A San Francisco native travels to the Mississippi Delta for lessons on another America.
Educational inequality in the United States is easy to define by numbers: The disparity in spending between the wealthiest and poorest districts is some nine thousand dollars per student per year. By the age of nine, a child from a low-income area is, on average, three grade levels behind his or her peers in middle- and upper-income areas. That same nine-year-old child is already some seven times less likely to graduate from college than a child not born into poverty.
These are shocking statistics, but awareness of numbers doesn’t create change. A new crisis regarding the failure of public education, oddly similar in substance to the old one, is declared every few years and for a time politicians hem and haw, reporters dust off Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, and attest to its relevance, and educators find themselves for a moment the center of discussion, if only in light of their failings. Then the moment passes, the media moves on, and things continue as they were.
Teach For America is an organization dedicated to placing recent college graduates as teachers in under-resourced areas for two years. Its mission is to create a movement dedicated to the vision that one day, all children of this nation, regardless of the color of their skin or how much privilege they were born into, will have the opportunity to attain excellent educations. Teach For America believes that investing highly capable people in education will yield a long-term impact. The program is exceptionally selective: approximately one of every nine applicants was offered a spot in 2002. That is a more competitive entry rate than most Ivy League schools. Today, the rate is one in twelve.
In the summer of 2002, I was considered qualified. I was sent to teach in the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta, the poorest and blackest part of the poorest and blackest state in the nation.
The house I rented was on the white side of town, but near the public ninth-grade school. The white Academy football field across the street was ringed in razor wire: Hoop upon jagged hoop rolled across the top. The landlord said they had to keep the kids from the black public school next door from “messing up” the field. Later, I would learn that when the Supreme Court ruled sixteen years after Brown v. Board that desegregation applied even in the Delta, the County’s all-white school board sold the field to the white Academy for one dollar. As I moved my boxes from the car, the white football players ran drills inside the fence, and a dozen black kids who’d come for early registration hung loose-handed on the chain-link fence, looking in. They watched silently through the wire, not yelling or jeering, just peering somberly as the players raced between chalk lines, blocking and tackling, diving headlong over the immaculate grass.
I wore a suit and tie on my first day teaching fourth grade because I’d heard formal dress gave you authority, but now I was sweating in the humid air. It was 7:30 a.m., and most children wouldn’t arrive for half an hour. There was a knock on the door. I opened it to find a kind-faced black woman of thirty-five, her hair pulled back into a matronly bun. She was dressed conservatively in a long skirt and high-cut blouse and had a cavernous bag that overflowed with papers and books.
“Hey there,” she said, her voice warm and low. “Mrs. Mason, just down the hall. Must be you’re Mr. Copperman.”
She cleared her throat. “Well, Mr. Copperman, I just wanted to welcome you here and see you need to ask anything before the first day gets going.”
“Thank you,” I said. “What do I need to know?”
“Well. Look here. I was reading your class list there.” She nodded at the roster on the door. “You should know you’ve got some students who could be trouble.”
TFA emphasized how important it was not to judge students based on reputation.
“I guess I need to find out about the students myself,” I said.
“Fair enough,” she said. “But honey, if you need help, do feel free to come anytime.”
A sudden clamor of children’s voices echoed in the hall. We both turned. Navy-shirted boys and girls streamed through the hall doors.
“Lord,” Mrs. Mason said. “First buses are early. Well, good luck then.” She turned and started away.
I watched the children. So many shades of skin: slate, caramel, coffee. Some were running, others spinning circles, skipping, calling out in eager, insistent voices. One tall, stringy girl flew in front, tossed her backpack in a high arc, turned a cartwheel, and caught the bag just short of Mrs. Mason. When she saw Mrs. Mason, she froze.
“’Scuse me, Mrs. Mason,” she said, her eyes exaggeratedly downcast.
“That’s okay, baby, just keep your feet on the ground.” Mrs. Mason rested her hand on the girl’s arm and stepped by.
The girl swung her backpack on. Then she saw me. She was half a head taller than the other children—perhaps an older sister from the high school. She had white pom-poms in her hair and a proud, angular, fine-boned face with an air of command, as if she claimed every inch of the world around her and dared anyone to tell her differently.
“Wow, man, shoot.” The kids behind her stopped, stared, and whispered. I could hear snippets of their conversation:
“ … the new man-teacher … ”
“ … a real China-man … ”
“Bet I’m taller than that little man … ”
“He look like Jackie Chan … ”
“He gone be our teacher?”
“Good morning,” I said.
The cartwheel girl narrowed her eyes. “He don’t sound like no China-man,” she said. “They’re always like, whaaaaaa—”
“I’m Mr. Copperman,” I said. “I teach fourth grade.” They stared at me. Finally, I started for the classroom door.
“Jackie Chan, do a karate kick!” a girl hollered.
I realized further discussion was futile, so I returned to my classroom and closed the door. I had to demand respect. A moment later there was a hesitant knock. I went to the door, took a deep breath, and opened it. The girl who’d done the cartwheels stood with the other children I’d just spoken to.
The girl cleared her throat, a grin tugging at the corner of her mouth. “Um, hi,” she said. “We in your class.”
“All of you?”
They nodded. I took another deep breath and held the door open.
At 6:30 in the morning, the streets gray and foggy, I drove the fenceline of the Academy field and then turned down Felicity Avenue past the two-story colonials, their high white columns draped with the red and blue of the Confederate flag. The dark windows of downtown blinked past, then I jolted over the tracks and I was on the black side of town. This side of town was already awake: Black people lingered on street corners next to tilting mailboxes, leaned on rusted Chevies, and squatted on broken stoops and rotting porches. Children wandered the edge of the road trying to get lost before they found their way to school, rollerbags with books and supplies trailing behind. I drove with my windows up, but three weeks into teaching, I already knew the sound of their voices, loud with false bravado.
On this morning, I was the first teacher to get to school, but the janitor had already unlocked the doors. As I entered the fourth-grade hall, I saw the little girl asleep against my door. Felicia Jackson. She usually looked like a teenager, but now it was different: She was curled on her side, chest rising and falling in sleep. Her head rested on one arm, and I smiled when I saw she was sucking her thumb. Her face was serene, guileless. A child’s face.
I scooted her sideways. She woke, yawned toothily.
“Good morning, Mr. Copperman,” she said.
“Good morning, Felicia.”
She stood and stretched her arms overhead. “It just so good to see you this morning, Mr. Copperman, I’m just gone have to give you a hug!” She threw her arms around me and pressed her face to my chest. My father wasn’t a hugging man, and the only embraces I knew were romantic. I’d been told never to hug children, that it was asking for trouble. I tensed, held my hands from my body, and thought lawsuit, lawsuit, lawsuit. Finally, she stepped back.
“Shoot,” she said. “Here I come early for one dead-fish hug like that. Guess I’m gone have to go and get me some breakfast cause nobody like fish in the morning.” She headed down the hall chuckling as I unlocked the classroom door.
That day, when I taught rubrics, Felicia’s head was down on her desk, and I wasn’t about to wake her and risk another bout of pique or temper. We moved to word games, one of my few successes so far. This was a new game where the kids used clues to guess a word—children, I’d found, were engaged by discovery and mystery, by the prospect of figuring something out. Felicia sat up and yawned.
“If you get it on the first clue, you’re a master, but if you don’t get it until the end then you lose,” I said. Up went Felicia’s hand. She didn’t wait to be called on.
“So, as it pertains to rubrics, it’s a rubric in reverse?” she said. Pertains? I had to think. With a rubric, a lower score is worse and a higher score better; with the word-guessing game, the lower the number of clues you need to guess the word the better.
“That’s right, Felicia.”
She grinned, and I turned to the board.
“Aw, go on and be like that, then.”
“Felicia, I’m trying to teach.”
“And I need you to be quiet and pay attention.”
She rolled her eyes. I went on. “So, we can see tha—”
“Excuse me, sir!”
“I need to use.” She couldn’t need the bathroom—the class had gone fifteen minutes before.
“Felicia. If you interrupt again, I’m going to ignore you.” I looked around the room at the other students. “In fact, we’re all going to ignore you.”
“You gone ignore me?”
“So, use the clues—”
Felicia jumped into the aisle and began to dance and rap: “If you feeling like a pimp, go on brush your shoulders off—” She did the heel-toe, brushed her shoulder clean, and did a spin and shoulder-shimmy. I recognized the words as belonging to a popular song. The children roared.
“Pretend you don’t hear her,” I instructed the class.
She rapped on: “Niggers is crazy baby, don’t forget Felicia told you. Get—that—dirt off your shoulder.”
I couldn’t ignore the profanity. “Stop,” I said, moving toward her.
She danced away from me through the aisle. The children screamed, egging her on. We circled the classroom, the kids standing and clapping, until she danced out the door.
In the hall she affected indignance.
“Mr. Copperman, I was just playing,” she said.
“You’re going to the office,” I said.
“For what?” She put her hands on her hips and pursed her lips. “What’d I do?”
“You know what you did.”
“For that? Man, shoot. Gone send me to the office for rapping and dancing.” She started down the hall, speaking loud, voice echoing. “Stupid ugly little China-man gone send me to the office for dancing? Shoot, I gone tell Principal Burtonsen she need to tell that mean little slant-eyed man to go back where he come from. … ”
I wanted to say something, to tell her she didn’t know a damn thing, that I was Japanese, Japanese like Pearl Harbor, the atom bomb, samurai, sushi, mother-fucking Honda, and where did she get off running her mouth? But I just sank to the wall, silent. She kept ranting along the hall, other teachers stepping from their classrooms, pursing their lips, then closing their doors when the kids inside heard what she was saying and erupted with that country-Mississippi exclamation: “Oooh-wee!”
I lectured the kids about respect until it was time for P.E. I dropped the class off at the gym and headed for the teacher’s lounge.
I found Mrs. Mason on the couch. She was eating a sandwich. I nodded and went to the vending machine. Someone had taped a sign on it that said out of order. I swung for the side of the machine, remembered mid-stroke that Mrs. Mason was watching and tapped the side with a hollow thump. “Sorry,” I said. “I was hungry.”
She smiled and held out the other half of her sandwich.
“No, but thank you,” I said. “That’s kind.”
“So, Mr. Copperman,” she said. “How’s things going for you there in room twelve?”
I shook my head. “A little rough.”
“That’s what I heard. Lord, Mr. Copperman, the first year’s always rough. And things being like they are, it ain’t surprising.”
“What does that mean?”
She held up her hands. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying nothing about you. I just mean you’ve got Felicia.”
“You know that little girl drove Ms. Johnson clean out of the teaching profession?”
“You mean her teacher last year?”
“Sure enough. That poor woman. You know she was pregnant and all. She hadn’t figured to get no crazy-mean little girl like that. Felicia told her she hoped she fell on her belly and killed her baby. Don’t think Ms. Johnson ever forgave her that.”
“I could see Felicia saying that.” I cleared my throat. “But she’s so smart.”
“That’s the truth. She’s got a big brain and a big mouth. You know I went to school with Dede, her mama? That woman crazy. She was just like Felicia. Would cuss you up and down and every way if you looked at her wrong.”
“I haven’t met Dede.”
“But you know it ain’t you, don’t you, Mr. Copperman? That she always been like this?”
She motioned with a finger for me to lean closer, spoke in a whisper. “This is between you and me, Mr. Copperman. But I know for a fact that Mrs. Horton, Mrs. Harrington, and Mrs. Burton all refused to take Felicia this year. You know they past retirement. They told Principal Burtonsen if she gave them Felicia, they were gone.”
That was every other fourth-grade teacher. “So nobody else would take her?”
“Only somebody that didn’t know any better and couldn’t say no,” she said. She stood and smoothed her skirt. “Only you.”