This section is from Steve Dembo's blog:
Several months ago, I received a Facebook message asking me to to join a group. Surprisingly, it was a group organized to pay tribute to a Junior High teacher from Glencoe, IL named Marvin Martin.
I joined the group and then leaned back in my chair. People were posting stories and memories that they had of his class and I wanted to do the same… but I couldn’t. The reason I was unable to, was that it wouldn’t do him justice for me to just whip off a paragraph in ten minutes and toss it into cyberspace. More than likely he has no idea just how much of an influence he had on me, but he just may have been the most valuable teacher I ever had.
Mr. Martin taught me to read.
I don’t mean that he taught me phonics, that happened many grades earlier. I don’t mean that he taught me to draw meaning from the written word, that too happened a a much younger age.
He taught me to read with passion. With hunger. With love. With hate. He taught me to read a song and the songwriter as well. He taught me that reading was both a gift and a curse. A new friend that becomes an old friend just a few chapters later. He planted the sapling that has grown within me all these years, and now provides shade as I read with my son.
Before I journey too far along the highway of metaphors, let me explain a few things. If I remember correctly, I had Mr. Martin as a literature teacher in sixth grade at Central School, in Glencoe, Illinois. Prior to that class, I can say definitively that I did not read. Of course, I read for class, and I could read a menu and such, but I rarely if ever, picked up a book for pleasure.
Mr. Martin established a very simple system for dealing with students like me. He created a structure where you could get extra credit in his class by choosing a book off of his list, reading it, and passing a comprehension test. Every test you passed earned you a few percentage points. My first time out, I skimmed through a book and took the test. I failed miserably. You see, he ensured that he asked questions that you couldn’t answer by reading the cliff notes. He made you think about what you had read and prove that not only did you read it, that you understood it. I don’t take failure well, so I went back, re-read it for the first time, and this time I passed the test. Sensing a way to get an easy “A”, I grabbed another book. And then another.
I believe I completed that class with 192%.
The books on his list were a mix of classics as well as contemporary literature. They weren’t just geared to middle school students either. You see, he made a promise to his students. If there was a book that wasn’t on his that they wanted to read, they just had to submit the title of it to him and he would read it and add it. At any given time, he had a queue of about 15-20 books. Which might seem daunting, if he didn’t read a few books every day. It seemed to me that he simply devoured books, and every day new choices were available. And I took advantage.
I began to read every night. I would get so into the books that I kept reading late into the night. When my parents finally put their foot down, I began keeping a small flashlight next to my bed that I could use to continue reading with as soon as they’d gone to sleep. I began carrying a book with me, so whenever I had a minute of down time, I could break it out and burn through a few more pages. It got to the point that I was unable to go to sleep if I didn’t read at least for ten or fifteen minutes.
That habit is still with me today. I am never without a book to read, and I read every single night before turning in. If I don’t have a new book, I grab an old favorite. Another habit I can attribute to Mr. Martin. No matter how many times you’ve read a book before, there are still new things to be discovered within those well worn pages. I can honestly say that I have read some of my favorite books more than a dozen times.
The funny thing is that everything I have discussed so far… was simply the icing to his classroom. This was a layer on top of the actual teaching and learning, an optional component that most students participated in. The class time itself was a different type of journey.
I won’t pretend to say that I remember every class period, or that I looked forward to going every day. But here’s a few things that have stuck with me.
I remember that he was never satisfied with half an effort. When you read aloud, you read with expression. He made sure that you thought about what you were reading, considered the point of view of the characters as well as the author, and read it so that everyone else in the room could feel it.
I remember studying the words of Simon and Garfunkel. In particular, the 59th Street Bridge Song and the Sounds of Silence. I remember him leading us to discover what they meant by phrases like “the words of the prophets are written on subway walls and tenement halls.” And I also remember him challenging us to bring in lyrics to our own favorite music at the time and to see what we could learn from them. If my memory serves me, we wound up studying a song off of U2’s Joshua Tree album and a couple John Lennon songs, all by request.
I remember that while he was always a passionate teacher, there was only one time that he was genuinely angry. Somebody requested that he read Flowers in the Attic and add it to the list of books that could be read for extra credit. He was furious over the incestuous themes throughout the story, and refused to add it to the list. I had never seen someone get so upset and emotional over a book before. Looking back on it now, I think one of the reasons he was so upset was that in some sense, the book defeated him. He couldn’t in good conscience ‘encourage’ students to read that book by adding it to his list. And yet students were interested in it, all the more so because he was so upset by it. I think more students eventually read that book because of his refusal than would ever have read it had he accepted it. And while seeing him discuss the lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel showed us how high he could get discussing the written word, his reaction to Flowers in the Attic showed us just how deep those passions ran.
I would be remiss if I didn’t share one other aspect of Marvin Martin. Teaching was his life. And while I feel that I have met thousands of educators who are passionate teachers, few of them kept a sleeper sofa and refrigerator in a small office next to their classroom. Rumors run wild amongst six graders, so take this paragraph with a grain of salt, but so far as we knew he spent most of his evenings reading and sleeping in his office. There was a house in Glencoe that I’d been told belonged to him. It seemed like it could have fit in the garage of most of the houses neighboring it. While most other teachers shared stories of what they did over the weekend or while on vacation, Mr. Martin shared what books he had read. Teaching was his sunrise and his sunset. He dedicated every moment of his time to his students.
According to the Facebook group, after teaching in Glencoe for forty years, he retired in 1996. I’d always thought about going back and visiting him to let him know how profound an influence he had on me, but I never did. I’m hoping that through the magic of Facebook I’ll be able to reconnect with him and pass along a link to this blog post. Even better, perhaps have the chance to tell him in person.
So let this stand as a tribute to a wonderful teacher… from a student who didn’t know enough to thank him at time and doesn’t have enough words to do a proper job of it now.
Thank you, Marvin Martin.
This was fantastic. He sure was a legend. I never had Mr. Martin, but I do believe my brother Rick did. Even if you only knew him as the legend that he was, you wrote a fantastic tribute. In addition, the meaning to every teacher of a student who never forgot you and what you did for kids is really special. Thanks Steve.
Rachel (Graef) Yurk
-Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening. Mr. Martin was my sixth grade teacher at South School. I read 36 books that year! I remember the first “Banner in the Sky” along with “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” etc. We had to enact a skit from one of the books and Naomi Sorkin and I did “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” which became a racial scandal in the Glencoe school system. Mr. Martin brought these pieces of literature to life and I will never forget his instilling his passion in all of us. We also put on “The Wizard of Oz” and unfortunately I was a winged monkey, which I may never live down as I wanted to be the Scarecrow. My costume was stupendous however and I guess someone had to be a monkey. I can picture Mr. Martin like it was yesterday … my first male teacher ….it was a little scary at first. I will remember him always. I think he’d like my blog but not my liberty with punctuation! Gail Forrest
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