I still remember the Spring class four or five years ago when I taught Adan. That sunlit, high-windowed brick building I haven’t taught in since, boiling with afternoon, already loud with the murmur of a whole class talking even before I entered—not a great sign, that much noise, which meant no initial politeness, but likely antics and volume. So many faces, in every shade of brown, but rising above the din, from the back of the room, loud laughter, two deep male voices. Two towers, six feet or above—two young black men from Portland, slouched in the back chairs, still taller and easy in their camaraderie, bragging and joking, showing out a little. And maybe if I wasn’t myself, and didn’t get excited to teach black students, who remind me of the years I taught in the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta and and why I teach today, I might have worried (maybe, if I wasn’t myself, I might have thought trouble); instead, I lit up.
The lighter-skinned young man stood from his chair at the back and stepped to the front of the room, turned his cap from backwards to forwards, and held out a hand.
“Mr. Copperman,” he said. “Just wanted to introduce myself. My sister told me about you, said I had to take your class.”
“Your sister is–?”
He told me her name, and I grinned—one of my recent favorite students, hard-working, diligent, bright, near-perfect in her attention to detail. Not from a lot of privilege; not many generations out, a big family of West African immigrants; a strong family, as she’d written about it, determined to seize the American dream. “Oh, great! Your sister was wonderful.”
He shook his head emphatically. “I promise, I am NOT my sister. Not wonderful. Just me, Adan.”
He excelled in that Spring class, him and his friend who loved playing ball so much he wrote his identity essay about it. Adan, well—he had a lot to say, but wasn’t sure how to write about it. He always liked to have the last word, a little sly, always funny, written argument not natural to him, anymore than was my insistence that he write about what he actually thought, and think clearer– and explain why in terms of the evidence and ideas he was exposed to, exegized in terms of the experiences of his life and education rendered concretely and specifically.
I can still hear Adan’s voice filling echoing off those bare tile walls and floors, telling a story or putting forth an opinion, his easy laugh that often followed, loud and full of joy and celebration. Still, he had two modes: one public, performing for peers, and another quieter, more contemplative and earnest self that I saw one-on-one. Always in private—his true self, he told me once, his true struggles, those were for him to sort himself.
Last Spring on a Saturday night downtown, I barely recognized him, so grown and big, so adult. Collared shirt. Dress shoes, slacks. Some post-ceremony or show event, judging from his peers.
He held out a hand, shook it, put his other hand over mine. “Sorry, didn’t want to interrupt you. But I wanted to tell you that it matters how you teach students of color here in those classes. It mattered to me. I could have dropped out that first year, but your class made me want to keep on. It hasn’t been easy for me here, but I’m almost done. I want to thank you. Wanted you to know.”
I would like to say I talked with him, found out how his undergrad had gone, learned what had happened that made him say things had not been easy, what had him still in Eugene a year late for four-year graduation, but I took him at his word—he had taken longer, had some hiccups in performance or path, and persevered. A common story for the students I teach, who drop out of college at 2-3 times the rate of majority students. A common story for a young black man in any institution of higher education in America, succeeding despite the whole world’s assumptions and every institutional barrier imaginable—that is to say, common for the exceptional exception, a young black man defeating the odds to make good on the possibilities of college education. The kids who make it to me have come through a great deal, and remain vulnerable, what should be small bumps on the road in their careers—a rough quarter academically, a breakup with a significant other, health issues, the loss of a family member—made serious by their lack of resources and support. Adan was right—I was busy, distracted with the people I’d come out with, uncomfortable a little, as I can be, to encounter students in a social space. Though I know better, this time I didn’t take the time to ask.
Educators are gearing up even now for the new school year and new classes of students. Once again, they will be asked to perform impossible magic: to remake the world, be at once the engine of opportunity and equality and inspiration. When we talk about public education, we too often reduce the teacher and student to numbers, ciphers of achievement percentage, or we simplify to outcomes: mere failure, or the ever-brighter future. Here, in this political season of cynical and bully and manipulative rhetoric, you probably thought you were reading an happy story about educational uplift. Instead, this is the summer of Charlotte, Milwaukee, Baton Rouge, Cleveland, Chicago—the summer of persistent tragedy. And Adan—he passed last week. The circumstances are not mine to share, nor will I ever really know the struggles he faced alone. He was a young black man in America, and that is not an easy growing up.
Another student of mine who Adan mentored said, in his eulogy, that he couldn’t believe how kind Adan was to everyone—that he would give the shirt off his back to you if you needed it. I remember his easy grin, the sound of his laugh, how he would say something ridiculous to elicit laughter and then his voice would get serious as he kept on, as he talked over the reaction to his own joke, because he had something to say, and he wanted to say it right and better. And me– I wanted to hear him say it.
I still do. I miss his voice—he had much to say. He did more for me than I did for him. And so I want to do for him what he did for me, too late and too little: Thank you, Adan, for being as you were. Just Adan. Students like you are the reason I teach.
Photo: Getty Images