In Search of Symbols

by on November 29, 2011

Essays Issue 1 Nonfiction

I am a teacher.

For the past two years, I taught 11th-grade English in the Mississippi Delta, in Helena, Arkansas. What I found in the Delta was bleak yet gorgeous, largely significant yet unknown.Regardless of the art, of the music, of the oral and written narratives, most people remain unaware of the truths that make up one of our country’s forgotten regions. People are unaware of the ground-level struggles that the citizens and communities here face, of the ground-level problems that hinder and devalue our rural educational system.

I begin at the end, so that you can meet Helena as I saw it after living there for two years rather than as I first saw it. It’s only fair to Helena.

These past two years I reflected a lot about the school, about what preconceptions and motivations I had coming to the Delta, about how I have changed.

After leaving the Delta, my experiences there seemed rather thematic, not only because the place lends itself so easily to literary and artistic associations but also because I turned out to be a cliche.

I would like to say I came to the South with an open mind and few misconceptions. I saw myself as such: a gutsy pioneer leaving her comfort zone, a do-gooder bringing education and worldly insight to the impoverished children, a humble student ready to accept whatever lessons the South had to teach her. Nine months after crossing the Mason-Dixon line, however, I realized that I came to the Delta in a spirit of pretense. All of it—modesty, selflessness, open-mindedness—was a facade.

Over the course of my four years studying history and literature in college, most of my favorite authors were Southern: O’Connor, Twain, Warren, Welty, and Faulkner. I ranked the Delta as my top preference for my Teach for America regional placement because of these writers, whom I wholeheartedly believed had captured the deepest and truest nuances of the South. I was eager to explore these nuances in person. One might say I came to the Delta in search of symbols.

Perhaps my disappointment when I arrived in Helena is most telling. Others might have been disheartened upon arriving because Helena is in many ways a typical rural town, left practically a ghost with the end of industry. But I was disappointed because Helena was not abandoned or decrepit enough. When I was placed in the Delta, I looked up pictures of possible homes. They usually involved sheds with uneven front stoops and tin roofs set in the middle of a field—places along the lines of what Dorothea Lange documented with her camera in the 1930s. So when I saw that Helena not only had a Walmart, but also a Sonic, a McDonald’s, and a Wendy’s, plus a handful of suburban neighborhoods, I felt swindled. What had happened to the Southern experience I had signed up for?

It took me the better part of the first year to get over my conviction that the South of my favorite literature existed and just had to be found. Once I got over this conviction, I did find out a couple of crucial truths:

1. There is nothing romantic or beautiful about poverty in the Delta. This is not the poverty of the frontier where there was a nobility in people’s strife to eke out an existence from the land. Delta poverty is point-blank ugly. People exploit government aid programs; children consume malnutritious diets and often turn to petty crime, violence, and drugs as an antidote to boredom; casinos draw people out of their homes to play hopefully and frenetically with money that they cannot afford to lose and that in some cases is not theirs to lose in the first place. Some women break their backs to raise four generations within a household, while some men never grow up.

2. Conversely, there is so much that is good that is preserved and that perseveres in the Delta. Only in the Delta have I found a deep and secure sense of religion. There, I met people who have overcome hardships greater than what I will ever know. There, I came to know what strength a family can provide. There, I discovered what contentment can come with slowing down. And only there did I begin to learn the lesson of true generosity: of looking for and finding merit in everything and everyone.

What follows are stories from my first year of teaching in the Delta; they demonstrate the way these opposing but inseparable truths held sway in my own experience of the region. These stories were originally written as emails to my friends and family; they were attempts to convey my few triumphs and my many defeats, my burgeoning sense of this world, with its wondrous beauty and its dispiriting challenges.

I do not pretend to be an expert on education, nor do I pretend to be an expert on the Delta. I do not speak for my students or colleagues, and I do not speak for the members of the community about which I will be writing. I speak only to my own experiences and perceptions as a novice teacher in a struggling community. I refer to students by pseudonyms to protect their identities.

 

THE SCIENCE OF SWAG

Many people think the education gap is, in fact, simply a literacy gap. Literacy is essential to living a productive life. The fact is, if a student can’t fill out a simple job application form, they can’t even get a job at McDonald’s. I came to the Delta uncertain about a lot of things—about how I was supposed to manage a classroom, how I was supposed to maintain discipline, about the most effective methods of instruction—but certain that my mission was to produce young adults who could effectively communicate, both by speech and by pen.

Early on, I noticed that, in general, my students did better on vocabulary quizzes than grammar quizzes. I would have thought that my vocabulary quizzes were more difficult, because the students had to respond to prompts using all their vocabulary words from memory. In comparison, their grammar quizzes only required them to correct or diagram sentences. Then I began to notice how often my students incorporated their new vocabulary into everyday speech. For example, I now heard:

In the hallway and in the cafeteria:

• Rather than saying, “Say that again, boy. I’m gonna whoop you,” my students began to say, “Say that again, boy, I’m gonna assail you.”

• Instead of calling Juwan, a massive senior, by his nickname “Disaster,” students now called him “Fiasco.”

•When coming on to females, instead of saying, “Girl, hey, you want to be wit me?” it was now “Girl, hey, me and you should get ardent and affectionate.”

 

In the classroom:

• Rather than, “Ms. Wang, he be messin’ with me,” it was now, “Ms. Wang, he being a nuisance.“

• When the gentlemen were asked to pull their sagging pants up from around their ankles, “Mane(insert attitudinal sucking of teeth), why you want to mess up my swag?” it was sometimes, “why you want to mess up my sashay?”

• When I passed out a quiz, “Why you be doing me like that, Ms. Wang? This just wrong,” they now complained, “Why you be doing me like that? This be malicious.”

What is odd about the whole thing is that even as they were (usually correctly) incorporating higher-level vocabulary, my students were completely ungrammatical. What is more, they strove to use as much vocabulary as they can, but they were not in the least disturbed by double negatives, inconsistent verb tenses, the gaping absence of auxiliary and linking verbs, or subject-verb disagreement. They were capable of grammatical speaking; they simply placed little import upon it.

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Responses to In Search of Symbols

3 responses

Beautiful article, April!

This is for "TM," author of "A Response":

Your argument is that TFA is valuable in that it creates "witnesses" who can document their experiences — or, as they are usually called, journalists.

Education journalism is great. I think reporting on underserved, underprivileged children is very, very important. However, do you really think that these (intelligent, caring certainly) "witnesses" should be the ones teaching in schools? Do you really think that sending minimally trained, inexperienced college graduates into schools is what is best for the children — or, more to the point, that the possibility that these teachers might later, through their words and stories, inspire others to care about the plight of those in failing schools in any way makes up for less-than-excellent teaching, and the immediate impact it has on the students?

Please don't misinterpret this as saying that TFA teachers are not good. I've had many friends go through TFA, and all of them were smart, caring people who tried very hard to do what was best for their students; they may have even cared more than many of the other, apathetic, teachers who had been working at their schools for years.

However, any of these (former) teachers will tell you (and all the studies support) that their first year was not easy. Classroom management, drawing up good lesson plans, walking the line between discipline and empathy… these skills simply do not come immediately. Good teaching takes practice and, unfortunately, one result of TFA is that many first-year teachers are pumped out and put into classrooms, only to leave after their two years are up (if not before). Many of these teachers might have grown into highly effective teachers over time. But right out of TFA bootcamp, they simply are not. And putting these new teachers into the system year after year is a shame, because it diverts resources and attention from things that could actually be helpful.

I think Wang's essay is both insightful and inspiring, and I couldn't be happier that I stumbled upon it. I by no means mean to put down her work and impact, which I would imagine is very positive. I'm speaking in generalizations.

However, TM's defense of TFA as putting "witnesses" in schools is as naive as it is condescending. Would you want a "witness" teaching your child day after day, rather than an experienced, qualified teacher? I highly doubt you would, and I don't think you should thrust this idea onto the children of others so that we can read about it. A teacher's primary purpose is not to bear witness; a teacher's job is to teach.

posted by anon      January 1st, 2012 at 12:02 am

Anon, my name is Teddy Martin, one of the editors of The Bad Version and the author of the response to which you objected.

You have brought up some excellent points that I wish to address.

I agree with you that a teacher’s primary function is teaching, and I did not intend to argue that as a journalist a TFA corps member could be valuable without first considering her ability in the classroom. Rather, I wanted to communicate the immediate emotional power of April’s writing on me, which was a direct result of her access to and perspective on a world to which I had never been exposed. I was moved by these writings and their quality of bearing witness, and I wanted to highlight an unintended and positive consequence of TFA that I saw exemplified here.

I certainly don’t believe that a TFA teacher should focus on this aspect of her experience first and teaching second, and I don’t see writing as redemptive of poor teaching. I consider these writings a wonderful added value to the positive experience of April’s students, which should always be the focus and fundamental priority of TFA.

What I propose to you is that the best witnesses are often also the best teachers. Many of the qualities that make a good teacher, the qualities of patience, empathy, and precision of language— knowing just when to say what to which students— are qualities that can often translate into a style which conveys truth about a particular world.

I think we can agree that inexperienced teachers who don’t last in the school system is a drain on resources. I hope this is not the case with the majority of TFA corps members, and the numbers indicate that it is not. It is my sincere hope that people like April are far from atypical TFA teachers, and that the success of the program is due to its recruiting people like her, people with enormous capacities for love and devotion to students– qualities which make her a great teacher, both of her students and of us.

posted by Teddy Martin      January 19th, 2012 at 2:32 am

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