What Mister Parker Taught Me

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Looking back, I have to admit to myself that I was a rather unpleasant child. The fifth of six and eight-years younger than the next oldest, I chose to challenge the pecking order with incivility. By the time I was five, I loathed myself. I had become someone I did not want to be.

It’s not easy to change, and often those closest to us won’t let us change. We all get locked into patterns of behavior, action and reaction, offense and retaliation, defiance and punishment. By age five, I had enough of it. So I became someone else—literally, at least for short periods of time.

I needed a disguise and a new name. Somehow I thought that becoming a new person required a new identity—like entering the Federal Witness Relocation Program. I rifled through my toy box in the small room I shared with my two older brothers and found some sunglasses with the lenses missing and a bubble pipe. Perfect! Now for a name . . . Mister Parker. First name “Mister,” last name “Parker.

I took my new persona into the kitchen for dinner. I corrected my siblings who referred to me as “Kenny” by introducing myself as Mister Parker who was taking Kenny’s place this evening. Mister Parker and I could not have been more different. He was much older, mature, educated, worldly, polite, had excellent table manners, a considerate conversation partner. He was the amalgamation of the best attributes of every adult man I had ever encountered—in life and on TV. Mister Parker became a frequent dinner guest that year of 1962.

I hadn’t thought of Mister Parker for years. At a family reunion, I asked my brothers and sisters if they remembered Mister Parker those 50 years ago. “We LOVED Mister Parker!” they said almost in chorus. “He was so polite, and nice. When he showed up, we knew it was going to be a nice dinner.” They recalled a more elaborate costume complete with oversized fedora and tie—but I’m pretty sure it was just the pipe and lens-less sunglasses. It was Mister Parker’s vibe that made them want to embellish.

Shortly after Mister Parker’s arrival in 1962, we moved from Boston to Baltimore. Mister Parker didn’t handle the move well. Baltimore didn’t understand him. The death of my oldest sister, followed a few years later by my dad, and a few years later my mother’s remarriage, along with puberty and adolescence—Mister Parker’s effect on me faded and the once-unpleasant child grew into an unpleasant teenager.Just like my five-year-old self, my 18-year-old self came to hate what he had become.

In 1976, at age 19, I moved to Frederick, Maryland and came to Frederick Community College. Here was Mister Parker’s chance to reassert himself. No one knew me. I could be anyone I wanted to be.That is the beauty of going to college. We can reinvent ourselves. That is the college’s job—to help us become the best person we can be and the person we want to be.

At college, we learn the skills, gain the knowledge of our world, become immersed in our artistic and literary culture, examine our politics, learn how to have difficult discussions and wrestle with controversy, and have our perceptions challenged. If we have the aptitude and desire, we can become whomever we want. We can have the life we seek. We can be a positive presence in our community and our world. David Foster Wallace in his 2005 commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College, “This is Water,” made a similar point when he said, “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

“That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”

True education takes time, and I still work at it every day. But I believe I eventually became Mister Parker. The deed to my house, my college degrees, my passport—they all say “Kenneth Kerr,” but I know they also say “Mister Parker.”

An Orange in Winter

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I always loved the tradition of the Christmas stocking. Growing up, I was embarrassed that we didn’t have a proper hearth to give due respect to the custom. I could only guess how disappointed St. Nick must have been holding up his end of the tradition with our holiday stockings tied to a stairway railing. My shame was eased a bit when I came to realize that supernatural beings did not invade our home each December 24th—it was my mom who filled our stockings. Even so, I loved the tradition and still do.

But there is an aspect of it that annoyed me as a child until just recently. That too involves my mother. Each year, she would place an orange in the toe of the stocking, followed by some walnuts, followed by the good stuff.

I can remember being indignant that oranges and nuts are not gifts—those were things we had to eat. Those were things that were always in the refrigerator or in a bowl on the coffee table from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve. They were not special. They had no business taking up precious space in a beloved Christmas stocking. Kind of like when Chipotle tricks people into thinking that rice belongs in a burrito. It doesn’t. Rice is a side dish. It belongs on the side—not taking up the scarce tortilla real estate that should rightly be occupied by animal protein.

As I think back, my 10-year-old-self behaved rather badly over this perceived slight. It was not until recently—decades later—that I understood why an orange and walnuts appeared, year-after-year, in my stocking. My mother was born in 1924. She was five-years-old during the stock market crash of ’29 and spent her childhood, teenage, and young adulthood in the Great Depression and the rationing of WWII. A gift of an orange in December would have been a nostalgic extravagance. I must have been a tremendous disappointment to her, just as her oranges disappointed me. We both had our expectations about what a perfect Christmas stocking should be. Still, she continued to give me Christmas oranges, and I continued to be perennially dissatisfied. If my mother had told me her childhood story and how excited she was to get an orange in winter, I may have embraced the story and the meaning, and the gift. But left without context, all I had was an orange and some nuts.

This childhood anecdote has given me lots to think about. Namely, I wonder: Do our students not value our “educational gifts” because we have not explained their value, or are they simply no longer valuable?

Why do our students need to learn the history of Western Civilization? How is the canon of Western Literature relevant, let alone the art and literature of underrepresented voices? Why does a fourth-grade teacher need to know physics? Why does an accountant need sociology? Why, why, why?

“We” all know why. It’s our job as teachers to tell the story about why subjects matter: to teach content and context. If we don’t, our lessons will continue to go unappreciated and undervalued. And, if we can’t, then maybe it’s time to stop putting the orange in the stocking?

Settling for a Career at a Community College

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It has been ten years since I completed my doctorate. Once I finished, people asked me the strangest question: “So, now that you have a doctorate, are you going to teach at a university?” Apparently, people thought I was teaching at a community college out of necessity rather than choice. My answer was usually, “Why would I want to do that?”

Community college is where I found my success. I would never have achieved a doctorate—or any degree at all— if not for community college: Frederick Community College specifically. I left high school unprepared for the demands of college. At Towson University, I found failure. It was so apparent to me by the last day to withdraw in the spring semester, I did just that. I withdrew from all my classes. I tossed my guitar into the back seat of my Volvo and set out to make my way in the world. Broke and with no prospects, I was headed back to Baltimore. I was passing through Frederick and stopped in to visit my newly-married brother for the weekend. He offered me a place to stay while I figured things out. Driving around Frederick, I passed by Frederick Community College and decided to give college another try.

At FCC, I found professors who wanted to teach, students interested in forming study groups outside of class, a staff that cared about students. One more thing I found at FCC—success.

I finished my AA in two years, went on to Hood College and completed my BA. Eventually, I made my way back to Towson and earned a master’s degree. None of that would have been possible if I had not taken a drive down Opossumtown Pike in July of 1976 and found Frederick Community College. I returned to FCC as an adjunct instructor in 1994 and then joined the full-time faculty in 1999 after my journeyman years at Hagerstown, Cecil, Harford, and Wor-Wic Community Colleges.

I sought a doctorate because it is the highest degree in my field. As someone who learned to love learning, I thought I owed it to myself. I have no reason to leave FCC—it is everything I have hoped for professionally and personally. Every day, I see myself in my students. They struggle and stumble just as I did. They get back up and persevere. They get discouraged and frustrated and are often riddled with self doubt—just as I was.

That is what I think makes me an effective teacher. I can empathize with them. I can show them that failure is just a step on the way to success.

So, am I going to get a job at a university? No thanks, I’m right where I belong.

What I Really Do

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A popular item on social media is the “meme.” One style features a profession and shows a series of six photo panels each with a caption: “What I think I do,” “What my friends think I do,” What my family thinks I do,” and so on. The final panel reveals: “What I really do.”

That got me thinking about what it is I do as a college English professor. When I started this profession in 1994, I had wide-eyed, romantic notions about my new career and its role and importance. I saw my purpose as educating students to lead richer-fuller socially aware, intellectually engaged, and professionally rewarding lives. That “What I think I do” picture panel would have had something like Moses leading the ignorant masses out of the desert to the promised land of self-enlightenment. I flatly rejected any notion that my role was to prepare students to enter the workforce. I actually found that suggestion offensive. After all, I was not just training workers, I was changing lives.

As I approach my 20th year I the college classroom, I have completely re-thought my role and purpose: my job is to prepare students for work. I don’t say that with defeat, regret, or resignation. I say that with confidence and relief. This realization is actually liberating. I now clearly understand why we are all here together in the classroom and on campus, and that has helped me focus on what is important. For most of my students, I am preparing them for jobs and professions that do not yet exist. That challenges me to figure out what knowledge and skills are important regardless of where they find themselves working and living.

Rather than making me bitter or resentful, my newly-found sense of role and purpose is making me a better teacher. I now ask myself, “How does this assignment, activity, or assessment help my students become successful professionals?” If I don’t have a good answer, I stop doing it, and find something that does answer the question.

As an English composition and literature professor, my classes are now more practical and purpose driven. For example, my first-year composition students spend their semester learning academic writing by exploring their intended profession or exploring a field of interest. They write five essays over four months exploring this profession or field. If, after the first two papers, they express boredom or disinterest, it gives me the opening to ask, “If you can’t stay interested in this field for two months, how will you last 30 years?”

In many cases, students realize quickly they are not well-suited for the career of field they are working toward. It’s better to find that out now than to work four-to-six more years chasing a dream that will likely be a big disappointment. This way, they can alter course early and head toward a field where they are more likely to find personal and professional satisfaction.

In my literature classes, I select iconic poems, plays, and fiction that my students are likely to encounter professionally as symbols, metaphors, and allusions. Knowledge of literature is intellectual capital that may determine who is in and who is out of the inner circle. I tell them that the most successful professionals are often well educated and may make reference to literary characters and titles and use quotes from great works to illustrate a point.

In my classes, my students are made to find connections between the literary themes, and characters they are reading and the issues, conflicts, they will encounter as working professionals. That way, they see value in what I am asking them to do, and I get better engagement from them. Also, if a co-worker or boss says, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!” I want my students to know if they have been complimented or insulted.

My new philosophy of teaching has only subtly changed what my students see, but it has fundamentally changed every choice I make for their time with me. As a teacher, I try to be the type of boss I would want to work for. I see my students as young, new employees I am responsible for mentoring. If I had created a meme for “English Professor” in 1994, and I was going to create a new one today, only the first panel would change. Now, “What I think I do,” matches, “What I know I do.”