With Whom Will I Teach The Children?

For Bertram Michael Hunter: Teacher, Colleague, Brother

I keep thinking I hear your voice in this place —
Not words, exactly, but the resonance that is exclusively yours here.
I always know when you’re around a corner or on the next flight of stairs,
Because I can hear your bass booming in conversation.
It doesn’t matter how quietly you think you’re speaking,
I always know you’re there …

But now you’re not
And I miss you indescribably.
The kids miss you, too;
they ask for you every day.

Because you respect them
Because you challenge them
Because you listen to them
Because you won’t take their nonsense.

I understand why you can’t come back/shouldn’t come back/mustn’t come back …
But your empty chair, clean desk, quiet phone make my heart ache.
With whom will I teach the children?

Grading the history tests made me cry.
Everyone thought it was because our students did so poorly.
It was that, too, but really, I was missing you.
Your humor
Your honor
Your power
Your integrity in the face of a system that totally lacks it.

I understand why you can’t come back/shouldn’t come back/mustn’t come back…
But your empty chair, clean desk, quiet phone make my heart ache.
With whom will I teach the children?

I keep thinking I hear you calling me, “Ummi, is that you?”
Reading me, “Don’t even try it, Miss Honey-One.”
Encouraging me, “OK, Miss-get-her-Masters-go-right-back-to-school-with-a-baby-to-take-care-of-and-gotta-get-all-A’s!”
Teasing me, “G’head and work that second job, girl.”

Again and again, the students say,
“I’m doing this because Bert told me to, that’s why.”
‘Nuff said.
They quote you like World Book, Wikipedia and their favorite rap artists.
They look to you for guidance and a reflection of themselves.
They see you as hope for what they might become.

I understand why you can’t come back/shouldn’t come back/mustn’t come back …
But your empty chair, clean desk, quiet phone make my heart ache.
With whom will I teach the children?

R. Ummi Modeste


© R. Ummi Modeste 2019

<strong>Rhea Ummi Modeste</strong>
Rhea Ummi Modeste

R. Ummi Modeste is proud to be both a native of Brooklyn, New York, and a graduate of the same New York City public school system in which she now teaches. Ummi is a college advisor and teacher at City-As-School High School, a unique alternative high school. She is an alumna of LaGuardia High School for Music and the Arts, Performing Arts Division, where she majored in Drama. Ummi earned her BA from Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY, her MSEd from Hunter College in Manhattan and completed the American Sign Language/English Interpreter Education Program at LaGuardia Community College with a 4.0 GPA. Ever the student, Ummi recently earned a second Bachelor’s Degree in Human Services/American Sign Language Interpreting from Empire State College of the State University of New York, where she is also an adjunct professor of educational studies.

In addition to her full-time job at City-As-School, Ummi is an active member of the Breadloaf Teacher Network, an international group of teachers who strive to provide innovative and engaging ways for their students to become stronger readers and writers. Every summer, she is one of the facilitators of the Andover Breadloaf Writing Workshop (ABL), a two-week professional development workshop held in Andover, MA, that focuses on social justice work through literacy. The program helps urban teachers find the writers within themselves, in order to do the same for their students. Concurrent with the teachers’ workshop, ABL also hosts a workshop for students from the neighboring school district in Lawrence, MA, where the majority of ABL teachers are based. ABL teachers are proud to have breathed new life into that struggling school district. ABL provides professional development for teachers and workshops for students in cities all over the US and has also held international conferences for teachers and students in Karachi, Pakistan; Nairobi, Kenya; and most recently, in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. 

A founding member of the group, East Brooklyn Poets (EBP), Ummi seeks to create opportunities for herself and her friends to grow in their own creativity and share it with others. EBP has performed in Brooklyn, Harlem, Lawrence and Andover. Its members are always looking for a chance to facilitate workshops, coach other performers and work with young writers. She gives honor to the memory of fellow founding members and dear friends, Tray Jackson and Keith “Just Sayin” Richards.

During the solitary time created by the COVID shutdown, Ummi published her first book, Because I Knew, an anthology of poems written over the course of many years. In it she reflects on her identity as a Black woman, a mother and a child of the Diaspora. Because I Knew is published by Muse City Press, and is available through The Book Patch Bookstore.

Ummi is the last of four children; her sister Wendi Alexis Modeste was an internationally recognized speaker on behalf of People Living With AIDS/HIV; her brother Keith is a retired stagehand and gifted photographer; brother Leon Adrian is a veteran coach, teacher and recently retired athletic director at Phillips Academy in Andover. Ummi’s mother, Daisy R. Modeste, was also an educator until the day she died, and her father, Leon E. Modeste, MSW, became a college professor at Albany State University (ASU) in Albany, GA, after retiring from many years of social justice work at The New York Diocese of the Episcopal Church, Manpower Foundation and The Urban League. He retired from ASU in 2009 at age 83, but continued to be a voice for social justice reform in Albany until his illness and death in 2017 at age 91.

Ummi is proud to be the mom of her daughter, Adunni, second mom to her “bonus baby”, her son, Tarence, loving mother-in-law of Jean Marie and Grammie to Nasir and Skyler. Photo: Melissa Beech

American Social History Project

B.Michael participated in an interactive teaching seminar sponsored by the Center for Media and Learning at the Graduate School and University Center of CUNY. During this April 1997 sessio, his offering was to demonstrate “how he concludes his unit on the Civil Rights Movement with blues and jazz music and lyrics.”

1997D17-american-social-history-project

Bread Loaf

B.Michael attended Bread Loaf, a life-changing summer program that braided his passions for learning, teaching and writing. He manifested a handful of poems (scroll to 1994) that are included on this site.

Below are a couple of B.Michael’s writing exercises from that summer.

1994G-ABLWW-practice-writing

And here, for the record, his final grade!

1994H24-bread-loaf-grade

The Future, Our Youth and the Virus

B.Michael and friend/sister/teacher Rhea Ummi Modeste team-taught a groundbreaking class on HIV/AIDS awareness at City-As-School High School. Here is a draft of their outline.

1993I29-HIV-awareness-class

City-As-School’s principal at the time visited — and was duly impressed by — one of the sessions and wrote a letter to B.Michael’s and Ummi’s files.

1993J26-principals-take-on-HIV-awareness-class

Rethinking Columbus

As a community activist and as a high school teacher at City-As-School, B.Michael sought to raise critical awareness about the significance of the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

Here is how he broke it down for students:

1992-Rethinking-Columbus-Course-Outline

How would B.Michael have taught the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower in 2020?