A Q&A with
Q: You describe yourself as “a mixed-race Japanese-Hawaiian Russo-Polish Jew who could be Asian, Hispanic, perhaps Eskimo or Greek or some other unknown miscegenation.” You were the first person of Asian descent that some of the children you taught at the all-black school had ever met in their lives—indeed, there were adults in town who had never met someone who wasn’t black or white. How did your “outsider” status affect your experience in the Delta?
A: Growing up interracial in Oregon, one of the whitest states in the nation, I was often the only minority, and was at times isolated, ostracized, and bullied— an outsider who didn’t belong. Coming in a middle-shade and encountering the Delta’s black-white binary, burdened as it was by hierarchy and history, confirmed my outsiderness. To the kids in the black public schools, I was often the first not-white person they’d ever spoken to, their exclamations audible: “Oooweee, there that China-man go. Do he know the kung fu?”
Many whites, on the other hand (who still own most of the wealth and land in the Delta), would tell me
how they thought of me as being “near white,” before saying something racist about Asians; when they heard I taught in the public schools, they would often proffer sympathy or express horror at my “having to teach those monsters” or “that kind.” I came to see my difference as strangely neutral there—the misunderstandings of black kids, and even black adults, were relatively harmless, and as for whites, the damage their stereotypes or ignorance could do to me was insubstantial before the ugliness of racism directed against children.
Q: You say that Promise, Mississippi is “the heart of the Mississippi River Delta, the poorest and blackest part of the poorest and blackest state in the nation.” The school district there is deeply segregated and the achievement gap between white and black students is massive. Is it overly idealistic to think that such huge disparities can be overcome through organizations like Teach For America?
A: The achievement gap is rooted in historical race and class inequality; it cannot be unmade by any one organization. Teach For America has claimed to be able to reform the system, and has at times been elitist and guilty of overreach. Yet if you look at the state of Mississippi, you do see long-term impacts from TFA’s presence, especially in the longer-term commitments of many alums in the state. I am critical of the organization, but I believe in the justice of its mission—which is to say, I remain committed to children who had no choices about the circumstances and opportunities they were born into. The public education system, despite its many failings and dysfunctions, is worth our investment.
Q: In your new book, Teacher, you say that “I have begun to forgive myself for having failed [the students].” How did you fail them, and how have you—and they—moved past that?
A: I failed the students in more ways than I can name: through ignorance and inexperience, through lack of preparation, naiveté, assumption, through poor instruction, bad management, ego and anger and error. I thought for a long time that I failed them by not being able to remake the world or the system—I was an overachiever from a generation told I could “be the change I wanted to see.” Instead, I was changed by the kids, who I have carried with me, in their voices and stories, in their innocence and aspiration and merit. I set out to atone, and became an educator; those students made me who I am.
Of course, it was hubris to think I could lift them from circumstances and history in two brief years. A
few kids are in college now, and some are just finishing and graduating, and some never graduated high school, or did, but never left the community where I taught. I try to follow their lives because I care about them.
Q: Almost every day, I hear or read about the countless problems plaguing public education in the U.S., from implicit racial bias in the classroom to grossly underfunded school programs. Your book is incredibly timely and should be read by everyone, whether an educator or not, who is concerned about the state of public education in this country. As a teacher, what pedagogical possibilities do you see for the book?
A: TEACHER offers a lot of possibilities publicly and pedagogically. The book has been featured on Think Out Loud/NPR, Wisconsin Public Radio, Mississippi Public Radio, Utah Public Radio, the Maggie Linton Show, and featured on the podcast(s) New Books in Education and Schools for Startups. Chapters of TEACHER have just been anthologized in Creative Nonfiction’s new Norton book, “What I Didn’t Know: True Stories of Becoming a Teacher,” which will be used in many teacher’s colleges and education programs, and a couple chapters are being used as a text in all the composition classrooms of one of Mississippi’s largest public universities. It is excellent for education classes—it’s currently being taught in the University of Oregon’s Administrator-Licensure class, in upper-division Education Studies and sociology classes at Southern Oregon University, in multiple classes at Wenatchee Community College and the University of Southern Mississippi across disciplines, and in Creative Nonfiction craft classes at a half-dozen universities. I am a featured panelist this year at the AWP Conference in DC, where I speak on a panel called “Derridas on the Rez.” My hope is that anyone reading the book who wishes to teach it either for its perspective on race and class, its direct perspective on educational inequality, or for its narrative craft will do so—and I will GLADLY Skype into any classroom or talk to any writer or academic about teaching the book.
TEACHER: TWO YEARS IN THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA
by Michael Copperman
University Press of Mississippi
Hardcover / $25 / 5.5 x 8.5 / 220 pages
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