Rachel Barnes' Learning Story


The Reverend Charlie Holmes. When I was first assigned to his senior English class, I was struck by his title, and wondered how much of a role his religious training would play in his teaching. I was struggling with my own understanding of religion and its place in my life, and I was fearful of how his opinions might impose themselves upon our class expectations. In short, I didn’t want to have to say I believed in a God that would do the things I had witnessed in the world. I didn’t even attend a parochial school, and so his title confused me further.I needn’t have worried. Several weeks into the class, our classmate April had a sneezing fit. ‘God bless you,’ Rev. Holmes said calmly.She sneezed again. ‘God bless you,’ he restated.She sneezed a third time. ‘GO TO HELL!’ he thundered.We stared in silence, dumbfounded.’What? Obviously blessing her wasn’t working,’ he explained, a sly grin spreading on his face. The tension eased. April did not sneeze again.Reverend Holmes continued to defy expectations throughout the year. He began every class with a question for the class to puzzle out. If it seemed we were all in agreement, he would ask just one more question to leave us divided. Many classes turned rapidly into shouting matches as students argued passionately about their views of the literature assigned. As the year progressed, I came to see him more as a referee than a teacher. He launched us into discussion, and kept us fighting for a deeper understanding of the text. Then there was the day we actually fought.’Come on, we have to get to the gym, and we only have a half an hour. I hope it’s enough,’ Rev. Holmes told us over his shoulder, walking briskly out the door. We followed, wondering why the field trip to the gym was necessary, and what we might not have enough time for. When we entered, the floor was littered with foam bats and padding. He instructed us to sit in a circle in the center of the floor.’The school tells me you all have to learn the history of the English language and pass a test on it. It’s dull and boring, but you have to remember it. Here, take a card,’ he said, pulling index cards off a clip board. ‘Each card,’ he continued, ‘has a part that must be played. When I call your part, stand up and do as I tell you.’The next half hour involved Normans and Saxons beating the tar out of each other with foam bats as the history of our language took shape through our actions and words. The blows from these weapons didn’t hurt, but they certainly caught our attention and reinforced points. Bats became oars as language moved from one country to another. And the Reverend Charlie Holmes had the only English class who passed the test with all A’s. It was also the only time I remember Rev. Holmes telling us a lie: it was anything but boring.The magic of Reverend Holmes’ teaching was that he understood that what we were learning had to mean something to each of us in order to stay with us. He guided us all to the knowledge and beliefs we took away, showing us how to get there ourselves. He placed high value on inquiry, and encouraged us to dig deeper with every class. Most importantly, he taught us that disagreement can be done in a respectful way, and can help foster growth. It was safe to stand up for what you believed in, and just as safe to change your mind. Class was, after all, a place for the unexpected to happen.