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Teaching: Notes from the Front Lines

A former grade-school teacher reflects on his Teach for America days. There is fog in Willamette Valley, Oregon, this morning....

A former grade-school teacher reflects on his Teach for America days.
There is fog in Willamette Valley, Oregon, this morning. I drive slowly, NPR easing me into the day: talk of two wars, health care reform, Haiti in chaos. On this day, though, fog is the consuming problem. The centerline is lost, and highbeams make it worse, with semis coming toward me as if sprung from thin air.

The fog lifts at Junction City. The flat grass-seed fields with their early spring stubble, hills bunched on the horizon. On the radio now is a story of a charter school in the Bronx, an arts school for the underprivileged. A teacher, a white voice, speaks of student achievement. And then, a little black girl’s voice:

“Them teacher just come up in here and show us all kind thing. Teach us some dance. Got camera and computer and paint. Make me want to learn.”

I can see her next to me—her hair in tight, fresh braids, hands clasped behind her back, head canted in question: Do you hear me telling you what you want to hear? And in a moment, a clamor of voices, tumbling over each other with urgency and innocence, poise and precipice.

Now I am here, 3,000 miles from a life I left—for two years I taught fourth grade as a Teach for America corps member in the Mississippi Delta.

I turn off the radio and let the vibration of the road be the only sound, let myself return to the Delta, when I still believed that I could save a child.

Today, I teach low-income, at-risk students of color at the University of Oregon. The work is meaningful, the students capable—they have made it to the university, beaten the worst of the odds, though they still drop out at three times the rate of their white counterparts.

The work matters, but a part of me still longs for my Teach For America classroom, where the stakes were so large that all I could do each day was simply give them every single thing I had.

My kids were lively and bright and already four years behind other 9-year-olds, 9-year-olds who live in places like Eugene, Oregon. Most of my kids in the Delta had never left the county, and couldn’t imagine a city, a mountain, a beach.

Their world, beyond the razor-wire fences of the school, was no broader than the dusty streets of the wrong side of the tracks, the sloped tin roofs and sagging porches of shotgun shacks and trailers mounted on cinderblocks.

Each morning, I tried to make a new path, to enable a different future.

The classroom, cold with morning, approaching 8 a.m.; the rattle of the heater by the shelves, an insufficient heat. In the back of the classroom, 26 coats hung on hooks: evidence of arrival, promise of another day. The bell would ring. Every student was at a desk, at work on the morning math assignment: A dozen review problems, some long division, the daily word problem.

Deshawn buys 234 donuts. He fills boxes with a dozen donuts each. How many boxes will he have, and how many leftover donuts will he eat?

The only sound in the room was pencil to paper. One day, Lashawn, long finished, lolled in his seat, legs twisted beneath the desk. I glanced at him, and he grinned, reached beneath his desk for his book, opened to the bookmarked page and began to read, performing for my benefit. I hid my smile. Now a hand. Deshawn, enthusiastic about his word problem.

“What a dozen is?” he asked, stretching out the syllables so that dozen became doe-zen.

“Twelve,” I said, and he nodded, beginning to write. “One minute left!” I called. Deshawn’s pencil clattered to the desk, and he reached a hand to his hair, slicking it back with satisfaction. Finished. More pencils followed, a clatter of completion. I watched as Aronisha, my slowest math student, chewed at her eraser, finally writing something down.

“Please stand.”

A creaking of chairs, and two dozen straight backs, faces turned to the dangling red, white, and blue, and every hand to a heart except Deshawn, who’d somehow figured his heart on the right side. District policy and Mississippi State Law had us pledging to the country, under God and indivisible, even by the dozen, liberty and justice and the freedom of life lived in shotgun shacks and dusty, sunbaked streets.

As we finished I walked to the front, and all of us began together: “I pledge allegiance to the class, to work together and never rest…” This pledge was louder, the sound shivering through cinder blocks and into the classroom next door. Some things couldn’t be muted.

The call and response was roared: “What’s today? An opportunity to learn. What’s tomorrow? Too late! When’s the time? Now. Whose education? Our education! Whose future? Ours!”

Every opportunity was bellowed, no voice unlifted.

I spoke quietly, listened to make out each voice. The screech of LaMichael. The shout of Deshawn. Felicia’s voice rang out clearly, resonant. At the end, we lingered in the promise, and then there was the complaint of metal and plastic as everyone settled back to their seats and the work began, hands raising to offer up answers, waiting to be called on.

Michael Copperman is a writer who teaches at the University of Oregon. Portions of this essay were previously published in "The Oregonian," and will appear in his forthcoming novel, "Gone."

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