“Stereotypes, they’re sensual, cultural weapons. That’s the way that we attack people. At an artistic level, stereotypes are terrible writing.” -Junot Díaz
hat girl can’t roll her Rs.”
That’s the first thing a student ever said about me, my first day of teaching, while I called roll and Yahaira Rodríguez, Dulcita Contreras, Yafreisi Ríos, Ydanis Reyes, Guillermo Méndez, Julissa Cruz, Yakimela Betriz Núñez, Vladimir Díaz, Alfonica Ramirez, and Zuleika Ramirez either were or weren’t there.
I’ve taught at a more diverse range of institutions than anyone I know. Happy accidents and happenstance have allowed me to teach the poorest students and the richest, the most conservative and the most liberal, students who struggled to write Standard English and ones who could have gone to the Ivies, self-declared Jews and Christians and Muslims and Hindus and atheists and secular humanists, in a classroom on the bottom floor of a housing project in New York City and on a campus with a student-run farm in Appalachia, students who were studying to be paralegals and security guards and doctors and lawyers and poets and writers and farmers and activists and teachers, adults returning to education after decades away, veterans, and sixteen-year-olds getting college credit while incarcerated. I’ve taught in the opposite corner of the country from my hometown — I’ve been the only white person in the room, the only woman, the only person allowed to leave the prison — and now I’m back at my alma mater in my hometown, teaching students who are like me, at least before I left.
• • •
Interboro Institute was an inner-city community college designed for high-school dropouts. Students could get their GEDs and Associate degrees simultaneously, because at that point sixty percent of public high school students in New York City did not graduate (the numbers have gotten somewhat better since I started over a decade ago, in 2004, but not much). My campus was in Washington Heights, a primarily Dominican-American neighborhood above Harlem and below the South Bronx. Interboro was for-profit, and there was a market for our kind of education. Any student who could pass the entrance exam — an Ability to Benefit test mandated by the state which determined whether a student could read at about the fifth-grade level — was admitted. Over ninety-nine percent of the students were poor, first-generation college students, and the government paid their financial aid directly to the school. Tuition was the exact amount students got in aid, no loans, so it was essentially free to them. Advertisements on the subway told students that no matter their past, they could succeed at school. We would help them. We offered practical degrees: paralegal studies and security management and accounting. Majors that were essentially jobs. In theory, it was a great system — a government-financed poverty-reduction project. And I loved teaching underprepared students, loved the amount of learning that could happen in one semester. But many of our students were too underprepared, more than we could remedy. A seventy percent pass rate in any class I taught was rare; it was usually far, far less.
My first week of teaching, a student named Maria seemed distracted during class. When I gave students their daily in-class writing assignment she asked me to step into the hall with her. She handed me a stick and asked if she was pregnant. I looked and saw two red lines. I asked if she had the directions. I thought I knew what two red lines meant, but at twenty-five I’d never taken a pregnancy test. At thirty-six I still haven’t. I’ve been on birth control since I was sixteen — I wasn’t having sex back then, it was for my acne, but my mom figured infertility wasn’t a bad idea, just in case. The directions confirmed what I suspected, so I told Maria she was. I don’t know if she couldn’t read the directions herself, or if she just wanted confirmation from an adult, or if she simply couldn’t bear to look herself. I don’t remember if I asked her what she was going to do. Somehow I asked her age — sixteen. She shrugged and said she dropped out a while ago. Was proud to be in college so young. I never saw her again.
I don’t remember his name. He was light-skinned and thick and dressed in baggy jeans and hoodies and baggy stitched leather coats when it was cold. He took his hat off in class without me having to ask him to. When he gave his final speech his voice shook and his lower lip trembled and I could see it even though I’d told the students that the audience could only see ten percent of what they felt. He said he didn’t want marijuana to be legalized because then he would lose his livelihood, the way he provided for his family. He didn’t want white people taking even that from him. He earned an A in my class.
In that speech class we practiced job interviews. We talked about appropriate dress and I told them they didn’t have to buy a suit at this point but they should wear the best they had. They practiced questions. They practiced handshakes. One girl wore a glittery blue top and bright turquoise eyeshadow. One student showed up in a sharp dark suit and as I asked him why he wanted to work for my company he didn’t falter in his answer as he reached up and removed the large diamonds in his ears and dropped them into his pocket, the earrings he wore on the subway but forgot to remove before class.
“They’re locks,” one girl said. “Not dreads. Dread implies dreadful and the white man invented that term to tell us what he thought of our nappy hair. We call them locks. When I wear my locks in Brooklyn the men call out sister, goddess, bless you woman. When I cut them all off and walk through Brooklyn with short hair, the men say holla at me baby, ooh ooh looking good girl.”
One student casually said she would never let her son marry a white woman. Yet at the end of the semester she organized the class to give me gifts — a reusable coffee mug since I showed up every morning at our 9:00 class with a paper cup from Dunkin’ Donuts, a Starbucks gift card so I could drink better coffee, and a red scarf to match the red bag I carried every day. She told me I looked like Cameron Diaz, and I don’t. I really don’t.
Students at Interboro felt comfortable discussing my outfits, whether they thought I’d lost weight. I dressed professionally, a suit or dress slacks and button-ups, skirts, yet I often heard, “Miss, we thought you were a student.” Over the years three students, all women, asked to touch my hair, which is dark brown and very straight. I let them.
In Composition II — a class students finally got to after Developmental Reading, Developmental Writing, and Composition I, required whatever their major — students had to write a Definition Essay. We read articles from the assigned anthology such as Judy Brady’s “I Want a Wife,” which sarcastically and scathingly exclaims how great it must be to have someone do for you all the things a wife must do (most of my female students weren’t married, most had boyfriends and baby daddies who were or weren’t the same person, and they assured me it didn’t work like that in their households, but the men sure wished it was still the ‘50s), Jamaica Kincaid’s listing of the expectations placed on Caribbean women in “Girl,” and Lisa Kanae’s exploration of language varieties in “Pidgin.” Then students wrote a traditional five-paragraph essay discussing how the definition of a word changes in various contexts. Most of my students defined the word “nigger.” Their introductory paragraphs were about their own experiences with the word growing up. Most learned it from older cousins and siblings or MTV or kids in the neighborhood, most had never been called the word by a white person because most students didn’t live near or go to school with white people — and when they did, there were different tables in the lunchroom, little interaction. We also read Jonathan Kozol’s “Still Separate, Still Unequal: America’s Educational Apartheid,” which I photocopied from Harper’s and distributed, and the second paragraph told us:
In Chicago, by the academic year 2002-2003, 87 percent of public-school enrollment was black or Hispanic; less than 10 percent of children in the schools were white. In Washington, D.C., 94 percent of children were black or Hispanic; less than 5 percent were white. In St. Louis, 82 percent of the student population were black or Hispanic; in Philadelphia and Cleveland, 79 percent; in Los Angeles, 84 percent, in Detroit, 96 percent; in Baltimore, 89 percent. In New York City, nearly three quarters of the students were black or Hispanic.
My students said yes, it was like that; yes, it was like that in their high schools, the high schools they’d dropped out of. In the body paragraphs, most first argued that the word always meant awful things when white people used it, always lesser than, inferior, sub-human, that was a history that could not be overcome. The second body paragraph explained that when black people use the word, often with the –ah ending, not –er, it meant something totally different — homie, friend, neighbor, buddy, local — which broke the historical context, left it behind entirely. And the third body paragraph mentioned that Hispanic kids from their neighborhoods used the word in the same, insider way. No one mentioned either of the only two white kids I ever taught at that school — he was a local, so insider; she moved up to the Heights for her boyfriend, Jewish from Brooklyn, so outsider. It was so obvious, explanation wasn’t necessary: He could use the word. She couldn’t. I couldn’t. My students were not homogeneous, but on this there was no dissent. And I wouldn’t — I’d always hated the word, my only experiences with it its free usage in the South where I spent summers, where my grandfather forbade me from dating the people I saw on MTV, though I went behind his and my parents’ backs back in Arizona. Not many black men to choose from, but plenty of Mexican men. I think I’ve said the word once, ever; I don’t remember the context but it felt awful lifting from my skin and so I vowed long ago never to say the word again and haven’t.
Some of the women defined “bitch”: the worst when used by an enemy — fighting words; the best when used by a friend — intimacy; and when used against a man — damn.
I was given textbooks and five classes to teach, and no training. I started in five days. I had no pedagogy. I tried to survive for three and a half years. The goal was to maintain control in the classroom, and to be liked. If they liked me, it would be harder to publicly disrespect me. If they liked me, they would be more likely to learn. Or at least show up. And try while there, for me. The goal was to have minimal students fail, which was still often well over fifty percent. The goal was to make students not dislike me because I was different from them, so not distrust me. Early on I started teaching Junot Díaz on the first day of class — a writer I admire who writes about the Heights. Students loved his “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie” — they nodded as we read it aloud on the first day, taught me what malcriado meant every semester, and loved me for having that count as schoolwork. I became a very goofy teacher, full of dumb jokes and showy silliness, a classroom persona I’ve had a hard time turning off since. Did you know “fuck” can function as five of the eight parts of speech? Here, let me show you on the board, and maybe you’ll be one inch closer to understanding the parts of speech, something you should have learned a decade ago but didn’t, knowledge I’m not sure makes for better writing but it’s in the curriculum so I have to teach it today. Then I have to make you write an essay during class, again, because three paragraphs is still hard for you, and we’ve got to get you ready to write five, we write essays during class every day, so let’s have fun first for as long as we can and if I say “fuck” a few times then maybe you’ll try during the second half of class, because you like me and think I’m funny and cool. If you like me, I’m not the problem here.
I changed the curriculum with the help of two brilliant colleagues. Students hated the developmental classes, hated that they had to pay tuition for them but didn’t get credit because they weren’t college classes, weren’t at the college level. They knew “developmental” meant “deficient.” So we made the class half a semester instead of a full one, more intensive, so they could get out of there faster. The text became the free daily newspaper that students picked up on their way to class. The three of us made a booklet of in-class activities so teachers could design the day’s lesson on the fly. We designed our own exit exam that wasn’t multiple choice, that we thought better showed students’ actual readiness for the next level. It felt radical. It felt like a better way to teach developmental students. And it seemed a success — our pass rates increased dramatically in the two-semester pilot program.
I became Assistant Chair of the English department and a Reading and Writing Fellow, was given a course release to visit every classroom and chart pass rates to see which teaching methodologies were most successful, then used that research to continue to redesign curriculum. I was given a ton of responsibility even though I had no expertise, because I was willing to do the work. I was exhausted and exhilarated. I didn’t have a pedagogy then, not one I could articulate, and my colleagues didn’t either. Our strategy was whatever works, whatever gets you through the day. We were given impossible tasks — take students who read at the fifth-grade level and make them ready for college-level coursework in one semester — and sometimes we accomplished them. None of us had education degrees. We all functioned on intuition. But our intuitions were good.
I watched my colleagues teach: foul-mouthed Stanley Hoffman with glasses so dirty he could hardly see out of them; dapper Ken Pressman, a gentleman from Kentucky who rarely left the five-block radius of his Manhattan neighborhood; gorgeous Judy Prescott who’d looked like a movie star as a young woman and still rocked pearls daily; Ian Bickford and Jonathan Yukich, who designed this research project and new curriculum with me, both as young as I was, both writers too, a poet and a playwright.
These colleagues became friends and whatever this crew was doing was working. After a Friday meeting we’d put in an eight-hour workday at the bar, sharing stories and slang our students had taught us: pop your collar and k lo k and Brugal. What is the number-one strategy to improve pass rates? We knew it at DJ Reynold’s and my research confirmed it — one-on-one instruction. If enough students stopped showing up so we could work individually with those that were left, the ones that were left mostly passed. The solution to having more students pass was to control their lives outside of the classroom, help them with all the things that kept them from showing up — jobs and kids and Section 8 appointments and trips to the emergency room, which was their only doctor. Then split the classes so we could work one-on-one with everyone who was showing up.
My primary pedagogy? Change society so students have all the resources they need outside of the classroom, then cap classes at fifteen students.
The state wasn’t impressed with our retention rates, so decided we’d have to use a new Ability to Benefit entrance exam that required students to be able to read at the eleventh-grade level, to give us better-prepared students. Investors knew we’d get far fewer new students, so they pulled their money. The school closed and we never found out if our invention would have in fact been a better way.
eshiva University was in the same neighborhood, Washington Heights. But YU was for Orthodox Jewish students, many of whom could have gone to Harvard or Columbia, but wanted to continue studying Torah and Talmud while in college. I was hired to teach composition, literature, and creative writing to the men. The women’s campus was exactly one hundred and fifty blocks south.
My first week of teaching, a student who had missed the first day introduced himself and as I reached out to shake his hand he was awkward, loosely holding my palm. I wondered if he was awkward around women generally or if I’d done something wrong. I asked my one Orthodox friend and she said everyone in the room was thinking shomer negiah, the prohibition against touching women you aren’t related to. I knew that the men in my neighborhood wouldn’t touch me — Midwood, Brooklyn, an Orthodox neighborhood an hour and a half by subway from Washington Heights. I’d been warned to put my money on the counter when buying bagels or whiskey, not in the hand of the man selling it to me. But the men in my neighborhood wore all black and white, had ringlets by their faces and strings hanging from their shirts. The boys at Yeshiva wore jeans and tie-dye and Grateful Dead Bears on their yarmulkes, or corduroy and Oxford shirts. On the first day of class I’d met a kid from Philly who wore XXL tees and said he played basketball and who sounded black. (He now writes for SLAM, and thanked me years after I was his teacher for introducing him to Junot Díaz’s writing, which made him appreciate the Heights much more.) Some Yeshiva students wore black and white and I later learned they were frum, devout, but most of the boys I taught just looked like boys. I hadn’t realized the rules of my neighborhood applied up there. No one warned me.
I walked into the lobby of the library and students were swaying and praying. I felt intrusive, stepping into an intimacy I wasn’t part of, but I’d seen people pray on the subway, bobbing their heads as we crossed the Manhattan Bridge, so I thought it might be okay that I heard all those voices in unison. I asked my one insider friend and she said I’d done nothing wrong.
I taught a creative writing class, and students were risky and bold and brave. Some loved the course so much they went to a meeting to ask for more fiction classes, maybe even a major, something they could study in a serious, extended way. “What, should we offer majors in dance, too?” was one faculty member’s response.
Three students who still keep in touch have decided to be writers. One dropped out of a PhD program in Psychology. One dropped out of law school. One is writing a memoir about leaving Orthodoxy, becoming secular. I’m currently reading it for him, offering suggestions, and it’s a sensitive, thoughtful portrayal of that life, and why it was too limiting for him. I get the impression their parents aren’t impressed. That’s okay with me.
Several young, pretty women were hired to teach composition at YU. Some felt threatened in their office hours by large men who were protesting a grade, sitting a little too close, speaking a little too aggressively. I never felt that, but I did consistently feel my authority questioned in the classroom. I taught a Literature of the Americas class one semester, where we read stories, essays, and poems from North, Central, and South America, not just the U.S. It was a privilege and a pleasure. One student started studying Spanish the following semester in order to read Jorge Luis Borges in the original, and presented his paper at a national Borges conference as an undergrad, I read smart papers on Hemingway, Dickinson, Lispector, Harjo, García Marquez, Malamud. But when teaching Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, a magnificent anti-colonial tirade, one student said, “Professor Stalcup, I’m not sure how a book like this would be received at the other institutions where you’ve taught, but here at Yeshiva we do not agree with such leftist propaganda.” I explained I wasn’t asking students to agree with any text I taught, but that I was asking them to take the opinions of people unlike themselves seriously. Not all of his classmates agreed with him. A student asked if he could turn in a creative final paper, a tribute to the style and content of Kincaid, and he wrote a lyric essay about the beauty and colonial complications of Israel, called A Walled Place.
The students at YU were not homogeneous. One student’s research paper explored whether YU was a yeshiva, or a university, or actually both. One student wrote in his research paper that Washington Heights was the most dangerous neighborhood in the United States and I printed research that showed he was wrong. (“Oh. Someone told me that. I’m sorry,” was his response.) One student started playing bingo with the ladies from the neighborhood. The faculty were not homogeneous. Some were Orthodox, some were rabbis, some were non-religious Jews, some were Christian, some were secular. But no one was given any guidance to help us reach across the cultural gaps that divided us. I think we needed that. But the faculty and administration were unwilling, maybe for fear of labeling the differences between us, making us seem homogeneous, us versus them, maybe for fear of “othering” either side. But the effect was that everyone pretended teaching there was identical to teaching anywhere else, and that just wasn’t true.
After six years in the city — one year tending bar, three and a half teaching at Interboro, one and a half teaching at Yeshiva — my husband and I decided to leave New York. We thought that if we stayed we would become New Yorkers, unable to slow down when visiting my hometown, unable to be satisfied by anywhere but that tiny, oddly provincial place that felt like it contained the world. We thought we’d teach in Japan, but then I was offered a fellowship teaching undergraduate creative writing at Warren Wilson College, the place where we’d done our Master’s degrees, the place where we’d met. We agreed to move to Appalachia. About the time we made this choice, a student at Yeshiva University discovered I’d signed an open letter to President Obama asking the U.S. government to divest from Israel because of their continued colonization beyond the 1967 borders. Because the letter was created and signed by academics, I was asked to name the institution where I taught. I didn’t deliberate long. I thought, If I worked anywhere else I would sign this letter, I believe that the state of Israel is violating international law, I don’t want my tax dollars supporting that, and if Yeshiva University is in fact a university, then I can sign this letter.
Many students disagreed. An article was written in the student newspaper denouncing me, and students started a campaign to “Divest from Stalcup” by not taking my classes the following year. The fact that I’d already decided to leave sort of stole their thunder, gave them no way to punish me. Two students were really supportive; they’d taken my creative writing class and stayed after every night to talk about books and authors and their own stories. They worked for the newspaper and said they tried to stop the article but couldn’t. They were sorry I was being publicly criticized for my political beliefs. Some students I felt close to stopped e-mailing, stopped visiting my office hours, and I understood their choice. Several students wrote and asked to meet with me, asked if I could explain why I was critical of Israel. I said there were many books they could read, and I didn’t think it was my job to have that conversation with them. I wrote no public response to the criticisms of me. I tried to keep my political beliefs — the fact that I believe women are equal citizens to men, the fact that I believe gay people are equal citizens to straight people, the fact that I believe transgendered people are equal citizens to cis-gendered people — out of the classroom. I’m sure I didn’t always succeed, but I did try. My job was to teach writing, not my worldview.
I felt outed. And I am grateful as a hetero, cis woman to have been given the opportunity to feel, in some way, what many gay and trans people feel when they are outed. I was the same person I’d been the day before, but suddenly everyone saw me differently, and many of the stares were hostile. It’s not the same thing — my safety was not in danger, and I could not have been fired if I wasn’t already leaving. But students could have made my life there very hard. Those last few weeks there, I felt something close to fear. I believe that cross-cultural communication is possible. I believe people with very different convictions can teach and learn from each other. But it takes work, scaffolding, and conversation. More than I was willing to try to build there, because it hadn’t already been begun.
Shortly before my last day at YU the entire faculty was sent an e-mail by one of the rabbis explaining the Orthodox position that women should not work outside of the home. I wondered what he expected any of us to do with that information.
y husband and I met in Swannanoa, North Carolina, at Warren Wilson College. We were both MFA students at the first-ever low-residency Master’s program in writing, which means students are on campus for ten days in July and January, can live and work anywhere during the rest of the year, and communicate with their faculty mentor by mail. The undergraduate program invented the Triad: school, work, and service. Students study conventional academic programs, but also have to complete one hundred hours of community service and work on a crew that keeps the campus running — dining, electric, farming, plumbing, gardening, etc. Most faculty live on campus, acres of forest in the Blue Ridge portion of the Appalachians.
I taught a service-learning first-year-seminar class themed around food justice. We read books about the industrial food system and toured the farm and garden and orchard on campus. We cooked a meal together from local ingredients and cooked a meal for women and children staying in a shelter. We worked at a food distribution center and learned that one in eight people in the United States are food insecure, meaning that they aren’t certain where their next meal is coming from, but in Appalachia it’s one in six. There we filled plastic bags with rice, powdered protein, and dried vegetables, a casserole sent home with children at school to feed their families over the weekend, a meal for four people, something we would not eat ourselves because to us, used to the abundance of the school cafeteria and restaurants, it seemed like chemicals, not food. We worked at a community garden, raising food that would be donated, building windrows and turning compost and planting beans and harvesting beets and cleaning out barns and pulling weeds and learning which were weeds and what broccoli and asparagus looked like in the ground. A student and I spent the day double-digging a new plot, digging out a hole a foot deep and a foot wide, aerating the soil a foot down underneath, then putting the soil back mixed with manure. Hard work that would produce a plot of land where things could grow well. Beautiful redheaded Sarah said to me, “I’m shoveling horseshit next to my teacher, for a class,” and we laughed.
When studying Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in a required composition class to see how he uses ethos, logos, and pathos in the same document, I read one paragraph aloud, the one place where he swerves deeply into pathos, and instead of saying the n-word, I said “that word I choose not to say.” One student asked to speak to me in the hall. She started crying, and said she thought it was really important for teachers, people in power, to say that word, to take the power away from it. We went back into class and had a discussion about that word, and why I choose never to say it. I explained that I taught in the inner city, where I was almost always the only white person in the room, and my black students had told me that white people could never use that word and have it feel okay to them. One student said, “Yeah, but the word is right there. You didn’t say it, but we all read it. It’s not like it went away because you didn’t say it. This is a historical document.” I told him that was an excellent point, but because of my own experiences it was a word I could never, ever say.
What I wanted to say was that rich white kids, even if they go to a liberal school that requires them to do community service, don’t get to decide how the word is used. They don’t get to be angry at my choice. They can make their own choices, but they don’t get to make mine. And even if my choice makes them angry, even if my choice makes them cry, I care much more about not hurting my black students than I care about not hurting my white students. Even when those black students aren’t sitting in front of me anymore. The kinds of damage done are different. What I wanted to say was that they were arrogant and privileged, so certain, but they’d made most of their decisions sitting in a classroom with other rich, white students.
I wanted to remind them that they weren’t necessarily the best judges of racial tension, seeing as how the semester before some students had thrown a “Thug Life” party on campus where they dressed up and danced to “ghetto rap.” Most students said it was “just for fun.” Yet one of the two black students I taught in my two years at Warren Wilson told me that all sorts of girls called her and asked her if they could borrow her clothes for that party. She said she felt humiliated.
During our conversation I should have said more, gone deeper, been more articulate, but I couldn’t for fear of crying out of rage in front of my students.
I went to a meeting to educate faculty about gender issues on campus. I learned the pronoun “ze,” heard arguments for gender-neutral bathrooms, met a student with a beard who preferred the plural pronoun “they” and a student with breasts wearing suspenders who preferred “he” and it all felt very natural, a conversation people should be having everywhere.
I brought a friend to campus to do a poetry reading. She’s from Turkey, is Muslim but typically dresses in Western style, drinks wine, smokes. She writes poems about the varied experiences of women who wear the hijab around the world. She doesn’t wear the hijab daily, but she wears it on occasion, both in Asheville and in Istanbul. She writes poems about what it’s like to be inside of it, what it was like to buy it, about women friends of hers that wear very expensive lingerie under their hijabs. My friend read her poems while wearing the full hijab, and called herself only “Anonymous.”
Many students attended the reading, and in the question-and-answer session one student, also from Turkey, asked her why she chose to cover up her beautiful self, and she laughed. She explained she does not always wear the hijab. I thought her poems had already made that clear. My friend speaks a thickly accented English; I wondered how many students got a full understanding of her project. I later learned that a student in another class wrote a paper criticizing the reading, saying the poet “wasn’t really Muslim,” and it was offensive to “real” Muslims for her to portray herself that way. The student wasn’t Muslim. The teacher of that class wrote me, and I’m not sure I veiled my anger when I responded that maybe a Western non-Muslim student shouldn’t dictate identity, maybe a range of identities exist within any label, maybe the poet has the right to decide whether or not she is Muslim, not the student.
I consider myself on the very far left, habitually suspicious of authority. But for some students at Warren Wilson, Question Authority meant they were certain they had nothing to learn. Strange, that the students seemingly the most like me were the hardest to teach. I often had to keep myself from telling an individual student that if he or she didn’t want a seat in my classroom then go, give it to one of my former community-college students in New York City who would love the opportunity to study at a four-year institution but would likely never get the chance.
My creative writing students at Warren Wilson were some of the finest I’ve ever taught. Smart and strange and hardworking and kind. One student had Asperger’s, and was a challenge to teach because of the way he talked over others. The students handled him with grace and compassion, helped me guide him back to the topic at hand, made sure I wasn’t the only one who told him it was time to hear from another student. He was a brilliant writer, too. Students made sure he knew that. He won the poetry slam one year. Warren Wilson students want to change the world. And they do. The motto is certainly accurate — We’re not for everyone… but then, maybe you’re not everyone. Yet I remember the talent and diligence and generosity of my writers there less than some of the other frustrating students. I have tried to understand all of my students, but the ones at Warren Wilson are the ones I end up judging — fairly or not — the most harshly.
y second year at Warren Wilson I started teaching composition classes in prisons as well. In an adult prison, my students and I read an essay entitled “A Black Man Alters Public Space.” Brent Staples, a student at the University of Chicago and an insomniac, wanders the streets late at night, causing some women to run, some women to cross the street, some women to threaten him with dogs, some women to lock their car doors, because of his size and the shade of his skin. Mr. Jackson, a very tall, very wide, very dark man, asked me if I would run if a big black man were behind me on the street late at night.
“No, probably not,” I said.
“Maybe you should,” he replied. Mr. Jackson was one of the brightest students in the class. He always sat in the front row, and he always raised his hand for every question I asked, but he wanted his classmates to talk too, and often asked what they thought. Mr. Graham, who was white, sat next to him, and while I have no idea if they associated outside of the classroom, inside of it they were friends. They talked about the assignments, read each other’s work and pushed each other to do better. I don’t know who Mr. Jackson was before he was in my classroom, whom he’d hurt or whom he’d frightened, on accident or on purpose, but I thought it was strangely thoughtful for him to tell me it was okay to run. That he’d understand if I did.
While teaching in a youth prison, my students and I read the Jonathan Kozol essay about segregation in public schools — “Still Separate, Still Unequal” — and students laughed when they realized all the black kids were on one side of the room, all the white kids on the other. One student was half-black/half-Irish, and no one said anything about him sitting with the black kids and I was glad because I didn’t want him to feel put on the spot, like he had to defend his identity right there. He had tightly coiled hair he wore long, sometimes in braids, sometimes loose and poofy, dark with a reddish tint, and his skin was brown with freckles across his cheeks, and he had green eyes. He was tall and still awkward in his tallness. He was only sixteen, proud of himself for having finished his GED inside, for taking a college course so young. He said he wanted to visit Ireland someday.
I looked at my gradebook from the youth prison course — students got UNCA credit — and was angry again that the only one to earn an A was Borowski. He was a jerk, cocky and smart, but he did earn it. He doodled during class one day and it looked like a family crest, but in training I’d been shown gang paraphernalia that looked similar. I was told to confiscate anything that looked like the images we were shown, to report any tattoos of these shapes to the anti-gang task force. After class I asked Borowski to see it and he showed me a notebook page with a torn out corner, said he wasn’t sure what I was talking about, a grin on his face that made me furious. I wasn’t sure what gave him such confidence and I didn’t want to destroy it, but something about him frightened me. I wondered what he did to make himself so sure.
Latham couldn’t finish the class because he got in a fight and was going to spend the rest of the semester in seg. They let me bring him his books and the syllabus so he could do the work on his own if he wanted. That was the only time I was ever let onto the floor, where my students lived. I understand segregation is worse than regular cells, that’s the point, but it was tiny and dark, one slim bed and nothing else except a toilet, barely enough light to read by, and I couldn’t believe my shy, quiet student had to live there for weeks, or was it maybe even months? That doesn’t seem possible. There was a painted line about a foot from the cells and I was told not to cross it, so I don’t remember how I gave Latham his books and papers. I’m sure he thanked me. I think he said he was sorry. I don’t remember how I tried to tell him it wasn’t his fault. Maybe it was, but it seemed a stupid punishment to me, for fighting. I’m sure I tried to explain to him that I thought he was smart, his writing was really strong, and I wanted him to keep doing it.
What happened to them? They’re older now, so were they released? Moved to adult prisons? My adult students, are they inside or outside? The one in the state-issued glasses with the thick black rims that I wanted to say were so hip right now, because he’d start out class not wearing them, then put them on because he couldn’t see, where is he? The one who played Dungeons & Dragons? I recently learned Junot Díaz played D&D and I want to tell him but I can’t. The one who kept trying to read James Joyce because he thought it was a mark of sophistication, whom I tried to tell not to start with Finnegans Wake? I know I was only given students who could make use of grant-funded education, ones that would be released, that were thought to have the capability of more college. They got a transcript. Their last assignment was to write a letter of application, an argument for admittance to the school of their choice. Did any of them go? How did they pay for it? Did I lie to them? They knew the numbers. They told me: “Sixty-five percent of people who go to prison go back again after they get out. But if they get an education inside, only twenty percent go back.” They were proud of those numbers. For them, taking a class with me was not really about going to college; it was about not going back to prison. Fine by me. But I told them they could succeed in college and I meant it. But some drug felons can’t get financial aid, and while I wasn’t supposed to know their crimes I gathered the majority of my students were there for drugs. They handwrote their papers for me. Learning how the Internet worked, being in a classroom where every other student would not understand how their classmate could possibly not understand how the Internet worked — I hope some of my students tried to do it, and I hope other people didn’t make them feel ashamed. I hope I didn’t set them up to fail.
I never looked it up to see if the numbers were accurate. They are true enough for me.
Did any of them try to find me?
I had hours of training alongside people who would be correctional officers. My students called them COs. Most of the training felt like things I’d never deal with or could have figured out on my own: we should get tetanus shots regularly; some prisons have asbestos in the walls; having sex with an inmate, even if he or she is willing, is considered rape because of the power dynamic; if an inmate is acting strangely say something to someone because he or she may have been raped and the federal government is trying to reduce rape in prison because rape shouldn’t be considered part of punishment.
We spent an hour on hostage training, the only thing that felt like a danger I wasn’t already equipped to deal with. I learned no guard will let an inmate leave the premises, even if it means a hostage will be killed, because they have to protect the general population, and if you survive the first half-hour as a hostage you’ll likely make it out of the situation alive. I learned not to make eye contact with the person holding you hostage, don’t speak unless spoken to, remain very calm, do whatever you’re told. Instructions. I could follow those.
I got to leave right before each of the future COs got sprayed with pepper spray so they’d know what it felt like and could handle it if theirs was ever taken and used against them.
I never felt in danger while teaching in prison. I felt stared at and scrutinized, but never threatened. I figured my students knew what I knew, that it would be really foolish to hurt me. If I got hurt all the things that some would consider extras, the classes and recreations and church visits, all of those things would stop. Hurting a CO is one thing. Don’t touch the professor.
There was always a CO posted outside my door, but they only came inside at the beginning and end of class. I was on my own and preferred it that way, didn’t want my teaching listened to. One CO flirted with me relentlessly in front of my students. I did my best to stay deadpan. I thought he was a creep. One CO told me not to let the inmates fool me, they were little monsters. She said this where a few of my students could hear her. I’d respected her until that moment. She was tall and broad and seemed strong. But I don’t think you should ever work with people you consider to be monsters. I liked my students much more than any of the COs.
Numbers would be called over the speakers and my students would respond. Sometimes someone would come in my room and count. One number would be called and students would perk up, seem agitated. Another would be called and they’d all relax. I never knew what any of the numbers meant, figured if any of them were significant someone would come tell me what to do. It seemed to me that would have been a useful part of my training.
I was never supposed to know their crimes. The policy was there so I wouldn’t give them legal advice, or try to get it for them. But I was glad because I didn’t want to know. I told them I didn’t want that to be the primary thing I thought about them. One student told me he killed his girlfriend. I told him I wasn’t supposed to know that. He proceeded to explain that she deserved it because she cheated on him. We were ostensibly talking about his narrative essay. He seemed not to regret it. I told him the conversation was over. Every time I think of that student, I think that he killed his girlfriend. I can’t remember anything else about him. His face and that fact.
Mr. Butler played Dungeons & Dragons. Mr. Williams was a businessman. Mr. Graham was trying to read James Joyce. Mr. Thompson played football in college. Mr. Jackson warned me to run if I ever felt threatened, who cares if it looked racist to others. Mr. Graham was ravenous for books, playful in his punning, meticulous in his grammar. Mr. Miller was shy and had small tattoos and was from a tiny town called Bat Cave. Mr. Evans wore glasses he did or didn’t know were hip on the outside. Mr. Rooney was proud to be taking a college class so young. Mr. Hill was probably gay but no one teased him. Mr. Green wanted to go to college. Mr. Garcia was getting transferred to another prison, one step closer to going home. Mr. Martin said he was nervous about typing and learning computers and about research and I told him not to be embarrassed, to ask for help at whatever college he went to and the librarians would be glad to teach him. Mr. Graham was worried about getting addicted again on the outside and we talked about a recovery program that seemed to be working well for my friend. Mr. Rivera had a daughter. I’m sure others had daughters. Sons. Mr. Rooney wanted to be a nurse and was worried drug violations would make that impossible but the counselor looked into and it seemed it might be okay since he was a minor when he committed his offences. Mr. O’Brien quit the class the first day but was back the next week and said he was sorry, he just got scared he couldn’t do it. He’d been in two times and had to do well on the outside because of the three-strikes-you’re-out policy. He had anger management issues, he said, but he never spoke to me in anger. Mr. Chavez killed his girlfriend.
The sound of the gate latching behind me as I walked out, that metal-on-metal clang of pieces interlocking, always made my throat catch, made me sad to be leaving them behind, and it always made me feel free.
I had to be careful not to drive too quickly on the way home, sing too loudly, take my eyes off the road.
y husband and I left Appalachia to conduct a failed experiment: attending a PhD program in creative writing. We thought it would help us get permanent, stable jobs, but the education we got there was far inferior to the one we’d already gotten in our MFA program. More than one professor’s pedagogy: never let students speak. Another’s: talking about women’s breasts in class is appropriate. The professor who taught the pedagogy class — teaching us how to teach an unconventional composition course using a text called Ancient Rhetoric for Contemporary Students — had never taught the course he designed, had never taught college undergrads. Two of the three fiction faculty rarely published their own work, and while I do not think publication is an indication of good teaching, they seemed disengaged with the world of writing. I did have two fantastic professors who made me a better teacher and writer, better at talking about writing itself, and better at talking about texts from a diverse range of voices. But the rest of the experience there was not worth tuition. We quit after two years.
That school was the most diverse of any place I’ve taught. (I was both student and teacher.) A large state school, as many students as people who live in my hometown, the widest range of ages and races and religions in my classroom at once.
One day’s lesson was to use Stasis Theory, a series of ancient rhetorical questions asked to figure out what is actually being debated in any controversy. My students voted to discuss gay marriage, a conversation I would not have initiated in Texas. Two of my fellow doctoral students actively fought against marriage equality, which I learned from their Facebook walls and blogs, and had accused me and my husband of ostracizing them because we refused to invite them to parties in our home, refused to speak to them outside of professional situations. I didn’t want to have the conversation, found the anti-equality stance too exasperating, but my students did. They selected their own small groups, and I hadn’t realized how homogeneous each was until one group of middle-aged men started saying things like, “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” and another group of young flamboyant gay men and young punk students eyed them nervously.
When we gathered into a big group to write our ideas on the board, I said, “Our goal here is to determine what the actual debate is. When you share your thoughts, you’re saying what some people believe, not necessarily what you believe. And as I hope I’ve made clear all semester, it is important to me that all my students feel safe in my classroom, that you all feel equally valid and valued. So let’s be careful to not attack each other.” It worked. Everyone was respectful. And after talking for nearly an hour, we realized that the crux of the debate was morality versus legality. The real question was: Could one group decide what was legal for everyone based on their morality? And is determining that something is legal an infringement on a group’s morality if they aren’t forced to participate in the activity?
Randy Clark, a fifth-generation Texan who owned a ranch and worked on cars, grease perpetually in the creases of his large, calloused hands, came up to me after class and said he’d never thought of the issue that way. He’d never been able to talk about it so calmly with a group of people. He said I’d handled the conversation gracefully and that he was back in college because his job wanted him to teach new technicians, and wanted him to get a college degree to do so, even though he was fifty-five. He said he hoped to be a teacher like me someday.
The next class period Randy sat by the very quiet gay man who wore cornflower blue contact lenses, bright in his dark face, and lots of bracelets. They helped each other in class and developed what seemed to me to be an authentic, caring friendship.
I’m not saying I made that happen. I’m saying when diverse opinions meet in the classroom, civil discourse and actual reaching across divisions is possible.
Randy Clark wrote about gun control all semester. He and I do not see eye-to-eye on that issue. He argued that reduction of ammo in a clip would be inconvenient on his ranch when killing coyotes. I asked if inconvenience for him was acceptable if it would make it harder for people to kill many other people very, very rapidly. Randy would walk me to my car after class because we ended at 8:50 at night. I never felt like his chivalry was patronizing, and was glad for the company in the dark. Even though our political views were fundamentally opposite, Randy was not a jerk. He was a good person. And he helped me realize that many people like him feel their values are being attacked and their way of life is being disrespected. Randy felt like much of American culture wanted him to be different than he was. And he was right. For the first time I understood how that must feel.
I want people to value life more than guns. I want gay people to have full equality. I want some people to become different. But I realized my progressive politics want everyone to progress, and his conservative politics want everyone to stay the same, and that’s essentially why so many people yell at each other on the television. In person.
We solved no problems in that classroom, but no one ever yelled, and I’d much rather hang out with those students than most politicians.
One of the best comments on an evaluation I ever got: “I never thought I could feel so close to a non-Texan.” I assume Randy wrote that, but maybe it was one of his buddies. Or someone I had no idea felt that way.
hope my current job will be the one I retire from. Twenty-four years from now. Or more. I teach at my alma mater, Northern Arizona University, in my hometown of Flagstaff. I teach only creative writing, and that means I teach only electives. No one is required to set foot in my classroom.
Hard conversations about the world outside our door still arise. A student wrote a futuristic story where gay people were being exterminated as Pests and another student said it didn’t feel far-fetched given SB 1062. Another student asked what SB 1062 was, so I said what I considered to be simply factual: “It is a proposed bill in Arizona that would make it legal for business owners to discriminate against gay patrons.” There was an uproar. Some students said that wasn’t true at all, that it was a bill to protect religious freedom. I didn’t know I’d said something controversial.
I teach indigenous students in a state with multiple reservations, including the largest in the country, a state where I grew up hearing racist statements uttered against native people that were worse than anything I heard said about black people in the south. I teach brown people in a state where brown people can have their papers legally checked. I have my students read authors who have been banned in high schools in this state for ostensibly promoting racial solidarity, when what they’re really doing is exploring racism. We’ve read texts — both published and by students — where brown people are exotic, gay men are pedophiles, black men are criminals, and we’ve talked about the implications of upholding such stereotypes. We’ve talked about “political correctness” versus being willing to protect people who can be harmed by labels. I often have one black student in my classroom, one indigenous student, one veteran (often the same person is the only vet and the only native or black student). Yet in all these conversations, I don’t feel like it’s me versus them. I’m not the “other.” At least not the only “other.” The problematics are more shared.
I’m just two years in, but my students feel smarter, more talented, more dedicated than I was at their age. They are some of the finest writers I’ve read, and I’ve had the privilege of teaching them.
When a colleague asked if I was teaching the next James Joyce I said no, but I might be teaching the next Junot Díaz. He asked why we needed more creative writing sections, to train more waiters? I don’t care if the culture doesn’t respect what I do, if I will never get paid what doctors and lawyers make. I think my work is equally important. I might be teaching the next James Baldwin, Amy Hempel, Aimee Bender, Tim O’Brien, Leslie Marmon Silko. The next James Joyce, the next Stephen King, yeah, maybe next semester. (Many would like to be the next J.R.R. Tolkien or J.K. Rowling.) My undergrads are getting into grad school. My undergrads are getting published. And even if they don’t become famous, I believe that their lives and the wider world are just a little bit better because of the stories they tell.
I walk past the classroom where Monica Brown taught her first class at NAU. I’d finally registered for Contemporary American Literature, known as the Living White Guys Class (the one before it chronologically was the Dead White Guys Class) because I had to take it to graduate. I was a senior, and there Dr. Brown was, saying, “If you’ve been to the bookstore you’ve seen I changed the content of this course. You’ll still get credit for Contemporary American Lit, but we’ll be reading all Latina authors. That means women from Latin America who immigrated to the United States. They’re American, right? You all cool with that?” We were. I walk past the classroom where Jim Simmerman let me take a graduate class, the Forms of Poetry, which is why I now teach Advanced Fiction as the Forms of Fiction. Jim killed himself a few years ago, and I miss him while walking through the English building, but miss him most in the bar where I last saw him, where I go to a poetry and fiction reading every Monday night. Dr. Brown is now my colleague and I call her Monica. Her husband, Jeff Berglund, a scholar I read during my PhD program, teaches Indigenous Literature here. The first person to teach me creative nonfiction, Jane Armstrong, and the first people to teach me fiction, Ann Cummins and Allen Woodman, are my colleagues. Jim Simmerman’s replacement, Nicole Walker, is a colleague, and a friend, and a mentor. I wish he were here, but I’m so, so glad she is here.
These colleagues, many my former teachers, I consider them all friends, several quite close now, but I don’t really know how some of them feel about their teaching. Their pedagogy? I don’t fully know it. I know only how some of them taught me (I think they did a wonderful job!) but I don’t know the philosophy behind their teaching. I still think of some of them as my teachers. I don’t ask them colleague questions. (Yet. I hope.) And some of them didn’t teach me then, but teach me now, in how they talk about their work in the classroom. But do they think this is a calling? A vocation? One of the most sacred things in their lives? Can I ask that?
Am I a better teacher because I think so?
My pedagogy? I tell students I’ve taught the richest and the poorest, the most conservative and the most liberal, the best and the worst prepared, and I’ve drawn two conclusions from that experience: they should get what they want from their education, because people come to the classroom for very different reasons; and the classroom is a special kind of learning that can’t happen elsewhere, so they have to trust me, and their classmates, to surprise them, make think about and experience things they wouldn’t on their own.
My pedagogy is experiential. My pedagogy is a set of beliefs, both practical and philosophical. I believe writing and studying writing are close to holy. I believe classrooms should be capped at fifteen students. I believe the abuse of adjunct labor is despicable. I believe teachers should be better paid. I believe teachers don’t get summers off; good teachers work about 360 days a year. I believe educators should teach diverse texts, so students have the best chance of reading something written by someone like them, and students will be exposed to what they haven’t seen before. I believe institutions should hire diverse faculty and administrators, so that all students can see someone like them in a position of authority. I believe in what Arizona’s constitution says, that education should be “as nearly free as possible.” Tax dollars should fund education, because education benefits all of society. I believe this. I believe teaching can build bridges. I believe teaching can destabilize dominant thinking of both students faculty. I believe diverse classrooms are our best hope for the future.