A teacher’s investment pays off for community

Ellie Wright (left) discusses the impact her First Baptist English teacher, Robin Gramling (right), has had on her classmates.

Tenth-grade English teacher Robin Gramling likes to begin the first day of class every year with a story — one we’ve all probably heard before. It goes something like this:

A rich man preparing for a long journey divides his wealth among three servants, giving them each a measure of gold according to his own ability. Two servants put their money to work and turn a profit. The third buries his treasure in the ground. When the man returns, he rewards the first two servants for their competence and loyalty. He rebukes and disowns the third.

“You wicked and slothful servant,” the man says. “You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?”

Then he casts him out into the darkness to a place filled with “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

This story, known as the “Parable of the Talents” from Matthew: 25, is the perfect metaphor for Gramling’s class — minus the part about biblical vengeance. For the past four years, Gramling has given each of her sophomore English students at First Baptist School in downtown Charleston $100 out of her own pocket. And in return, she tasks them with doubling the money — or more — for a nonprofit of their choice by the end of the school year.

Since she started teaching in 2011, her students have donated more than $51,000 to charity, including $26,000 this year alone. The money, raised through bake sales, lemonade stands, and foot races the students organize themselves, has benefitted local nonprofits, like One80 Place and Lowcountry Orphan Relief, and national ones, like Salvation Army and Wounded Warriors.

“In English literature, what you’re doing all the time is exploring themes,” she explained. “And all those themes have to do with exploring the human condition. What do people struggle with? What breaks them? What transforms them? What do they live or die for?”

And what better way to explore the human condition, than to confront it — and take responsibility for it — in your own community?

Gramling is the “hard teacher” at First Baptist. Among her colleagues and students, she’s known for her impatience for mediocrity and demand for excellence. Upperclassmen (with a hint of irony) are fond of warning incoming freshmen and sophomores about her unorthodox class.

“I thought she was crazy,” recalled junior Alyssa Suggs, when Gramling handed each student in her a class a crisp $100 in an envelope. “My first thought was, ‘How does she have this money and she’s still teaching us?’ ”

“My mom found it in my drawer,” said sophomore Grace Arredondo. “She said, ‘Where did you get this hundred-dollar bill?’ ”

Melissa Clark, the English department chair at First Baptist, called Gramling “the best thing that’s ever happened to our department.”

“She raised the bar on every level,” Clark said. “Our mission is with a Christian perspective and what she did is she brought her faith and her virtues and her understanding of virtue, and she used that as the foundation to teach literature and writing.”

Gramling is also a woman who could do “anything she wanted to do,” as Clark says. “She doesn’t need this job.” Her husband is real estate developer Ben Gramling. They live in a beautiful house near Waterfront Park with a view of the Charleston Harbor. They were high school sweethearts in Inman, a rural town with fewer than 2,500 people. Gramling and her husband donate to several charities on a regular basis, but Gramling wanted to do more than write checks. When a part-time teaching job opened at First Baptist, Gramling wondered how she could use that opportunity to continue to help her community while inspiring others to do so, too.

“There’s no satisfaction in just possessing something or owning or having,” she said. “Everything you have is grace and a gift. Basically, at the end of the day, you’re just entrusted with it for a short period of time. It’s not yours forever... If you spread it out, the better off you are, and so is everyone else.”

For many of her students at this private South of Broad school, where tuition runs about $9,000 a year, these are tough lessons to learn. In class, Gramling often draws connections between what they’re reading — like “Cry the Beloved Country,” a novel about apartheid in South Africa, and “Night,” a memoir about the Holocaust — and current events, such as police shootings in North Charleston and Ferguson and mass atrocities in Syria. Through her lessons, her students are forced to reckon with poverty and disadvantage. Through their service projects, they cross paths with people they never would have otherwise met.

“We’re all so privileged,” said sophomore Abby Butts. “Then we see some man get shot in a video or get his head chopped off by ISIS ... and we want to go out and do something.”

Clark characterizes Gramling’s teaching philosophy in one word: paradox.

“What she wants to show her students is the paradoxical nature of life as seen through literature,” Clark said. “One of the greatest paradoxes is the Christian idea that by giving everything you have to others and serving, you’ll find joy. And we live in a culture that says the more you acquire, the more you have, the more successful you are and the happier you’ll be.”

And Gramling is a testament to that. If money is the measure of success, she says she’s personally failed by those standards, having worked only as a home-school teacher to her own children and church choir director before coming to First Baptist. But those aren’t the standards she lives by, or the standards she’s tried to instill in her students.

“They were experiencing something for the first time and gaining the realization that they didn’t have it before and it didn’t come out of a book,” Gramling said. “It came from looking in the eyes of someone else and recognizing their little could make a difference.”

At the end of the first day of class, Gramling likes to tell her students another parable, also from the Book of Matthew. It’s the one about the mustard seed:

“It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown, it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

Then, to complete the metaphor, she opens a jar of whole yellow mustard seeds and before the bell rings, sprinkles them over her students.

“My job is to throw the seed,” she said. “I’m not responsible for where it lands.”

Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.