Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta
University Press of Mississippi, 2016
220 pp., 24.5
Coming of Age, Sort Of
I flopped onto the bed when I got home. Tears streamed down my face, soaking my pillows. I'd just returned from seeing my classroom for the first time—and it didn't look good.
"You'll be sharing a building with the custodial staff," the assistant principal said, as she unlocked my classroom. "But the open space shouldn't be a problem. Good luck!"
The school had created a space just for me, and the 143 students that would wander through the door in the course of a day. But with desks stacked floor to ceiling, bare walls without so much as a white board, and the shirll, incessant grinding of metal on the other side of thin plywood walls, I felt like I was doomed to fail.
For a while, I couldn't seem to see past myself. Although I wasn't a novice to the teaching profession, I was new to poverty. And all the training which I'd received in college (and from teaching the previous three years) hadn't prepared me to adequately deal with the problems my students brought into my classroom, through no fault of their own.
I suppose that's why Michael Copperman's memoir, Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta, struck me, both positively and negatively. My own experience in a low-income school mirrored the author's in more ways than one. But when the poor and marginalized remain the "other," and when the main character lives on as the hero of his own story, even the greatest of tales can leave a bitter taste in the reader's mouth.
The premise of Teacher is catchy (you can almost imagine it as a pitch for a screenplay): What happens when a fresh-faced Asian American college graduate is assigned a rural teaching position in the poverty-stricken Mississippi Delta? Copperman recounts his experience in mostly chronological order: In 2002, he turned twenty-two on a Saturday and graduated from Stanford University the next day. Within hours of celebrating, he flew to Houston, Texas, to begin five weeks of training with Teach for America, a domestic version of the Peace Corps that places well-qualified college graduates in low-performing schools across the nation.
As the reader might expect, Copperman is zealously passionate about his undergraduate experience. Of his experience on "the Farm," he writes, "I believed that everything I wanted to accomplish was not only possible but imminent, pending only my own realization of what exactly it was I aspired to do." Like many immature young adults entering the professional world for the first time, he believes the world is his oyster.
He will institute change in one of the most discriminatory and disfunctional educational systems in the US. He will make a difference in the lives of elementary-aged children over a two-year period. He will instill confidence, character, and a desire to learn in the hearts and minds of his future students; after all, this was fundamental to his own upbringing, a gift he can bestow on future generations.
At this point, 30 pages into the book, I wondered whether or not I'd come to see dynamic growth in his seemingly static character. I began to hope for a tragic downfall, if only to make him more accessible to me as a reader. For, lest one forget, his words are memoir—the type of writing driven by the internal conflict of the first-person narrator. And, if the main character remains so utterly impenetrable, how can a story be believable?
Luckily, the story itself is captivating. Copperman arrives in Promise, Mississippi, to find his classroom in utter disarray—a problem a little bit of elbow grease and a trip to the local discount store quickly remedy. His intimate assessment of the black-white divide on the Mississippi Delta, evident even in the aisles of Walmart, is haunting: "The groups were always all white or all black and kept a steady distance, as if bound by invisible strings."
Because he sees himself as the "other," as a "mixed-race Japanese-Hawaiian Russo-Polish Jew," he is particularly aware of the inequities, both blatant and subtle, that his African American students have to deal with. And his testimony as a first-year teacher is something all first-year teachers, no matter their training, experience, or credentials, can attest to as truth.
Classroom management, Copperman realizes, is not for the faint of heart—especially if you find yourself in an unfamiliar culture, with an inadequate amount of training to boot. (Teach for America has been under heavy criticism about this.) What do you do when a student spits in your face, or when an entire classroom of ten-year-olds rallies against you? What do you do when you feel like your only option is to adhere to culturally accepted means of physical punishment? And what do you do when trying your hardest doesn't seem to change the social, academic, and emotional fabric of your students' lives?
If one class seemed particularly unruly, I, at least, had books I could return to, or various teaching techniques from teaching practicums I could recall. But Copperman had nothing, except for five weeks of summer training and the occasional Saturday session. He was drowning. It wasn't until he began to reflect on his experience almost ten years later that he admitted how the water almost engulfed him—and it is then that we get a small taste of the tragic downfall I selfishly hoped would come.
When his student spat in his face, he recalls looking around the room, "and every child whose eyes had been on me turned down to the work there—for the moment, they were as scared of me as I was scared now of myself." He may have desired justice for each of his students, but that didn't stop his inner demons from rebelling against him. And it also didn't keep his students from remaining the "other" to him.
In facing his ugliness, he is made more likable, even if it takes him a decade to realize that the greatest of his problems lies within himself. Because it wasn't a matter of a different way of life—of the nonreligious West Coast environment he was raised in versus the Bible Belt—and it wasn't a matter an extinct educational system that required scores of untrained teachers like himself to come in and attempt to save its needy children (much as all that calls out for reform). His most basic problem is himself.
The story, although guised as a tale of one teacher's woe, acts as a coming-of-age journey. Copperman may not have been a teenager when he went to Mississippi, but increasingly adolescence extends into the mid- to late twenties. This pivotal experience defines the man he will eventually become.
"I never belonged in the Delta when I was there," he writes halfway through the book. "I thought then that that was the fault of the place, hadn't realized that isolation is what you carry with you." Here, he begins to realize that even what seem to be the best of intentions can help us to evade facing ourselves.
In the latter half of the book (mostly recounting his second year of teaching), Copperman is in pure survival mode. Instead of believing, as he first did, that he could single-handedly drive the most wayward of students upward, he seems to take a step back. Maybe he's burnt out. Maybe he realizes that teaching elementary school in a foreign culture isn't the right fit for him. Maybe he simply comes to believe that it's time for him to return home. So he enters a period of reflection, and he begins to sojourn spiritually, perhaps for the first time in his life. Of a nativity scene, he writes, "Blond-haired, blue-eyed baby Jesus was in the manger, complete with hay and horses, on the lawns of no less than four colonials on Magnolia—there was no forgetting this God." His experience changed him profoundly, and isn't it the same for us, whatever our Mississippi Delta? There is no forgetting how one place and one people can change and morph and shape us into the men and women we were destined to be. And, if we're lucky, we spot the God we can't forget along the way.
Michael Copperman's arrogant tone may have driven me up the wall at times. His Faulknerian paragraphs sometimes made my eyes roll. And the exquisite detail with which he recalls his students makes me wonder whether a libel suit is in his near future. But, as a former teacher who also tried her best to wade through the insurmountable obstacles of poverty, I've got to hand it to him: he survived.
And sometimes, when tears of exhaustion bleed into our pillows, we can only believe survival is enough.
Cara Meredith is a writer and speaker from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and is co-host of Shalom in the City's monthly book club podcast. She holds an MA in theology (Fuller Seminary), and can be found on her blog, Facebook, and Twitter.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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