The year I turned 22, I went to the Mississippi Delta as a Teach for America corps member. I was idealistic and principled, full of conviction untempered by experience. I had absolute faith in the power of education, believed in its promise of by-the-bootstraps uplift and opportunity. I thought that through sheer force of will, I could right injustice, overcome poverty. Save a child from the life they were born into.
Success in a fourth-grade classroom depended on many things, and I lacked many qualities necessary to realize it. Early on, my class was a study in chaos. Few accepted my authority: “What makes you think we gone listen to you, Chinaman?” One little girl stood on her desk the third day of school and rapped to her cheering classmates, shimmying her shoulders with so glorious a defiance that it now brings a smile to my face. But the smile quickly fades when I remember that today that same little girl is incarcerated.
In the Delta, where children spoke dialect, my words had no weight. “What all that you been said?” my 13-year-old fourth grader, Tyredious, asked after I’d spoke to the class for 10 minutes about the importance of education, how anyone could rise up with enough hard work. I found my limits on those sunbaked streets. And while I learned how to teach, finally reaching many students, I realized I wasn't meant to be a fourth grade teacher. So I made my way home, wanting to do better.
In Eugene, Oregon, the town where I was born and raised, I had words. I was the product of an excellent public school system that sent me to an elite university. By teaching writing at the University of Oregon, I decided I could have an impact. I took on three classes each quarter that were comprised of low-income, at-risk students of color—the ones who’d kept their heads down and their legs closed and beat the odds. “If put in the effort, you will succeed in this class and at this university. If you speak clearly, your voice will be heard,” I told them, believing it like gospel. In four years, hundreds of students have made good on that promise.
All spring quarter, I struggled with a Native American student—a quiet, good-natured kid with dark, furtive eyes. The sort of poverty he came from was the sort I knew from the Delta: rusting roofs on shotgun shacks, piles of beer cans in packed-dirt yards, everyone on welfare, endemic alcoholism, and drug use. He was doing fine at first, received a solid grade on his first paper, and then he received his "18 money," or $5,000 from the government's Native American reparations. He told me proudly that he was different from his friends, who would get their money, buy a car in town, and get drunk and crash it on the way home.
“What did you do with it?” I asked.
“I spent it all,” he declared proudly. “And I still got everything.”
I imagined what everything might mean to an 18-year-old who’d never had money before: an iPod, a television, spinning rims on a truck, more alcohol than he and his friends could drink. He blew the money just as he was already blowing his education: his GPA had been awful his first two quarters, and now he was failing all of his classes, including mine, for lack of attendance. I begged him to consider otherwise. He told me I couldn’t imagine the Reservation, the bleak of it, the bind. He told me I didn’t understand. At the seventh week he stopped coming altogether. “He wants back on the Rez,” his friend told me. “Back to what he knows.”
The last day of class he showed up in my office, his face expectant, as if I would surely grant him some reprieve. He’d done less than half of the coursework. Standing there, I entertained for a moment the thought of cutting some deal, creating some nonsense incomplete. But that was about my desire to help him, not about what was possible. “I’m sorry,” I finally said. “You’ve made a choice.”
The look on his face expressed recognition—almost a satisfaction. He’d been true to his course. “Well, thank you so much for everything,” he said, flashing that brilliant grin, his gratitude sincere.
It struck me like a blow to the gut.
I have believed, first in the Delta and then in Oregon, that dedication will make a difference. Not for this young man. Sometimes, you can’t summon the right words because words are insufficient. Sometimes all you can do is put your hand to a good kid’s shoulder, and tell him you wish him the best, wherever he goes from here, and in whatever place he ends up.
Michael Copperman is a writer and novelist who teaches at the University of Oregon. He regularly writes for GOOD.