Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.
I feel incredibly proud of the 10 or so young men who participated in the after-school weight lifting program that I supervised in my fourth year at the Brooklyn Arts Academy. I started this club after the track team I helped organize in my second year proved unsustainable, but it did not attract students who were consistently dedicated at first. Perhaps the success of the program in my fourth year could be explained by the fact that the students who got involved were all senior boys who had known me since they were sophomores.
My last class ended around 2:30 p.m. and I would head over to our small weight room shortly thereafter. The boys were usually waiting for me by the door. The room consisted of three treadmills, four stationary bikes, an area for bench pressing and squatting, and another area with dumbbells for arm curls and rows. We could also do pull-ups, dips, and sit-ups. I generally divided the boys into groups of three or four and had them work through a few different stations. Sometimes I would lift with the kids, and other times I would watch them while I ran on the treadmill. By about halfway through the year, I knew I could trust them to lift safely, put the weights back when they were finished, and generally encourage one another.
But it wasn’t always this easy. When the boys started with me, many had never lifted a weight before. They assumed they were strong, maybe because they could hold their own in a fight. So it was a revelation for them to discover that the strength required to lift heavy weights had to be built over time. (I always enjoyed the first few days of the program when the students discovered that I, at about 5’8” and 135 pounds, could easily out-lift almost all of them). At first, the students just wanted to pick up any weights they could find and do some exercise. I had to teach them a systematic and disciplined approach to building muscle.
I started the boys on a routine that had them completing three sets of six repetitions for a given weight. When they could do that, they were allowed to move to seven reps, and then eight. Once they could do three sets of eight reps, they were allowed to add more weight and go back down to six reps. In this way, the students were able to witness their own improvement over time. For some of my more insecure students, the growth in their self-confidence as they gained strength was evident.
What I liked most about the weightlifting club, though, was that it became a safe space for my boys to figure out how to become men. We had a rule that they were allowed to lift without their shirts on so long as the door to the weight room remained closed to other students (who sometimes popped in looking for friends) and they wiped down the equipment after using it. It was amusing for me to see the teenaged students checking themselves out in the mirror.
The boys were all friends, and it was great to watch them encourage one another. They often did pushups after bench-pressing, and would form a circle and take turns doing 10 pushups at a time. The physical education teacher had also set up a wall to record personal records, and so the boys would try to get into the 155 club, the 175 club or even the 205 club (to get his name on the wall, the student had to do four reps at that weight). When someone was making an attempt to get into one of the clubs, all the boys would urge him on, and slap him on the back if he made it.
I used the relationships I built with the boys through this program as leverage to pressure them to show similar dedication and pride in other aspects of their lives. On one occasion, the boys had skipped the club in order to participate in a street fight involving one of their friends. One of them was arrested. I talked to them about it afterwards, and let them know that I wasn’t proud. The boys protested that they were just sticking up for a friend, and I acknowledged their loyalty but expressed my view that there were other ways resolve conflicts. I did not expect the students to agree with me, but wanted them to at least hear another viewpoint. They respected me enough to listen.
On a different occasion, I knew that I had succeeded in creating a safe space for the boys to be themselves. It was on a day near the end of the school year when some students who’d graduated the year before came back to speak about their post-high school experience. That afternoon in the weight room, I noticed that one of my boys was crying. The four other boys who were there came over to him, and they huddled in the corner and had their arms around each other. I was alarmed and had no idea what was going on, but guessed it had to do either with the boy’s family or with his girlfriend. As one of the other boys walked out of the room to go get some tissues, I pulled him aside and asked what was going on. Oh, he’s just emotional because the knowledge that we’re all not going to be together next year is hitting him hard right now, he said matter-of-factly. My concern instantly melted into admiration. How cool, I thought, that a teenaged boy could let the tears flow and not worry about the judgment of his peers.
At the end of the year, I had a pizza party for the boys and talked about each one of them. I wrote them a letter and expressed my pride in having watched them grow-up. I reflected on how, through the medium of weightlifting, they had learned about dedication, work ethic, self-confidence, brotherhood and manhood. I expressed my hope that they would continue to apply these lessons to their future life endeavors.
At graduation, I made sure to find each one of my weightlifters and wish them luck. I’d found most of them, but was still looking for one particular student who had started working out with me way back when he was a sophomore and had joined the now-defunct track team. He was the student who I was probably the most proud of, because he had become one of the leaders of my club, a young man full of integrity that I could always rely on to hold down the fort if I had to step out of the room. When I finally did locate him that evening, he gave me a long hug. “Thank you, Mr. Lawrence,” was all he said.
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