Colman McCarthy
Colman McCarthy

Fellowship Title:

The Genius of One Caring Teacher

Colman McCarthy
March 21, 2000

Fellowship Year

Watching the children of Garrison Elementary School enter their cafeteria at lunchtime, it’s no task to identify the students of Mark Lewis. They’re the ones carrying books. Biographies. Short stories. Essays. Poetry. The cafeteria noise and chatter isn’t enough to keep them from reading a page or two of their books in the next half hour.

This opportunity for learning at a seemingly inopportune time is one of many signs that the 24 fourth graders of Mark Lewis are responding to his calls to push themselves educationally.

At Garrison Elementary—in a poor and working-poor neighborhood a mile north of the White House but a world away economically and politically—the children in Mark Lewis’s class have lucked out. They have a teacher gifted with fire, one who burns with three beliefs:

  • Growing up minority and poor shouldn’t mean growing up hopeless.
  • Children who are long-shots for success have a greater chance to be sure-shots if they enjoy at least one positive educational contact in school—a teacher with energy and ideals—at an early age.
  • For his students, he is that motivated and motivating teacher.

I have known Mark Lewis since he came to Garrison in 1993. When in need of an inspirational lift, as well as pick up some tips on the pedagogical arts of teaching, his classroom is among the ones I head for. It’s also one into which I bring my own students when we take field trips in search of genuine giants of service.

After one of these recent adventures, a student of mine was moved to write a thank-you letter.

“Dear Mark Lewis: I had the pleasure of coming to your class and helping out with your kids for the day. My name is Lisa Keskitalo and I’m a student of Colman McCarthy’s at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. I’m writing not just to thank you for welcoming me into your classroom but also for helping me realize something about myself. You see, up until my visit to Garrison, I had set my eyes on a possible career as a high school teacher or college professor. When I left your school, my sentiments had changed completely because I realized how much more amazing and powerful it is to teach young kids. Yours were absolutely beautiful in many ways. They were sweet to me and you could see how much they craved learning in all its forms. When Colman told my class how you decided to leave the Library of Congress for these kids I was touched. I completely understand why because they are all so amazing. If it weren’t for my after school obligations (I’m a ballet dancer and practice every day), then I would come to Garrison to help out your kids. Please tell them that I loved the visit and loved all of them. Thanks again not only for allowing me to help your class but also thanks for making a difference in those kids’ lives. This world’s heroes are people like you who touch young people’s lives, including myself. You may not see it like that, but I do and I thank you for it. I hope that one day I too will touch the lives of kids in a 4th grade class.

Kind regards, Lisa Keskitalo

On delivering that letter to Mark Lewis, I asked one of his students to stand in front of the room and read it aloud to the class. Attention was rapt. At the end, applause rocked the room. Here were the thoughts of an outsider, expressing in a few words all the respect and affection the children themselves had for a revered teacher skilled in how to “touch the lives of kids.”

How a 40-year-old white American Arabic and Hebrew-speaking Jew from upstate New York found himself among some 500 African- American kids in a public school in one of the nation’s most mismanaged school systems is a tale of unlikely twists and undreamed of rewards.

After graduating from Tulane in 1981, Lewis studied for two years at Hebrew University in Israel. Wanting to expand his mind, and outlook as well, he came to Washington to earn a Masters in Arabic Studies at Georgetown University. From 1985 to 1992, he worked as a Middle East researcher and writer at the Library of Congress.

About then, Lewis, looking for a diversion or two from the thinking life, began volunteering as a literacy tutor at an inner city Catholic school. “I had a class with five kids,” he recalled the other afternoon outside his second floor classroom as his charges were leaving for the day. “I loved it. I said to myself, ‘I should be doing this full time’”

A few years later—after taking teacher certification classes at Trinity College, after sending out resumes to 25 District of Columbia elementary schools—he was.

The day before school opened in l993, the principal at Garrison phoned Lewis to say she would take a chance on him. He was heaved into deep waters: “When I showed my class list to another teacher, he sighed. ‘You’re in for the worst year of your life. These are the worst kids in the school.’ He was right. They turned out to be terrible.”

No quitter, Lewis stuck it out and survived. The next year, the principal moved him from 4th grade to a 2nd-3rd combination. He taught that way three years and then was asked to teach the 2nd grade group the next year in 3rd grade. He continued with them to the 4th grade, his class now.

In Lewis’s philosophy of education, the benefits of continuity—three years with the same class, and maybe more through 5th and 6th—are immense. Bonding occurs. “Sure, you get attached to the kids,” Lewis says. He knows them as human beings to be inspired, not educational units to be processed through the system. In his classroom, it is noticeable that Lewis speaks conversationally, with no vocabulary dumbing down because they’re 9-year-olds. His speaking tone and manner differ little from a professor’s in an honors seminar: “I never talk down to them. I treat them with respect That’s important. I try to use sophisticated vocabulary. They pick up on that and it shows up later. In their latest Stanford 9 reading test, 75 percent of the class scored in the advanced category.”

I checked. Those results are among the highest for any 4th grade class in the city.

It isn’t total linguistic sophistication in the Lewis classroom. During discussions of current social issues, which as a man of opinions he relishes, Lewis reads from newspapers to get the kids talking. In a recent free for all, he held up the front pages of USA Today and The Washington Post, pointing to headlines on the same lead story. Which headline do you prefer? he asked. “USA Today’s!” It was three words, the Post’s 10 words. USA Today is a 4th grader’s dream paper, Lewis quipped.

Throughout the year, Lewis communicates regularly with parents, averaging between 20 and 25 phone calls a week. Many teachers, if they take time to talk with parents at all, phone home only with the bad news of a failing grade or a child acting up. Lewis’s calls range from praising a parent’s effort at creating a learning environment at home to talking about a child’s progress in reading or self-discipline.

With a happy and uplifting family life himself—he is married to a Harvard-trained lawyer and is the father of a two-year-old—Lewis takes time to visit the families of his Garrison children and often invites them to his home for dinners.

This closeness, he believes, serves to keep the students enthused about learning. If he is personally central to their lives, chances increase that education will be central, too. “I can tell,” Lewis says, “that my students are pumped up about their futures. They’re at the stage where the world is theirs. In their dreams and imagination, they think they can do what they want. I encourage them to think that if you work your butt off and push yourself you can become self-sufficient. That’s the goal. Even including the most troubled child in my class, I can say that none of them has a sense of defeat.”

Because he chooses to cross racial, cultural and economic boundaries and take students into his life in personal ways well beyond routine professional requirements, Lewis is an anomaly in U.S. education. It is no accident that his students are at the highest level of tested excellence. Nor is it accidental that his philosophy of teaching was not picked up during his certification period or by heeding the counsel of ed school experts.

In “The Discipline of Hope,” the 1998 book by Herbert Kohl, the veteran teacher writes, “Knowing and caring about your students is not merely an academic matter but is essential to shaping learning for them and a challenge to take them into your life and fight for survival and growth as if they were your own children…I believe that one key to making sustained changes is finding teachers who care about their students and are willing to become personally involved with their lives. The craft of teaching can develop; the love it requires cannot be legislated or trained.”

How to find more innovators like Mark Lewis and get them into classrooms? Recruit them, how else. Recruit women and men who care about thinking and think about caring, and then put them among children. Not among certifiers. Not among testers. Not among task forces. Not among blow hard experts at education conferences. Just among children. They’re everywhere. The planet is packed with them.

©2000 Colman McCarthy

Colman McCarthy, a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., is examining life in an inner city elementary school.

Colman McCarthy
Colman McCarthy