A former grade-school teacher reflects on his Teach for America days.
For years, I have been haunted by the fate of Jacqueline Barnes, my best student during my second year teaching in the Mississippi Delta. She left my fourth grade classroom reading at the eleventh grade level, winning the school's reading contest by a wide margin. I allowed her to read as soon as she had completed the assignment at hand, let her take her book of choice to a corner, where she liked to barricade herself and escape into another world.
Jacqueline was pretty and quiet and had a halting, cautious manner, her eyes searching constantly about her for the next threat. Her classmates were the reason for her anxiety—they hated her for being poor, called her “Raggedy Jackie,” "Rags," and "Jac-nasty," their cruelty inexplicable to me in a community as severely impoverished as ours was.
Yet, in a way, they were right: Jacqueline’s poverty made theirs appear positively first-world. Her uniform was threadbare, her khakis were stained and holed. She reeked, a thick smell of unwashed clothes and body, for the water was often turned off at home, and her mother only did laundry once a month. I saw her mother some mornings as I drove to school down Percy Street, usually swaying on plastic heels, red-eyed, talking to herself, and gesturing wildly. As one of my children noted, "she do bad things for money.”
Each afternoon, once school was out, Jacqueline and her brother, Terence, stayed with me in the classroom, helping out with tasks, playing with the computer, or reading. Often I’d drive them home, to a tin-roofed shack with sagging walls and boarded windows set back in a dirt yard covered with a great pile of garbage. Jackie would seize Terence's hand and pull him past the reeking mountain, her front arm waving off the thick cloud of flies, and push him inside. Once at the door, sometimes she’d turn around and wave goodbye.
Despite her situation, she made tremendous gains in my classroom. I went to great lengths to protect her from the taunts of her classmates, told her again and again what a great reader and smart girl she was, promised her that if she applied herself in the classroom, she was assured of a better life. When I left the Delta to teach at a university, I used Jacqueline as my success story, even spoke at conferences about how the girl from the poorest family could achieve excellence.
Three years ago, I finally returned to the Delta and drove down Percy Street, past the familiar line of shot-gun shacks and trailers. I came upon the blackened shell of her house, nothing left but rubble and burnt scraps of tin and the open sky beyond. I sped to the school to ask my former principal what had happened.
Nobody had died in the fire, she said, and that was all she knew. She hadn’t seen the girl around, not recently anyway.
I stood there, unable to appreciate being back at a place where I’d invested so much. From the window of the office I could see the dark run of hallway, knowing beyond that was the classroom where I’d taught, where I’d told Jacqueline that if she only tried, a bright and easy future waited her. I’d distorted her story, imagined for my own sake that her success was guaranteed. I’d turned her into anecdote—and in so doing, forgotten her.
Then, two months ago, I received an email from another teacher who’d taught some of the same kids I had. It was a PDF of an article from the town newspaper. They’d published lists of the honors students from the local high school, and kids we had taught were on the list. I looked at the highest honor: Principal’s List for Straight A’s. There were only a few names and at the top of tenth grade was Jacqueline Barnes.
For a couple of days I told everyone what I’d found, how there couldn’t be two Jacqueline Barnes's—surely not, it had to be her, right? A friend suggested I Google her. No sooner was there a MySpace profile, a young woman with Jacqueline’s features, from the Delta. I set up an account and emailed her. I told her how proud I was of her making the list, told her how I’d seen the house and had been so worried.
A day later, there was a reply. My hand shook as I opened the message: “Mr. Copperman, so good to hear from you!!!” She was doing great, explained that after the fire, the state had stepped in and that for the past four years she had been living with her adopted mother and father. She still loved to read.
I wrote back, asking if she was planning on attending college. She said she sure was. I made her a promise: If she stayed after her studies, I would help her through the application process, help her write her entrance essay, and a letter of recommendation. She thought the offer generous—no doubt she doesn’t understand how much the chance to help her meant to me.
There is no guarantee that even the best efforts to help a student will pay off—impoverished children live precarious, vulnerable lives. Yet I take comfort in the unseen: while we may not know exactly who we’ve reached, while there may be no signs of success, our actions still resonate.
This is how change happens: A teacher offers what they can. A child opens a book. And years later, a young woman is bound for college.
Editor's note: Names of students have been changed to protect their identity.
Michael Copperman is a writer and novelist who teaches at the University of Oregon. This is his third essay for GOOD.