On Saturday, April 13, over 100 students received honors during the Letters About Literature Awards Ceremony, held at the Enoch Pratt Library Central Branch Wheeler Auditorium, during the CityLit Festival. The Christine D. Sarbanes Teacher of the Year Award was given to Clinton Smith, 10th grade teacher at Parkdale High School in Prince George’s County. He has graciously agreed to allow the Maryland Humanities Council the opportunity to reprint his acceptance speech to our blog.
Christine D. Sarbanes Teacher Award Recipient Clinton Smith’s
Remarks at MHC’s “Letters About Literature” Contest Awards Ceremony
I first want to thank the Maryland Humanities Council and the Sarbanes Family for this incredible honor and for working relentlessly to push this importance of reading and writing in our schools.
I want to thank my parents, for being the embodiment of patience, for allowing me to travel so many paths, simply so that I could find the right one.
I want to thank my colleagues, from whom I’ve learned so much and who deserve this award just as much as anyone.
I want to thank my principal Ms. Logan, whose mentorship and guidance has been unwavering, giving me the skills and confidence to be at my professional best everyday.
And of course I want to thank my students, for their curiosity, their brilliance, and there unrelenting will to be so much more than this world expects of them.
My entire life I have loved literature. In my third grade yearbook, one question asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” In prototypical eight-year-old fashion, most of my peers stated, “ballerina,” basketball star,” “astronaut,” “fireman.” My answer, reflective of the awkward, big-headed, dream-filled kid that I was, read, “I want to be a Newberry Award winning author!”
And while it is something that selective memory could fool me into looking back on with a playful sense of childhood nostalgia, it would be a mischaracterization to do so. Putting those feelings out into the world of my schoolyard, was not a joyous experience, it was humiliating. My peers did not praise my answer to that question, but admonished it. My dreams were not admired, but chastised. As a black boy at a public school in New Orleans, LA becoming a writer did not fit into the box of options that this world had imposed on me, and that too many in my community had subsequently internalized.
- Check out Clinton Smith’s spoken-word poetry site: http://cwardsmith.tumblr.com/
There was seemingly no room in this world for an eight year old black boy to dream of being an author. It wasn’t a rapper, a basketball player, or an entertainer. It wasn’t in prison and it wasn’t on drugs. There was no room for a boy whose great grandfather, was prohibited from reading by law for fear that any enhancement to his intellect, would make him more dangerous to his owners. Being black with a book, was dangerous. For so much of my life, I felt that being black with a book put me in danger.
I share this with my students. That so many of them are descendants of a history in which being able to read and write would have literally had them hung. Or that others, come from families in which the English language is a buried treasure their family’s tongues have never been able to dig up. The opportunity to learn to read and write, is not an option, I tell them. It is a responsibility. To not do so would be an injustice to everyone who came before you. So many of whom literally died so that you could sit in this classroom and open a book. Whether is Maria, whose mother slept for nights in the belly of trucks amid concrete and fertilizers so as not to be smelled by the dogs. I think of David whose father comes from South Africa where up until less than two decades ago, the Bantu Education Act ensured that in school he would have been taught nothing, but how to be the servant of a white family. I think of my own grandfather, who fought for this country in a war it should have never been a part of, only to come home to a place that spit on his face as soon as he put down his gun.
We sit in our classroom as ambassadors of our past. We will learn to read critically, write consciously, and speak clearly because that is the only way this world will ever listen to what we have to say.
I tell my students that we are not here to celebrate the status quo of stereotypes. Whether it is what you look like, what you sound like, what your name is, or where your family is from, our role is to break out of these boxes the world has put us in. Everyday in my class we try to use literature to break out of these boxes. We question. We criticize. We agitate. We advocate. We read. We write. We recognize that we all have a story.
My dream is that my students continue to write their story, long after they have left my classroom. They are the award-winning authors we’ve been waiting for, and I know that a 3rd grade Clint would be extremely proud to be writing this story right along with them.
About Clinton Smith: A New Orleans native and graduate of Davidson College, Mr. Smith has been a tour de force since joining the staff, obtaining over 1,200 books for students through book drives, grants and personal donations. Last year Mr. Smith’s students improved their reading levels by more than two years. So far, this year’s students have also seen a similar increase. As a professional spoken word poet who has competed internationally, he is a walking manifestation of how learning to read and write well serves a purpose beyond the classroom. Click here to read his full bio.