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

Michael Copperman | GOOD

TeacherReflects

This summer, Felicia and I emailed back and forth a couple times—I’d written her a letter for a transfer to USC, but she’d decided to stay here. She wrote me an email thanking me for the letter, and at the beginning of it she wrote: “Dear Mr. Mike (I feel I should call you that now)." It was a nice letter telling me about how she worked two jobs this summer trying to help her mother make rent, how badly she missed being in school. Yet I took issue with ‘Mr. Mike’—why was “Mike” coming from Felicia, whose calls of ‘Teacher!’ had punctuated my entire year. She replied the next day:

About calling you Mr. Mike: When I was in high school, most of the teachers and students didn’t have a close bond with one another. Jefferson was huge, and it was real real poor, and the classes were forty and fifty students to a class. The teachers rarely knew the students by name, and all the students just called their teachers, “Teacher.” You were the first instructor I had here, and it was a force of habit to call you, “Teacher.” It seemed to have made me feel more comfortable with you because you always found it so funny. But you weren’t like those teachers at Jefferson—you knew my name. You believed in me. So it seems only fair that I give you a name.

Thanks, Mr. Mike,

Felicia

America’s low-income schools are full of Felicia Jacksons. Bright, good kids—some loud and flamboyant, some quiet and scared. They must be seen, be named, and have their voices heard. They wait for opportunity and we must find a way to offer it to them.

Michael Copperman is a writer and novelist who teaches at the University of Oregon. This is his second essay for GOOD. Check out the first one here.

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