As professional development for my teaching self, today I will run the Boston Marathon.
Wait, I teach expository writing. Be precise. I will participate in the Boston Marathon. I will begin the 26.2-mile course from Hopkinton to the finish line at one of my favorite places in the world, the Boston Public Library. Okay, barring war, pestilence or famine here in the 617 area code, I am cautiously optimistic that I will present my bib about 6:30 a.m. today, No. 21,734, to the ID checker and board a bus from the Boston Common out to Hopkinton.
My inspiration is Kathryn Mapstone, a history professor at Bunker Hill Community College, where I teach College Writing I. A few years ago, I heard that Kathryn was taking high diving lessons. Once in a while, she explained, she tries to remind herself how many students feel coming back to college as adult students. Terrified, just as Professor Mapstone did, looking down, down, down to the swimming pool below. I don’t do terror well.
A semester, though, stretches out over the same four-month stretch as training for a marathon. Just as my students may have thought college impossible, many lifelong friends agreed that a marathon could be impossible for me. I’d never run more than five miles. On my first 1.9 mile JFK Street-Eliot Bridge loop along the Charles River 11 months and about two weeks ago, well, I didn’t stop to walk more than a dozen times.
Finding the time to train for a marathon is at odds with one job as I have, let alone the two or three my students hold down. Finding the time for something that is probably impossible anyway? Dozens of students have told me that’s just how they feel.
I wheezed and ran and procrastinated throughout the spring and summer. In October, I finished 4,623rd in the Staten Island Half Marathon. I didn’t look behind me to see if that was dead last. From his tone of voice, the announcer at the finish line was plenty ready to go home. A real spot in the Boston Marathon requires having run a marathon faster than I would drive a car.
In November, I found a spot on a charity team, for Access Boston,  an organization that helps students like mine at Bunker Hill Community College through the cultural minefields and booby traps in the Common Application and financial aid forms on the way to enrolling in a four-year college. For every dollar spent, Access finds $19 in financial aid. That’s a cause an M.B.A./expository writing professor can back. We had to raise $3,250. I’m at $5,100 so far. (Please click here to donate . Thank you.)
Access and several Boston education charities hired a coach, Rick Muir , who on December 4 met those of us running for the group for our first Saturday training run. That morning I saw how off my pedagogy had been. I’d been starting each semester with candid remarks about how tough completing a community college course is.
With what I thought was commendable honesty, I just said that the world doesn’t expect community college students to succeed. I explained, then, what we had to do to complete the semester. My intention was that we’d face these difficulties together. Instead, I fueled their despair. At the end of the semester last spring, an excellent student, a Navy medical corpsman in Iraq, told me he’d almost quit school after that first class. “After seven years, I was finally coming back to school. I was so excited and proud to be there. Then, that talk of yours. I was so discouraged,” he said.
I had made expository writing Mistake No. 1. I hadn’t given any thought to the audience. Well, I had if the audience was Denzel, to lure him into playing me in the film. I apologized to that student and to the class.
I let Rick Muhr teach me how to run a marathon. “I’ve been doing this for 13 years. I have coached thousands of charity runners. I know how to do this. One run at a time. You will finish the marathon,” Muhr said. Shame on me. Marathon runners know the difficulty ahead, just as community college students do. Who needs affirmation of the difficulty? How are we going to make it?
I cribbed Rick’s message at the start of this semester. “I have done this before. I know what I am doing. One assignment at a time. When stuff happens, let me know. I won’t let you down. Stick with me, and you will be a better writer by May,” I said. I repeat this message, just as Rick Muhr has done for me. Teaching my students with a lot more encouragement, one assignment at a time. I’ve always e-mailed students to build connections. This semester, I am texting, too. So far, so good. The students keep returning, one class at a time.
To my colleague, Professor Mapstone, I’ll see you Tuesday to thank you. I’m not going high diving. As professional development for teaching at community college, I can recommend the Boston Marathon.
As to further personal development and the eternal pursuit of knowledge –
Training Music: John Lee Hooker, on the downbeat, pounds out the rhythm for a 15-minute-mile, the best pace I can hope for. I made a playlist of everything in my library that could possibly inspire me. “Goodnight, Irene,” by the Weavers or Leadbelly had to go. Waltz time enables limping. J.S. Bach’s Motets work, even at 10 degrees with wind in January for a 10-mile run.
My iPod is on shuffle, so I don’t know what’s coming next. The soundtrack of "Cool
Runnings," the tale of the Jamaicans as unlikely as bobsledders as I am at marathon running, made me laugh. Marathon training is Rolling Stones, not the Beatles. “Jumping Jack Flash” brought an air-guitar flourish as I crested Heartbreak Hill at the 21-mile practice run two weeks ago. The runner I crashed into when I spread my arms and spun around didn’t care that I had no choice. Fred Astaire was singing “Cheek to Cheek.”
The Wall: So far, I haven’t hit “The Wall,” only a cheeseburger. That was at an upscale lunch spot in Wellesley, where I stopped to refill my water bottles. The 21-mile run is an annual event three weeks before the Marathon that the Boston Athletic Association sponsors for the charity teams. At my plodding pace, the runners were back home and the regular water stops packed up by the time I hit Mile 12. I had planned for this by packing my own water. Two guys in that restaurant had the best cheeseburgers I have ever seen, ever smelled. Who’d know if I stopped for lunch? I had planned for this, too. I’d left my phone in the car so I couldn’t call anyone for a ride. I’d left my wallet, too. No cheeseburger. I returned to the road.
Troubling Thoughts: Runners litter. All winter, on Commonwealth Avenue, on Beacon Street, all the way from Hopkinton to Heartbreak Hill, paper cups, energy-gel wrappers, half-full bottles of Gatorade tossed in snow banks and onto people’s lawns. These are routes with plenty of trash cans. Runners mow down mothers with strollers and other runners. Runners play chicken with senior citizens. I’ve had many Groucho Marx moments -- Do I want to be part of this club I’d gotten into? I deleted a draft of an essay with my proposal to cancel the Boston Marathon, out of shame. About a month ago, I wrote Boston Athletic Association (BAA) President Joann E. Flaminio. Registered runners have been receiving floods of e-mails from the BAA. How about a note to us all to be courteous? Wasn’t the point of amateur athletics to inspire, not to litter, the world? No reply. Today, I will stay hydrated and I hereby pledge to toss all the cups and wrappers into a trash can.
My Shirt: Access gave singlets for the race, those flimsy shirts with no shoulders or sleeves. It’s too cold. I want shoulders and sleeves, long sleeves. For the past few weeks, I’ve been filling in the white spaces. Access, my team, Bunker Hill Community College, Inside Higher Ed and more room to fill. I asked Garry Trudeau if I could use the Doonesbury character Toggle, the veteran with Traumatic Brain Injury who has enrolled in community college. Of course. Why not the Andover Shop? Charlie Davidson, the owner, has a Bunker Hill student working there. The shop, a narrow alley of shirts and ties and suits and bolts of cloth, is my Olivander's. That’s where Harry Potter and the wizards buy their wands, where the wand finds the wizard. Trying to educate the poor, I face plenty of Voldemorts. A decent necktie is what I can wield.
Trivia: Who was executive producer of the classic running film, "Chariots of Fire"? I've watched the film five times since December training began. Answer: Dodi Fayed.
Race Diet: Marathon runners are data geeks. They know about pace and hills and weather and times and distances. And diet. My head shut down when a diet expert, after 45 minutes, said, “And then, put a handful of leafy greens into your smoothie.” She asked for questions and, poor soul, looked at me. “This is just too much information. My life is a testament to what one man can achieve on Mint Milanos alone. Wouldn’t that be O.K. for this?” “Well, if you want to die of a heart attack at mile ten,” she said.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Friday, though, I came to my senses. Mint Milanos have brought me through all adversity for at least 25 years. I had no plans for any for this great challenge. I e-mailed Pepperidge Farm with my plight. How about Mint Milanos at the water stops for the marathon. Geri Allen, Pepperidge Farm Manager of Corporate and Brand Communications (versus the president of the Boston Athletic Association), replied right away, “Unfortunately, it would be difficult to fulfill your request by having Mint Milano cookies at the water stops along the Marathon route for Monday. We would however, like to send you a case of Mint Milano cookies. If you could reply with your mailing address that would be great.” I sent her the address at school, and I’ll share the cookies with my students. With Ms. Allen’s blessing, we ironed an image of a bag of Mint Milanos onto my shirt.
Why bother? Friday evening an e-mail brought news of another donation to my run. With no request from me, a student from my midnight class at Bunker Hill Community College last spring had contributed.
Hi Prof. Sloane,
I am doing well. Still struggling a bit English but I will make it. I had to make a donation to the Access Boston cause, so many students need the help.
Good Luck with your run.
For Patrick at least, I will finish the race today.
Wick Sloane is an end user of higher education.