My second year teaching in the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta, in 2004, I nearly lost everything trying to help a damaged young genius who in my new memoir Teacher I call Felicia Jackson. I can still see her gap-toothed smile, so silly, and hear the way she’d make jokes about my Japanese-American background in the lunchroom when they served fried catfish: “Mr. Copperman, are you SURE you can eat that all fried, or do we need to get it raw the way your people do?”
I nodded at the lunch-ladies back in line. “Call in the order, then. They won’t mind not having to cook it!”
She shook her head, too canny to ask such foolishness—and too wise for the fourth grade’s earnestness and plodding curriculum. I can still hear her outspokenness in critiquing a reading or lesson—when I tried to teach her of the nonviolence of Dr. Martin Luther King, she raised her hand, waved it in the air until I called on her.
“So, my question is, if you ain’t supposed to raise a hand and just sit there and let them bad white men do you like they will, how come Dr. King dead, and everything here like it is?”
She posed that question in a classroom whose worn floors could not be polished to hold a shine, in a one-story brick and cinder-block, segregated school on the black side of the tracks. Though the Delta is nearly 80% black, 95% of businesses and most of the land remained white-owned. What was I to say?
I did everything I could to keep Felicia in the classroom, even as her behavior frequently escalated beyond tolerance—she always had to have her say, was unwilling to wait her turn or leave off her sometimes vicious harassment of other children. Yet I wanted more than anything to reach her. Her IQ was nearly two-hundred; she was charming, insightful, spirited, breathtakingly eloquent. She’d also been shaken by her mother’s abandonment in the winter—her mother told her she never wanted her and never would as she left Felicia with her grandmother and moved away to Georgia.
In early Spring, Felicia had been allowed to return to my classroom with a final warning from the principal: the next time I sent her to the office, she was done. I broke out every trick I had, cooed, coddled, glared, winked, danced, cajoled, offered rewards and took away privileges, whispered in Felicia’s ear and yelled at her in front of the class. One afternoon it was simply over. I wrote the referral, walked her to the office. When she saw that I really was going to turn the slip in, a final abandonment, an ugly satisfaction seized her. She spoke in a syrupy and sarcastic voice:
“Well, if that how it is, bye bye then, white boy!”
The office staff actually gasped—though Felicia would stomp her feet and wail, even call me names in anger, this was something else.
She looked me in the eye and tore the office referral in half, then into pieces, nodded at the door and tossed the confetti into the air. “I said, get on now, Cracker.”
For years, I couldn’t unpack the statement— couldn’t reckon with being lumped in with everything awful and hopeless Felicia understood intuitively was stacked against her: the segregated town, where whites had big colonial houses and white children went to private schools, while black kids lived in slumping tenements and one-story brick boxes across the tracks, their parents unable to get the jobs there weren’t, and went to schools hemmed with razor-wire where teachers like me claimed all she needed to do was try a little, master a skill, score well on a test. Do as she was told.
I’ve spent the last decade teaching low-income, first-generation minority college students—and for much of that time, I imagined I could atone for my false promises, or at least reconstruct a broken heart after the fact. Twelve years and a decade of students to whom I’ve preached the rhetoric of justice and uplift, and only now, with the election of Donald Trump and the confirmed and official resurgence of racism and white nationalism, do I understand. Cracker created me because I actually believed I could save Felicia Jackson. I’d told her, in many small ways, that I could rescue her from circumstance and history, just like all of America told her school would redeem her. We tell children that success in the classroom will lead them to the American dream, when in fact a poor child is an average of four full grade levels behind their middle and upper-income peers by the age of nine, and much of that gap is created and exacerbated by under-resourced, troubled schools. The organization I worked for, Teach For America, promised Felicia she would not be left behind: One day, all children, its motto insists. She doubted us because she was smarter than those pretty lies—because she saw too clearly that the America we dreamed was not the world she’d known or would.
Today, our Department of Justice is about to run by a man, Jeff Sessions, whose professional life has been marked by persistent opposition to Civil Rights, the Voting Rights Act, and the NAACP. Our Department of Education is about to be run by a woman who has never been an educator and does not believe in public education; our environmental protection agency will be headed by an industry insider; the department of labor will be run by a corporate-mogul industrialist. The Affordable Care Act has been struck down, tax breaks for the rich are imminent, and the social safety net that cushioned the fall of the least privileged in our immensely stratified and class-immobile society will soon enough be shredded. The veneer is gone—this is America revealed.
And even before Trump’s election, the years that have come since I taught Felicia Jackson vindicate her doubt: today, I own a home in a middle-class neighborhood in the pleasant, clean Western city where I was born, and Felicia never finished high school. A year ago I heard she worked at the Sonic Drive-Through a mile from the school where I taught her. A couple months ago, one of her former classmates told me she got into some trouble, was arrested and convicted, is incarcerated indefinitely.
Cracker has stayed with me. Not being white, it’s not something I’ve been called again. But Felicia, with the acuity and instinct of the precocious child, knew what I couldn’t bear facing– what name might wound me. Cracker. That my skin was brown, that I had come to ‘help’, that I had principles or claimed to care, meant little when I taught in an educational system that was a part of a racist America that would never give her a chance. Cracker names me– culpable.
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