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A former grade-school teacher reflects on his Teach for America days

Michael Copperman | GOOD

TeacherReflects

Consider the example of a student I taught during the fall and spring of last year—let’s call her Felicia Jackson. She was about six feet tall, a lanky young black woman who seemed all knees and elbows, except for a proud, upturned chin. She favored gold bracelets and chains and hoop earrings, so that a musical jangling sound accompanied her every movement. She pulled her cornrows back high and tight, which gave her a long brow that seemed almost aristocratic—this is, until she spoke. That was when it came, the rush of words, chaotically staccato, at once assertive and urgent. The first day, for example, her arm shot to the ceiling in response to my suggestion that my students call me “Mike":

“What this is ’bout calling somebody who teach at the University of Oregon some Mr. Mike or what-all ever? That ain’t respectful or right and don’t make no sense. I’m just gone call you teacher. Teacher.”

I spluttered out something like yes.

It wasn’t that Felicia was unaccomplished—she was a Gates Minority Scholar, former valedictorian of Jefferson High School, the poorest and blackest high school in Portland. Yet she had had a lot of what she called “white teacher’s help” with the essays that had gotten her into the prestigious Gates program and the University of Oregon. And she was, overall, rather unrestrained. The day we discussed an essay about Native American mascots and team names, she stood up in the middle of discussion and interrupted me mid-sentence to declare:

“Stop! Teacher, stop! Now all y’all listen.” She went to explain that we didn’t know a thing about being Indian. She was half Cherokee on her mother’s side, and had stayed a summer with her uncle out on the reservation. And did we have any idea what it was like in a place in the middle of nowhere with some ugly little trees, a bathtub standing in a dirt yard by a rusted out pickup truck, and a house half-falling down, walls bowing toward the middle and a tin roof with holes? Did we know why her uncle had a bumper sticker saying, “If you’re Indian, you’re in trouble."

I suggested to Felicia that she knew something about something—and that here was the root of an argument, the personal example that offered a stake in the discourse, that all she had to learn to do was write it. And I would argue that while there was little standard grammar in Felicia’s speech, and though working through the grammatical issues without eliminating her voice took time and effort, she made up whatever deficits with a tremendous amount of style. She had a voice that could be heard. She also had a long way to go to succeed at the University of Oregon—but when she saw, in conference after conference with me, that I cared, and that I wanted her only to do her best, she committed.

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