Fourteen students form a semicircle, discussing in detail the meaning of a poem by Pablo Neruda, “I Like When You Are Quiet.”
Witness the teaching of David Lyons. He lets them talk for 45 minutes, with hardly a pause, about the poet’s intentions toward a silent, mysterious beauty.
“What do you all think about the repetition of certain words, like ‘butterfly’ for example?” asks Abby Bekins, one of three girls leading the discussion in their AP literature class for juniors. “Does that signify anything to you?”
Melanie Williams is game. “The butterfly could be what the speaker associates with happiness,” she says.
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“He uses the butterfly as a reference to symbolize who she is,” ventures Maxwel Thompson. “In a sense the guy is like a cocoon for her, so she can’t really go anywhere.”
Yes, she’s like a butterfly that can’t fly, caged or cocooned, others agree.
“In her soul she knows she wants to be like a butterfly, but she feels she can’t emerge,” says Kristia Postema.
Lyons sits at his desk, smiling and typing notes about the discussion into his laptop. He appends this note for the three presenters: “The follow-up questions allowed the students to think more deeply.”
This talk of poetry, stanza-by-stanza analysis of simile and symbol, is why Lyons teaches. He loves to see young people come alive with the love of literature, grow into themselves and show what they know.
“If I’ve done my work in the fall, this can happen now,” he says of his year-long class, in which he has schooled students to analyze without him. “I’m convinced that it sticks. There’s a deeper resonance to the learning.”
How does it feel to see them throw their ideas back and forth like a volleyball? “It warms my heart,” he says.
AP Lit and Album Art
Lyons’ freewheeling teaching style and affection for students – he calls them “my loves” and “my darlings” – have made his classes popular in his five years at Kenowa High School. He taught for 20 years before that at Grand Rapids’ Creston High School, his alma mater. There, he taught honors and AP English, creative writing, and was a liaison with Davenport University in a pre-college engineering partnership.
‘The blessing of teaching is they come out of here knowing something about themselves, and they trust to share that with me.’ – English teacher David Lyons
He also plastered the walls floor to ceiling with record album covers – a mere smidgen of the more than 40,000 LPs (and counting) he and his brother, Kevin, have collected. He gave them away upon leaving Creston, when the school was closed.
Since coming to Kenowa in 2013, he has resumed his album-art decorating scheme with scores of covers from Willie Nelson, the Beatles and the Carpenters to the Kingston Trio, Gene Pitney and others his students probably have never heard of. Many were given to him by students and fellow faculty.
“My heart and soul’s on display any given day,” he says cheerfully of his pop-history decor.
He puts his heart into his teaching, too. His students notice, albums and all.
“It feels like not a classroom,” says Sean Lance, an AP lit student who also had Lyons for honors English last year. “You’re still learning, but … he’s teaching like you would in the real world.”
“He kind of treats the class like his family, like we’re all his children,” says Shane Bennett, who appreciates it when Lyons plays Eric Clapton.
That’s exactly how Lyons sees his students: as children, in the miraculous process of becoming young adults.
“You’ll fall in love with them, just as I did right off the bat,” he tells a reporter before his AP lit class. “They continue to be precious to me.”
Teaching as Ministry
Lyons is unmarried and has no children of his own. But he learned a lot about loving them from his father, Gene, and his late mother, Jean. Her advice to him was always, “Just love, and the rest will take care of itself.”
Raised in Grand Rapids from age 10, he graduated from Creston, received a BA in English from the University of Michigan and a master’s in education and engineering from Grand Valley State University. A lifelong Lutheran, he considered the ministry before deciding on teaching – which turned out to be his ministry.
For him, the classroom is not just about teaching “Jane Eyre,” “Heart of Darkness” and “Wide Sargasso Sea.” It’s about teaching tolerance and respect through story, that “humans are humans are humans.”
Most marvelous, for him, is helping students discover who they are.
“The blessing of teaching is they come out of here knowing something about themselves, and they trust to share that with me,” Lyons says in a gentle but energetic voice. “There’s such good and such promise in each of them.
“Some of them haven’t had that hymn sung to them before they met me.”
Love Comes First
Junior Allison Klimek likes that hymn, and the support Lyons provides for student-led discussions such as with the Neruda poem. Summing up what kind of teacher he is, she simply says, “Great.”
Why great? “He teaches in a way that makes you want to read and want to learn more about it.”
Lyons blends high expectations with empowering students while letting them know he cares, says Principal Brett Zuver.
“He holds students accountable and they feel pride in that,” Zuver says. “They don’t want to let him down.”
As Lyons sees it, it’s not his job to control students, but to help them grow into “the person they are supposed to be.”
“Let me see that in them, honor it, nurture it,” he says, then harks back to his mother’s advice: “What you have to do is love them, and let them be.”