five or six would place for state. The state fair was held in Baton Rouge, a three hour trip. We would go in a van early in the morning, away from school for one very long day. After booths were set up I always took them to see the state capitol. To look out the very top and see the city in all its glory was a treat. The bullet holes in the basement were an especially gruesome topic of discussion too. Then Mike the Tiger and the LSU football field would be shown to them and we would hurry off to the displays for judging. Some would win prizes, but all were winners and the trip home would be filled with singing and storytelling. I only wish that all my students could take part in days like these. They would be left behind to hear the tales of those going. The next day would be filled with stories, excitement and questions. I tried to give to all my students the same gift I would give to my own: inquisitiveness, learning outside the classroom and the gems found in books. As I take this trip I wonder when it is enough. Did I do enough to help students of color become successful adults? Did I have enough maturity to ask and seek answers to tough questions about race in my classroom? I used to think that I could not and would not engage in a conversation about race. I thought I wasn’t a racist. How could I be? I work with kids of color every day. I had high standards for everyone, and treated everyone fairly. Therefore, there was no need to have a conversation about these things. What I didn’t know, or comprehend was the difference of growing up as a middle class white male opposed to growing up as a lower class person of color. I could never understand the pressure my students of color were going through at home and at school that inhibited their ability to perform well. All the time spent in my classroom doing ‘innovative’ lessons with my kids was all hit or miss, no rhyme and definitely no reason. It seemed to work because I was good at building relationships. Not until I moved out of the classroom could I look back and see what took place. As I developed my own emotional intelligence I also developed a deeper understanding of events like those I experienced in college. It is truly a re-examination of half a life of doing, being on thing and coming into a new life, new learning. Through my transformation as a better person I now coach teachers and administrators how to view teaching and learning differently. As an activist of anti-racist teaching, as an advocate for all students to be reflective, I have developed emotional intelligence and, thus, the willingness to enter into difficult conversations. It has moved me miles down the road of self-awareness. I wouldn’t say that it is a religious experience, but it is definitely a spiritual one. The higher calling of doing what is right for children by allowing them to escape the bonds that for generations have held them in a pool of stagnation is where I know I need to be. The work continues, patience runs thin, and time runs out; therefore, meaningful dialogues have to occur in order for all students to benefit from these courageous conversations. My mission though many years and miles spent away from the cotton fields of Cane River is simply to see that all students have the benefit of a quality education that enables them to be and do what is in their spirit. Just as I have been able to serve my heart’s desire, so shall they. Oppression in Louisiana, whether it be humidity or racism, is a daily, regular occurrence. Many don’t like it, didn’t choose it, don’t want it. But, it’s been there for years, and is therefore difficult to change. You will get hurt (emotionally, spiritually, even physically) trying. The wealth and beauty of the land play a cruel trick on those that bear the weight of a dehumanizing existence. The crops of cotton and soy bean s are cultivated and nurtured to provide the best possible outcome; the children, however, are left, out growth trying to capture any sustenance they can glean from a system that is overburdened and ill equipped to provide the fertilization they desperately need.