An Award Winning Sam

I was standing at my computer. Which was propped on a wine box. A makeshift standing desk. Real classy.

This wine box came from My wife Katie has become something of a baker during this pandemic. And bakers need yeast. So I ordered yeast for her last week. The yeast arrived with a $100 voucher for $100 of free wine? Okay. I placed an order. Six bottles of wine for $23 that arrived at my house the next day? An alcoholic’s fantasy!

An alcoholic? I’m only kidding. I haven’t been drinking that much during this pandemic. A Bloody Mary here. A glass of wine there. Usually on a Friday night. I drink 1 or 2 and then I get tired. 40 is rough. And I don’t have my mother’s ability to put down a bottle of vodka in a single gulp. I should be thankful. Who needs those genes?

Anyway. I’m way off track here. As I wrote, I was standing at my computer. My propped-up computer. In my basement. I was wearing a tie. Dressed in my finery. Preparing to accept an award. Virtually.

Our new kitten Theo was chasing Yara. Yara was batting Theo with her mangy paw. I was doing my best to ignore them as the speaker started to introduce me.

“Professor Samuel Tanner is a…” the president of NCTE (The National Council of Teacher’s of English for the layperson) started to say. I was prepared to unmute my mic, start my video, and accept the award over Zoom. Suddenly, Theo came racing across the room. He brushed by my feet, slide across the floor, and wedged himself underneath a cabinet. Theo started to moan. He was stuck.

I hurried over to him. Started to pry him lose. He made the most awful sound I’ve ever heard a cat make. Had I just broken his neck?

I lifted the cabinet. Pictures and books went flying. Theo bolted underneath the couch. Was he wounded? No time to check. I ran back to my computer. Started my video.

“Thank you selection, Mr. President. And thank you selection committee,” I said. I was out of breath. “I just tried to save my cat’s life.”

And that, my friend, might be the strangest opening line to an acceptance speech in the 111 year history of NCTE.


Theo was fine. Thank God. I can’t imagine telling Samson or Solomon that our new kitten was dead. That would have been too much. And my acceptance speech, though a little frenetic, was fine.

And with that speech, I have won the 2020 David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in the Teaching of English. See?

Talk about highfalutin. Or is it highfalutin’? Regardless, I’m still in shock. The list of previous winners are minor celebrities in my world. People who, for the most part, have done important and serious teaching and research in the field of English Education.

My recent book was selected for the award. I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised. The book tells the story of a pretty serious teaching project that asked a group of white high school students to think hard about and grapple with whiteness and creating a play. Asked me to do the same thing.

Polarized American politics aside, it seems like important work for white people to get smarter about our whiteness. Whether we lean to the left or to the right. And though the word whiteness usually gets people all fired up, I think my book does a nice job of representing a teaching project that, more than anything else, brought an eclectic group of high school kids and adults together. And, once we came together, we worked and thought hard about serious and difficult material.

I think our country could do with projects that bring us together these days. Here’s a book that tells the story of people who tried to do that: Whiteness, Pedagogy, and Youth in America.


So I’m an award-winning Sam Tanner now. For a book. About something I care about. I’m self-effacing to a fault. But I’m trying to allow myself to enjoy this a little bit. Feels nice to to have public validation for things I work very hard at. Teaching, writing, and thinking. And connecting with others.

It was sad to accept this award from my basement. If there weren’t a pandemic, I would have flown out to Colorado. Attended an awards ceremony with all sorts of smart and interesting people. Stood on a stage and given a little speech about my work. People would have clapped. I would have blushed. It would’ve been cool. Instead, I tried to save my cat’s life, spoke into a screen for a few minutes, and went to bed.

As the wacky Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: So it goes.

Theo is alive and well. I won a pretty cool award. Maybe more people will read my work. These are wins, folks. Pandemic be damned.

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