A former grade-school teacher reflects on his Teach for America days.
The two years I taught fourth grade in the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta changed me. People speak of how idealism ought to be tempered by reality, and think it a benign process: growing older, becoming wiser. They are wrong: there is a price. Some days, I would give anything to be 22 years old again, to still have more heart than sense, and long purely and naively for every child to have a bright future. But when I remember the children, I don’t regret those years when I tried my best to serve them.
Lately, I have been thinking of one boy in particular—Nyson, a slight, round-shouldered boy with a polite, halting manner and big, innocent brown eyes that seemed to take his entire face. He spoke softly, wanted badly to please; when praised he would blush and light up, then avert his head, unable to bear it. He had less than most of his classmates, who almost uniformly qualified for a free lunch—his uniform polos were faded, his khakis stained at the knees, and I gathered that like so many Delta children, he lived with his mother and grandmother, but had no father in the picture.
Nyson's third grade teacher had been another male Teach for America corps member who he’d looked up to, and at the end of third grade Mr. Black had given Nyson a hardcover book that had been read aloud to the class but was grades above Nyson’s independent reading level. Nyson wanted badly to read his book, which he carried around in his dog-eared backpack. Together, we set a goal that he’d read the book by the end of the year. He didn’t want to wait, would take out the book during Reader’s Workshop and battle his way, syllable by syllable, through the compound words he couldn’t yet decode, an activity so frustrating he’d clench his fists and shake. Finally, I made him promise to stop reading it for a few months so that he could see his own improvement. Nyson begrudgingly agreed, though each day he’d take out the book and set it before him as a reminder of his goal.
That same spring, our Title I program that I taught in after school, Delta Horizons, organized a trip to Washington, D.C., and Nyson was a part of the program. We’d come up with full funding—all the children had to do was get a permission slip signed. Nyson kept shrugging when I asked him about the slip, and so I told him of the wide green lawns and sparkling reflective pools, the great columns and towers, all the history and grandeur he’d witness, and he promised to get the slip signed. My heart fell when I saw that the slip had been marked ‘No.’ That evening after I was finished at school, I looked up his address and decided to go see if I could change his mother’s mind.
The house was tucked into a dead-end alley. The street became packed dirt as I neared the address and I had to slow down. Ten or twelve tin-roofed units were crushed together, no fences between them, each one with a little plot out front that would have been a yard if there had been any grass. I got out of the car and walked toward the house. Cans and cardboard were stacked in front of the unit, and flies buzzing around. The smell of garbage nearly gagged me as I mounted the steps to the sagging porch and knocked with the permission form in hand. I waited, and then the door cracked open and Nyson’s face was there, surprised to see me. “What you doing here, Mr. Copperman?”
“Hey, Nyson,” I said. “I wanted to speak to your mother about the permission.”
Nyson blinked, nodded, and darted back into the shadows inside. I waited, heard him call out, “Mama! Mama!” and then, after a time, a female voice murmured back. He reappeared in the door. “Mama passed out. Grandmom say not to try to wake her cause it a lost cause.”
I took this in. “May I speak to your grandmother?”
Nyson retreated inside, and then an elderly black woman with her hair in curlers and a kind face appeared in the doorway. “Hello, sir,” she said. “Darnisha Jennings, Nyson's grandmother. How can I help you?”
“I’m here about the permission for the trip,” I said. “To Washington, D.C.”
She nodded enthusiastically. “Oh, yes. Nyson’s so excited. We sent that permission back right away.”
I frowned. “But the permission was marked no.” I held the form out.
She looked at it uncomprehendingly for a long moment, then her face flushed. “Oh, Lord. I messed it up. Khadijah had told me to fill it in for her to sign, and I done it wrong.”
I looked at her panicked, shame-filled face, at the x in the box clearly withholding permission, and realized that Ms. Jennings couldn’t read. “Ma’am, it’s completely fine,” I said gently. “If you can just mark the other box.”
That spring, on the two-day bus ride to D.C., through the furrowed fields and dusty flats of Tennessee, then threading the rolling green hills of Virginia, Nyson finally read his book. I watched him there, holding the book to the window as the landscape flashed past in blocks of green and brown, reading the words aloud, laughing sometimes to himself with delight, sometimes racing for me along the aisle as other chaperones called for him to finally sit down, eager to tell me everything that had just happened.
It was fitting that on the great green lawn of the Capitol building, Nyson stood delighted less by the spectacle of Capitol Hill than by the book he held victoriously in hand, the glory of his own achievement: he’d finished. He’d come a long way, and I would take back nothing it took to get him there.
Michael Copperman is a writer and novelist who teaches at the University of Oregon. He regularly writes for GOOD.