Last year I retired from a profession that was probably the most challenging, the most frustrating, and in many ways the most rewarding profession that I’ve ever held. When I rolled my wheelchair out of my high school English classroom for the last time, I had to take a moment to recognize and honor all that I had gained from the experience. My reasons for choosing not to return to the classroom are complex and varied, but one thing is without doubt: to watch a student read, process, and discuss a work of literature is a thing of beauty.
I recall so well my freshman class’s heartfelt reactions to the suffering of young Elie Wiesel as we became immersed in the story of Night. Class discussions revolved around the cruelty of humankind and the necessity of hope, and their journals reflected just how engrossed they were in the journey. They experienced a similar reaction when the students (who were, like the school, about 92% Caucasian) dove into the life of Richard Wright and his shocking experience of growing up in the Jim Crow South in Black Boy. During our conversations we explored topics such as the use of the “N word,” poverty, racism, religion, and, of course, the cruelty of humanity.
Those conversations fed me, and as we went on to read works by Maya Angelou, Frank McCourt, and Amy Tan, a small part of me couldn’t help but wonder: How would my students react to Dear Marcus, my self-published memoir about being shot in the back when I was 13? I had sworn never to bring up my book in class, believing it was best to maintain a “professional distance.” Despite my students’ constant prodding (“Are you married, Mr. McGill? Do you have kids? Were you in a car accident?”), I always respectfully declined discussions about my personal life.
Then a funny thing happened. Students being students, many of them “googled” me and, lo and behold, discovered that the life story of their mysterious teacher was right there for the entire world to read. Many found ways to purchase my memoir, and soon word about it spread.
Whether it was between classes, during lunch break, or in study hall, students would find me and, clutching their copy of my book, would then ask me questions about it. Their questions were soon followed by the inevitable demand that I autograph their copy. Not long after the first students read it, a fellow teacher doing a unit on the African-American experience in America asked if I would come speak to two of her classes. When word got out that I had agreed to do it, the teacher had to move the event to an auditorium because so many other students wanted to join the discussion.
At first I was apprehensive that disclosing so much about myself would be harmful to the student-teacher relationship, but much to my pleasure it had the opposite effect. Even students whom I knew clear well didn’t like me (I was a pretty demanding teacher and could be a harsh grader) came up to me after the talk to tell me how moved or fascinated they were by my story. In the weeks that followed, I had an untold number of healthy conversations with students about my life and about their own, and about the broader themes that my book touches on: poverty, class, faith, family, loyalty, trust, and destiny—topics that we may not have had a chance to explore in such depth otherwise. For the first time, I began to think, Well maybe, just maybe, someday there could be a place for Dear Marcus on a curriculum. . . .
I am so pleased that Dear Marcus will now be available for a wider audience, and it is my sincere hope that educators will find it worthy of sharing with their students. Though it is my own story, it addresses issues of race, class, disability, inner-city violence, the importance of education, the repercussions of our actions on other people’s lives, and, most of all, the importance of hope and perseverance—issues that are relevant and that warrant classroom discussion. Ultimately, I hope that Dear Marcus will help young people see the beauty in their own lives while reminding them that even if things don’t go the way that they expect, they are in control of their futures.