On the radio, well-meaning talk show hosts, dozens of them, ask me well-intentioned questions about my book, Teacher. The questions aggregate and expand, swirl about me.
This poverty these Mississippi children come from is extreme… The segregated schools you describe are not like what most Americans know…The conditions you tell of are appalling…You went with the program, Teach For America, a young Stanford Graduate…You tell of being between the black-white binary of the Delta, of being multiracial, of not belonging…
The conditions you tell of in the Delta are bleak. Tell our listeners about your experiences. Tell our listeners about the children you taught. Tell our listeners about educational inequality. Tell our listeners about segregated schools, and the American Dream for a young person born into poverty. Tell our listeners about the educator you’ve become, teaching low-income, first-generation college students at the University of Oregon for the last decade. Tell our listeners what we do to solve these problems. Tell our listeners what they can do. Tell our listeners why you have hope.
The questions come, and interviewers ask me to promote and inspire, to offer answers. The last interview I do, on the stage of a beautiful Portland church with Oregon Public Radio at Wordstock before a crowd of hundreds and hundreds, I freeze as we begin.
The balconies are full and the front pews are full, and beside me is an interviewer I respect, and the wonderful writer Nicholson Baker there with his fine book about public schools he substituted at in Maine, and I take off my glasses so as to not see the crowd, and find the light from the great stained glass windows falls solidly in gold blued yellow glowing blocks descending toward the small stage.
The words of a question and the light too rich with color and beauty and the audience before me blur and rise thickly, and for a moment my thick tongue freezes, and I do not know what to say—there is so much. So much of the past, the children I taught and teach, and so much of the present, the precipice of an election looming, the bright distant glass and the audience waiting in heavy silence.
Eventually, I talk my way through blistering condemnations of hubris and naïveté and unrealistic expectations given the idealistic young man I was fourteen years ago, when I entered the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta imagining I would realize reform and justice in the classroom, that I would change children’s lives. I tell of the high stakes and terrible circumstances, the need above all to endure, how on the wall of the school I taught in a sign declares:
No one was born a loser
No one was born a winner
Everyone was born a chooser.
I explain that the children I teach today at the university, who themselves are still at risk, and drop out at two – three times the rate of majority students, are not choosers so much as they are winners of a lottery with luck on their side. I tell the hosts that kids from Promise-Upper had few choices, that segregated and under-resourced public schools too often deny them the opportunities available to middle and upper class children not subject to the history of race and racism in the Mississippi Delta.
I tell them that by the age of nine, a student in a low-income school is already four full grade levels behind their wealthier peers, and assert that since resources dictate opportunity, America is not at all the land of freedom and equality where merit and hard work are rewarded.
I tell listeners that I do not have solutions, that these problems are immensely complex, that the arrogance and naivete of the young man I was who thought he could become the change he wanted to see in the world has given way to the seasoned educator who offers what invitations I can to the deserving students I teach without expectations.
I admit my own responsibility for my errors all those years ago in the classroom, when I wanted to remake the world, how the burden of years has often left me with guilt and regret. I talk, and Mr. Baker speaks eloquently, and the questions of the moderator are excellent, but the air is still aglow.
Perhaps in god’s house my slow tongue was meant to stop. Perhaps I should have known this election outcome was coming, that we were falling backward through time, that the America I claimed existed never had, that I lied when I told those kids born into black poverty that they could soar if they worked hard and applied themselves.
Instead, I told them of Serenity Warner.
Serenity came to my classroom reading at a fourth-grade level and left at an eleventh-grade level, who won the Promise-Upper reading contest by a wide margin. I try to convey how she sought to read herself into a different reality, where children had the magic to make everything right, and evil could be faced and overcome. Books were her sanctuary, and so I let her taste their safety, all day when each lesson was done, at recess and during lunch, after school until five and six in the evening.
I let her read herself into a life free from the unassailable challenges of home, where the windows were boarded, the garbage piled in the bare dirt of the yard, the water and electricity was always turned off so that there were no showers or clean clothes or light to read by at night, and her mother was no villain, but simply overwhelmed, absent, or caught in the consequences of having sought dead-end adult escapes.
And then I tell of coming on Serenity’s house on my last return to Mississippi some seven years ago– the burned-out rubble and beams I came on, how I panicked wondering if Serenity survived the fire. I tell the listeners how years later, I found Serenity again, and she gave me hope—that she ended up on a path to graduate high school with honors, despite all the obstacles and odds.
I tell them that I lost touch with her, that when Myspace rebooted I lost my point of contact. That I don’t know know what’s become of her. That though I have written a book that claims I have not reduced her to anecdote, and so forgotten her, because I so often see young men and women falter after high school, I had been terrified to find that she has struggled and lost her way. That I did not know how to bear it, if she was not alright. And then I tell them of my return, which rises before me in the lights of the church:
I drive the unbroken swath of highway parting fields of sorghum and soybeans, raised rows stretching on and on that were stubbled with cotton last I came through the Delta. Here are the signs for the college, a great billboard with a smiling young woman, hair braided to tight rows, touting the college’s promise of higher education, and I feel butterflies in my stomach, glance at my phone.
Come to the big hall, right when you come in—S______ Hall. I will come to you. An imperative, the orders now from student to teacher. Reversals, upheavals, miracles. My hands shake a little bearing down on the steering wheel.
I turn through wide gates, see the tall pillared pavilion, and beyond, blocks of lawn bound by landscaped walkways, high buildings of glass and stone, new, speaking of classrooms, of college. Young black men and women mill about, eyes on their phones or in clusters exchanging stories about their summers and their hopes for this new year, dressed in typical college summer attire, shorts and tanks and t-shirts, flip-flops—some four-year college somewhere, right here in rural Mississippi.
I pull around the front hall, park. Here!, I text. I lower the rearview mirror, pat my hair into place over the worry lines grown deep on my brow with work and worry and doubt, these last twelve years since I’ve seen Serenity Warner. Last night, another former student I visited put me in touch with her. I tug my collar straight, and enter the cloying August heat, make for the pavilion’s double doors scanning faces, wondering, is it her, or her there, or her?
Inside, the clean tiled floors shine and shimmer with new wax, and the air conditioning cools the sweat beaded to my forehead so that suddenly I’m chilled. Students bustle past, colorful clothes and new shoes and all the bustle of new beginnings, their voices echoing loud and then receding, young adults, but unmistakable in the lilt and cadence of dialect, and for a moment I am in a dimmer, tighter hall, with dull tiled floors that never could get quite white, and the clamor of voices is louder, and I am opening a door, the door to my classroom, and there’s Serenity, three beanbags deep in a corner barricade, only the ribboned top of her head and the thick edge of a Harry Potter Book visible.
I turn, and there’s that smile, one side of her mouth turning up a little more than the other, a beautiful a-symmetry. Skin still a stunning dark shade—‘ugly black girl’, cruel kids would say to her, as though they were better for a fraction of a shade. Taller now, and stylishly well-dressed, dark, tapering jeans tucked into half-boots with solid brass clasps, a fitting top in complimentary burgundy. All new and crisp as if fresh off the rack. “Serenity?”
And then she and I are embracing, and I can believe it—that she’s alright, and here, about to finish a four-year college. “I can’t believe—“ I start, stop.
And she grins again, and shakes her head, and says, “Neither can I. But here I am. My last semester.”
“Tell me—everything,” I say. And we go to find a place in this great hall, where she tells me she’s applying to grad school in social work, to help people who are like she was—to tell kids who have troubles they can, because she knows what it’s like to be the girl most folks said would not make it through the next week, let alone through high school or college or life beyond.
“I’m different, now,” she says.
I don’t tell her she’s wrong; affirming the strength of her judgment is what matters now. But as we talk, and she laughs and puts her hand on my arm talking about some foolish thing I did or said, when she tells me later that she forgave me every error I made trying to teach that class all these years ago, because I tried my best, I see she’s the same brilliant, kind, tough young woman who willed herself into another life.
I think about what strength that took and takes, and know that what faith requires is not magic, but grace—which is not something to say on the radio, but to repeat like prayer in times of need, so as to carry on.
In rural Mississippi, Serenity Warner already rose above the ravages of a racist place, and the limitations of circumstance and fate. And as I write these words now, I can affirm that what we need is Serenity’s grace: the courage now to face the world as it is, and the strength to carry on.
Photo: Getty Images