Michael Copperman talks about the hope and rewards that come from teaching at-risk students.
For the last eight years, I have had the privilege of teaching low-income, first-generation, at-risk students of color writing at the University of Oregon. That meaningful work has supported a writing habit that was for a long time mostly aspirational apprenticeship to craft; in the last five years, I began to rise from slush and place the work of a memoir about the two years I taught in the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta. About a year ago, I found representation. I imagined that because I cared about kids not born into privilege, the right editor in New York might, too.
Gradually, my optimism failed this fall, as the leaves reddened and yellowed and browned and fell, and the clouds came and the rain settled in and winter brought nights of frost and snow. Editors at the big houses weren’t responding at all; when we were getting responses, it was without comment, a question of commercial viability. I remembered what a senior agent at one of the most prestigious houses told a junior agent who wanted to represent the book: “Nobody cares about Mississippi.”
And as the winter has deepened, clear cold bright days of heatless sun, the waiting has gotten hard and harder still. I’ve made some sacrifices for this job—the city I live in is provincial and small, demographically unfit for me—there is little to do, nobody to date, and all my friends leave town eventually. The energy I need each day to face these eighteen year-old kids and get them to buy in and speak and begin to think for themselves has gotten hard to summon. The stacks of essays to grade fill me with loathing. It has become a strain to persist, just to get through the week. Usually I love classroom discussion because I love the kids I get to teach, kids who have beaten the odds to make it to college and are often diamonds in the rough, not yet ready for college but full of raw potential, ability, and life experience. But by last Friday, I found my eyes creeping to the clock in each class, again and again; I was exhausted, just wanted to be done.
After teaching, I walked home through a light rain, sat in my apartment for a while with the television on; I went for a run, showered, ate, watched some shitty television. I live on the eleventh floor of a highrise apartment building, and below the lights of the town glittered, a circuit of shifting lights revealing other people were living and doing with purpose. Finally, I forced myself to walk to the downtown bars.
I ran into a group of acquaintances, had a drink and then a couple drinks trying to liven up my mood, and then tipsy, was dragged to Eugene’s version of a ‘dance club’, a place where the few people of color in town congregate as if consigned to a single room. As I stood at the dim bar examining the dance floor, prepared to be bored, I thought I recognized a Philipino girl with her hair pulled back with clips, and then thought the same of a black girl with her hair in tight, braided rows. And then I saw the two tall young black men with them, six-foot two or three or four, with their baggy pants and backward ball-caps, standing tall and confident with their arms crossed, the sort of young men who might get the Richard Sherman treatment at first glance for their swaggering, brazen otherness, for the way they took up space and occupied it with crossed arms. I recognized these young men, too—or at least, was pretty sure I’d taught them.
And then the girl with her hair in rows saw me, and smiled, and pointed me out to the group, and the Philipino girl, whose name I couldn’t quite remember, was skipping up and embracing me, asking me how I was doing and did I remember her from freshman year, and all I could recall was that she’d been raised by her maternal grandmother, who had told her to find a better life or else fail trying, which she’d written about in her identity essay; that, and how she, and all of them in this group, had been in a particularly rowdy class, a class of performers and clowns and outspoken, silly, loud, enthusiastic kids who had been particularly difficult and particularly fun in the late afternoon in spring years ago, at least three years ago, or hell, was it four? And by then the two young men made it over, towering over me, holding out their broad hands, which enveloped mine, and one of them, whose hair was braided and hung about his face, who I remembered had been the second in his family to take my class, an African immigrant family out of North Portland, a kid who’d written about how basketball had saved his life, whose older sister had written about how she feared for her brother, who was always getting in with the wrong crowd, seized my hand and took me by the arm and then the shoulder and said, “You were a great teacher. Thank you.”
His friend behind him in the Blazers hat grinned a little derisively, and I thought he was going to say something to cut the sentiment down to size, though he just shook his head, and suddenly I could see the two of them in the back of my classroom trading glances and jibes and passing notes, composing their faces in hilariously innocent concentration when they noticed me watching: Donte and Aton. Now, as I reached to shake Aton’s hand, he pulled me close, and with his mouth to my ear he said, “You always got me. You got all of us, so we felt seen. You’re the reason I’m graduating on time this Spring. I could have quit that first year.”
I tried to find something adequate to say, and couldn’t, just thanked him and smiled at them all and shook everyone’s hand again and walked off. But for the rest of the night until the bar closed, watching those kids grown now dance and joke and flirt on the floor, easy in celebration of the futures that lay ahead, and on the long walk home through the rain-dark streets, and even the next morning in the still, cold dawn and every day since, I’ve felt full. This has been a hard year of waiting, and it may end in disappointment– New York may not care at all for a book about students like Donte and Aton and all the children of the Delta or any of the other forgotten places where happy endings are rare and children rarely feel seen. So be it; I need them more than they need me, for they remind me who I am, why I teach. And that itself is enough.