Letter to a Young English Teacher - National Council of Teachers of English
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Letter to a Young English Teacher

An NCTE member recently brought this “Letter to a Young English Teacher” by David E. Kirkland to our attention and its beautiful words seemed fitting for all the brand new teachers heading into the classroom this fall. The full post is incredible and well worth the read. Below we’ve posted a few excerpts with David’s permission.


Dear Young English Teacher,

…Your lessons dance in my chest like felt pen strokes gliding across a gentle page, fluttering between my ears like secret whispers that transit the depths of Odysseus lost at sea or the peeks of Mother Sula bathed in the calm waters of literary fantasies. How magical will your words be tomorrow, particularly when they give life and meaning to the young long enough for the young to recognize the power within them?…

Through literacy, you teach them that they can change the world. But will they ever know what becomes of the illiterate? Or will they persist in a state of forgetting, resident to the bondage of remembrances lost or impaired or, even worse, imposed? Because of you, they will treasure memories—“because this is what the literate do,” you will teach them.

The memories will be fond, as if everything in the world could be a utopian dream fastened to the mindscape of our various existences. All of the alternatives of the universe live here, inhabiting the forges of possibility long enough to kindle hope. They are beautiful and awful all the same—beautiful in that your students will know new suns arising, but awful in the same way that they will constantly see these same suns setting but ingloriously at a distance. This is literacy’s torture, which is the chronic ache of longing to rescue a read world from the nightmares of oppression, to hold onto those liberating passages that echo like dreams passing through the chambers of praxis.

I know now, for truth, that I fell in love with words and the world because of a teacher who resembled you. The evidence of my heart bears its lament as artifact of this love. I am not sure what tomorrow holds, but I know today that I am in love with words and the worlds that they have revealed.

For this love, I am grateful for you, young English teacher, for the purchased time with which you shall gift many others. This gift remains a lesson itself—a text to be read and reread with fervent intensity and for all time. The story it tells will remind countless young souls that they are worthy of love and, more, that they are capable of sharing the same. And share they will but through words customized to fit their heart’s good intentions, finally liberated to bring forth the tender song of their hands…

All of your lessons will have everything to do with how we as humans understand the world, how we might bear witness to the spectacle of a universe unshackled. This is your art, understood only through the artist’s eyes. It is the brilliant painting of development, which emancipates the bound soul through tiny—but profound—brushstrokes of revelation. Do you feel me?…

Although we exist in the restrictive scenes of our experiences, we live more freely in the possibilities of imagination. It is here within the fertile planes of the mind that you and your students will race both as Atalanta and Hippomenes through the sheltered valleys of Arcadia, purging and picking golden apples as you sprint freely in this endless marathon of dreams. It is here that your stubborn wills will merge, offering—beyond the strains of such colossal escapades as flaw and perfection—humble strategies of hope, spinning the threads that will make escape from the bondage of reality more possible.

In the end, you will learn that prerequisite to all literacies, to all life, is a courage to play, a hunger to learn, and the fulsome amusement of curiosity.

Thank you for all that you will do. I know that you will do great!

Sincerely yours,

David E. Kirkland

David is the 2014 recipient of NCTE’s David H. Russel Award for Distinguished Research in the Teaching of English for his book A Search Past Silence: The Literacy of Young Black Men.