I attended a large public school in Miami, Florida, Coral Gables Senior High. Over 3,000 students mobbed the pink stucco halls. When the bell rang, you got pinball-flippered into a maze of languages, styles of dress, music blaring from tiny speakers. Rich kids, poor kids, some of us second- and third-generation Floridians, many others new arrivals to Miami who were learning English as a Second Language. We all got stirred into the same humid patios and classrooms.
At Gables, most teachers were extraordinarily dedicated. They logged the kind of hours we typically associate with doctors and lawyers; as an adult, I am awed to recall how much time and energy they gave to their students. There were also, of course, classes where you could sleepwalk your way to an “A.” One popular Spanish teacher mostly talked to her students, in English, about her divorce. In chemistry class, I mainly remember watching boys draw penises on one another’s safety aprons. But then there was Mr. Blackmon, who was in a category all his own. His Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate courses were on par with the best classes I have taken at the graduate level.
“Don’t take him if you’re worried about your GPA,” I was advised. “He’s a really hard grader.”
We all knew that Mr. Blackmon had once been a student at Gables himself, a Cavalier, like us. In 1963, his father had dropped him off outside the same central building where we now sat, in 1997, gaping up at him. By the time I was in his class, Mr. Blackmon had been teaching at his alma mater for 23 years. A bald, bespectacled man with black hair tufting around his ears, he looked a little like (forgive me, Mr. Blackmon!) an erudite billy goat. Did he have idiosyncrasies? Did he ever! He was a wiry, hyperarticulate, impassioned lecturer. His love of learning was contagious. He’d stand on his desk, waving his arms like a wizard casting spells as he transported us to the snowy capital of Petrograd in Bolshevik Russia. Or the frontiers of the Cold War. He conjured the harbors of feudal Japan, the Zapatista strongholds of central Mexico. We were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen: infants, really, on the planet. (Despite our new boobs and our car keys, our tongue piercings and our goatees, the neon condoms optimistically peeking out of wallets.) During his two-hour block period, the whole globe went spinning before our eyes.
It’s not exaggeration to say that Mr. Blackmon’s teaching changed the course of my life. He took us on a field trip to the University of Miami library, showed us how to research using their amazing, labyrinthine archives. I sat in a glue-scented study carrel next to bona fide college students, reading a biography of Julius K. Nyerere. I wrote twenty-page papers for Mr. Blackmon about African socialism in Tanzania, about the politics of the Panama Canal.
Usually I yawned my way through tests. I felt like a superstar, just because I could write in grammatical English sentences. I passed my Honors Physics class because we could bring the teacher boxes of Kraft macaroni and cheese for extra credit. But you couldn’t get away with that stuff in Blackmon’s class. His exams had the physiological impact of a cold bucket of water to the face—they woke you up. They required you to draw on unknown reservoirs of brain power.
I recently looked up some of his sample essay questions online:
• To what extent is organization more important than ideology in the rise of single-party states?
• How successful was any one of the following in improving the quality of life and promoting greater equality in his his country? A) Gamal Abdel Nasser B) Juan Peron C) Josip Broz Tito
Yikes! Simply regurgitating information would earn you a “D” from Mr. Blackmon. Nor was he training us to be carnival psychics, playing a game of “Let Me Guess What the Teacher Wants Me to Say.” He wanted to know our original thoughts on matters of global significance, and how we’d arrived at our autonomous conclusions. I found this incredible, that a teacher believed a sixteen-year-old could weigh in on such still-open questions, the same ones debated by famous scholars and world leaders. I have never studied harder for any class; I pulled my first all-nighters for Mr. Blackmon, too nervous to sleep before his exams. So much for my old practice of “first thought, best thought!” He insisted we write multiple drafts in order to discover what we personally believed: Make sure you understand what the question requires of you! This is not Mystery History! Clarity is the prime stylistic virtue in expository essays!
In the process, we became more conscious and deliberate and flexible and knowledgeable and curious. We argued, we listened to one another’s positions, we learned to ask better questions, we read and read and read, we redrew our maps of where we could go, who we might become. We grew up.
Prior to taking Mr. Blackmon’s class, my knowledge of German culture and history came almost exclusively from Disney’s Epcot Center, where I’d once eaten “Bavarian” pretzels near a bunch of mangy seagulls and miserable vendors in lederhosen. By the time I graduated from Gables, I’d become an expert on the Weimar Republic. I earned a “7” on the IB history exam, the highest score possible, in no small part because I wanted to live up to Mr. Blackmon’s belief in my abilities.
So much of the magic of teaching cannot be quantified by test scores or statistics. It exists between teacher and student. Years later, after the publication of my novel Swamplandia!, I returned to Miami to give a reading at Books & Books, and there Mr. Blackmon was, looking not a day older than when I’d last seen him jumping on his desk doing his best impression of Tsarina Alexandra. During the reading, his smiling face was my anchor —just as it had been during high school, and for the many years since my graduation. Afterward, he told me, “I’m proud of you.” At 35, I am still aiming to live up to the high bar he set for us.
Mr. Blackmon retired from Coral Gables Senior High in May, after 39 years of service. He estimates that in that time he taught 7,000 kids. At the request of his students, he wrote a valedictory meditation for the school literary magazine, thanking his own teachers at Gables for having inspired him to embark on “the best career I could ever have.”
Great teachers never stop learning. Mr. Blackmon was continuously updating his syllabi and experimenting with new approaches. He challenged himself intellectually, in order to keep up with his field, as well as personally, knowing that his own growth would benefit his students. He said, “I have aspired always to be concerned with more than just the student, rather with the whole child.”
A joke Mr. Blackmon often made, to nervous laughter, was this: “When I die, I want my ashes scattered in the school patio.” He could easily have taught at the university level. He chose to stay with us. And we badly needed you, Mr. Blackmon. You loved us—that was always clear—by challenging us to be more than we were. You made us feel we were worthy of making history.
Copyright © 2016 by Karen Russell
KAREN RUSSELL was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for her debut novel, Swamplandia! In 2013, she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. She is also the author of two short story collections, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Vampires in the Lemon Grove.
Help us keep great teachers in the classroom
Teachers, our most valuable resource, are struggling. Overwhelmed and under-supported, too many teachers leave the profession too soon. The Academy’s enriching experiences and supportive community have been proven to improve those odds.