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Teaching: Notes from the Front Lines

A teacher helps his students to find their story.The children gathered cross-legged on the rug, a circle of faces. Each held...


A teacher helps his students to find their story.The children gathered cross-legged on the rug, a circle of faces. Each held five loose-leaf pages. The plunk of water to bucket marked the seconds: The whole week it had poured, and the roof of the aging cinder-block school leaked. Jermanique read aloud:

LaMichael knew he had to warn of the flood. Ignoring Mrs. Brown’s commands to slow down, he threw open the door to room 12. "DANGER!” he cried.

“I told you to go to the office,” Mr. Copperman said.

Summoning his courage, LaMichael stood tall, prepared to do what he had to to save his classmates from the rising water.

That story was one of dozens I wrote for my students during my first year of teaching in the Mississippi Delta. When lesson after lesson went awry, I wrote for my kids, put all my hopes into stories of disaster and salvation: floods, kickball games, a plague of mice (a mouse lived in the wall behind our bookshelf). The students, misunderstood by their bumbling teacher, would act heroically. I created a literature where my kids did right, where they overcame all odds. I basically wrote the world as I wanted it to be.

Today, my job is to teach essay writing to first-generation college students and at-risk students of color at the University of Oregon. The problem on our campus is more subtle: where my students walk with averted eyes, difficult to engage. I challenge them to find their voice, to write their story.

Last year, I taught Ana. She had long black hair and large, inquisitive eyes. She never spoke. But from the tilt of her head, I knew she was paying attention. When called upon, however, she only shrugged. Perhaps she felt out of place—she wore clean but threadbare clothes, carried her books in a stained canvas bag. Her first essay was filled with graceful, sophisticated prose. Yet she claimed nothing, her argument vague at best. And in final draft, the changes were superficial, the pretty sentences purposeless.

From my office window, each morning I saw Ana being dropped off at school—a white van with rusting fenders would pull up and Ana would slip out, go to the driver’s side of the window and suffer a kiss from a Hispanic woman with gray hair and grooved, age-weathered cheeks. I stood back from the window, not wanting to embarrass her.

As the first quarter went on, I persuaded her to take a position. She was appalled at the suffering in Hurricane Katrina, especially the plight of its children. A new quarter began; Ana still sat in the back of the new class, but near another quiet student, an Iranian Muslim, who wore a headscarf and gold-hoop earrings. It seemed a good sign that they whispered to each other before class.

Ana’s essay on identity began:

I come from a pueblito hidden in the Michoacacan Mountains. My pueblito takes up only three city blocks, with only two paved roads and a few others made of stone and earth. At the center is the plaza, the meeting place of the town elders, the marketplace for the vendors and the playground for the children. I was born in this town and lived like the majority of its inhabitants, poor but happy. The walls of our house were made of adobe mud and old planks of wood. The roof was made of sheets of metal and our door was formed from rusted steel bars.

My parents decided to bring the family to the US to give us a better future. They started work in the fields, and my brother and I didn’t see them until night; we rarely saw my Dad at all. Life was hard; we barely had enough to eat, had few clothes and slept all together on the floor of the one-room apartment we shared with my aunt and her family.

She explained that when she moved to Oregon, their only contact was with the small Latino community. At school, with broken English, when she made up words when trying to speak, her white classmates laughed uproariously. And while everyone expected her to fail, she found a way to succeed—at the price of isolation from her fellow Latino classmates and even her family.

There it was: the struggle, the fear of exposure, the distance. And here too was this essay: from her past, she’d found direction. Writing wouldn’t diminish those struggles, but allowed her to see choices. And now there was the friend she left class chatting with, the two of them bound somewhere together—an opening.

On the last day, Ana and her friend, Avizeh, brought me a cheesecake they had baked. They were giddy with thanks, laughing and arguing over who was responsible for the smooth filling, the sweet crust.

Every classroom in America contains such stories: students with merit who must be reached.

They may start out too quiet to hear: an echo, a whisper. Yet maybe they haven’t had the opportunity for volume.

Maybe they have something important to say that we need to hear—and when they finally start to speak, everybody will turn and listen.

Michael Copperman is a writer and novelist who teaches at the University of Oregon. This is his third essay for GOOD.

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