“Only the hero himself knows the full triumph of his story” –Errol Duncan
I just found out Monday that Mr. Duncan, the founding English teacher at our high school, died this past weekend. Thankfully, one of my friends recalled this, one of many classic Mr. Duncan quotes, which couldn’t be more appropriate, in my opinion.
When Mr. Duncan left our school, I had the honor of being asked to write a reference for him last Fall, which I feel sums it up:
I am a colleague of Errol Duncan. I taught 9th grade with Mr. Duncan, where we worked closely together as a collaborative team, along with the other 9th grade teachers. As the founding team of high school teachers, we worked together on a daily basis to mold the atmosphere and structures of the high school.
Although I never had the opportunity to observe Mr. Duncan in his classroom, I have always had the impression that Mr. Duncan cares deeply about urban education. He was always the foremost in our 9th grade meetings in bringing a data-driven, student-centric mindset. He took great interest in the holistic well-being of the students, rather than restricting his concern only to their performance in his own class. He discounted no student, and he lobbied strenuously for students to receive social services, such as counseling, to address their needs beyond academics. Mr. Duncan’s homeroom, with which he spent an hour and a half of each day, had a familial culture, and they consistently outperformed the rest of the grade in all subjects. I attribute much of this success to the rigorous expectations Mr. Duncan held for his students. He spoke to them frankly about what they needed to do to be successful, healthy individuals.
Whenever I visited Mr. Duncan’s room outside of class time, it was evident, even without students around, that he used a multi-faceted teaching approach. A wide variety of books could be seen on the desks around his room, as well as varied tasks for his students to accomplish. I often overheard students talking outside of class time about the books they were reading in his English class. In addition, Mr. Duncan is a reflective educator. He talked often about the strategies he was applying to differentiate for his diverse learners. He spoke with pride about the student achievement in his room.
Mr. Duncan also took great personal interest in supporting me as a first-year teacher. He provided me with crucial advice on multiple occasions, and advocated on my behalf when he felt as though I needed additional resources to be successful in my classroom.
From my perspective, Mr. Duncan brought a wealth of knowledge and energy to our new school. I am proud to have had the opportunity to have taught with him.
I met Mr. Duncan the first day I showed up to the school. I had moved to Baltimore literally the day prior, and Mr. Duncan and I had been assigned to teach the two classes of the Summer Bridge program. Much of my original knowledge about being an educator came from him. And if anybody had my back on a consistent basis, it was Mr. Duncan. There were several days where I sat in my room, shell-shocked and exhausted from the days events, trying to hold myself together while he talked me into coming back the next day. And when he was suddenly relieved of his classroom duties, he took it upon himself to be the teaching coach I never had when I was absolutely drowning trying to prepare my students for the algebra HSA. I think there’s a very good chance that his advocacy on my behalf saved my job.
In general, the first year at my school was war. Most of our ninth graders hailed from middle schools infamous for being among the worst in the city. In the beginning, for the most part, there was nothing but the five of us teachers running the high school. During the school year, our upper school was a barebones operation, so everyone had to wear many hats. To our team, probably more than anything, Mr. Duncan was the sage. He had a way of stepping back to see the big picture, and the experience he brought was priceless. And none of us think it’s a coincidence that Mr. Duncan’s homeroom regularly outperformed every other homeroom, thereby setting the standard for the upper school to live up to.
Ever since Mr. Duncan left the school, I have very much missed the philosophical conversations we would have during my planning period or after school. I’m sad I never wrote down more of what Mr. Duncan said, because he had an incredible way with words, and he always had knowledge to drop. He was a British intellectual. Between his anecdotes, goofy Jamaican sayings, obscure literary allusions, and absolutely piercing metaphors, he had a way of communicating that was totally unique. Whenever he had a profound thought, he expressed it in prose, just like in the quote above. Most people didn’t understand what in the heck he was talking about, but in my estimation, he said more in one sentence than most people can say in five. I was considered the de facto Duncan translator. Sometimes, he would say something so outlandish, it would have me laughing so hard I would be in tears, but I’d be the only one laughing because no one else got it. He was absolutely brilliant, and listening to him speak was like reading a great book.
I can’t quite shake the concern that events of the past year contributed to Mr. Duncan’s untimely passing. I remember him being very shaken by his mother passing last June, and this was compounded by the drama that eventually led to him leaving our school, drama that, as I understand, continued until the end. It pains me that his contribution to our school has not been properly recognized or honored in the past or the present. Still, I know that Mr. Duncan didn’t put a lot of stock in accolades. Mr. Duncan was compassionate, but he also didn’t take any crap from anybody. He had ways of dealing with even our most challenging students. He spoke his mind and did what he believed was best for the children. When these students finally walk across the stage to get their diplomas in a couple of years, the work he did will be fully realized. I’m just said he won’t have the chance to see it.
But, in the minds of everyone who knew him, Mr. Duncan will always be a legend.