Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta
University Press of Mississippi, 2016
220 pp., 25.00
Coming of Age, Sort Of
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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