Born to teach, Charlie Martin (1947-2018)


“You don’t know shit!”

At one point or another, what teacher or parent hasn’t thought this about a teenager’s attitude? Maybe not so emphatically, but the essence is about right.

The thought consoles us in an adolescent’s particular moment of petulance. Programmed by nature, the adolescent is pinging us and, damn, sometimes we want to ping back.

Remarkably, I know of only one teacher who has ever pinged that line back to a student. Well, many students. Remarkable still.

And, somehow, to students the emphatic ping “You don’t know shit” is received as “I love you, but you got lots of stuff to work on, young person. Now, lets get after it.” Far, far more remarkable, that. Always, Charlie follows the declaration with the individualized instruction of requisite social, emotional, or cognitive skills. The emphatic gathers attention for the teaching. Students call Charlie’s style “Old School.”

I believe Charlie is inflamed by a deep respect for the potential of each young person he encounters. He simply will not let one fall through society’s many cracks without injecting his passion for their futures. So he brings fire and brimstone. Fire and brimstone stoked by a lifetime of watching society fail so many young people, especially those of color. If passion born of witnessing what happens when society does not ping back to its young people is “Old School,” then something is wrong with newer schools.

Charlie is sixty-seven and teaches with more passion than many a third his age. We’ve taught together for eight years.

In many ways, Charlie has taught me that I don’t know shit. And, over time, I have learned to receive it for the love it is.

To be truly viable, the boldness of a school’s mission within a harsh world must burn within one human, at least. And that human must ping wisdom that resonates deep within the adult community, those who work together toward the success of the mission. Of course, in my institution Charlie pings us all.

Unblown by political winds, unencumbered by bureaucracy, untethered by -isms, unadorned by fashion, unbent by numbers, Charlie knows stuff that could overthrow the present educational empire.

Charlie knows that the center of education is spiritual, not numerical. The center of education is the spirit of the child, who must learn how to carry the torch for his or her own life.

To learn how to carry the torch for his or her own life, Charlie knows that the expectations for a child of any color must be high, very high. Do not commit the most heinous form of institutionalized racism: do not lower the bar for the child of color. Make young people think for themselves, argue for themselves, solve problems for themselves, create for themselves. Build high-bar educational systems that support these student-centered values: students must develop and carry their own torches — do not force students to carry torches that adults manufacture for them.

And, when they struggle to achieve the high bar, as they will, find your own respectful way to tell young people,

“You don’t know shit” about what the world has in store for you,

so let me teach you the skills necessary to surpass the bar.