Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta

Michael Copperman
University Press of Mississippi ($25)

by T. K. Dalton

A reader could come to Michael Copperman’s memoir, Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta with any number of trepidations: a weariness with narratives about the teacher-who-changed-my-life, maybe, or a preconceived notion about Teach for America (TFA), which takes fresh graduates from elite colleges and places them, after a brief summer of training, in under-resourced schools to teach impoverished students. Or consider that a book published at the end of 2016 is concerned with the lives of children who are now in their mid-twenties—just slightly older than Copperman was when he accepted the job. What kind of distortions set in with the passage of so much time? Adding in the distortions of the genre, and of the organization, how do these distortions limit the story?

It turns out not at all; rather, in the hands of a tireless, deeply reflective, honest, and unflinching writer, the passage of time has enriched the story, eroding away the unnecessary to reveal a truth.

The memoir begins with Copperman’s return to the Delta to address a crowd of new TFA recruits. In this chapter, titled “Uncertainty,” he is back in the town he calls Promise, on streets he once drove to work. Recalling a student, he passes by her house, only to find it burned to the ground. She has survived, but it’s an eerie moment. His Delta—and his students’—has changed.

For young Copperman, part of the struggle in the early part of the book—aptly enough called “The First Year” —is that so many aspects of school and of local life more broadly are ingrained enough that any change he intends to make is nearly impossible. Often Copperman struggles just to understand expectations, like punishment. In the chapter titled “Classroom Management,” Copperman and an assistant principal not much older than him differ in their approaches to discipline. “I do not spare the rod,” says the administrator, holding a wood paddle. In keeping with the TFA philosophy that, as the first-year teacher puts it, “Good teaching is good management,” Copperman attempts to keep regular communication with parents open, calling not just for problems but for positive reports as well. This ends badly. When Copperman attempts to engage the mother of one student, Antiquarian, whose love for kickball becomes a motivator for good behavior, his repeated calls go unanswered. The repeated presence of his number on caller ID leads the mother’s boyfriend, a prison guard, to beat the student with a fan belt. In a conference with the assistant principal and the student, Antiquarian says, “Don’t worry, Mr. Copperman. It don’t matter what you do, right or wrong, good or bad. It don’t matter.” The capture of such heartbreaking moments occur on nearly every page of this book. The students are wise, furious; the teacher naive, full of hubris; Teacher shows each with respect and precision.

The scale of trauma many of these students experienced before even coming to school is extraordinary. Its retelling in Teacher is not the stuff of exploitative melodrama, as it could be with a lesser talent, but is instead in the tradition of literary witness. “What You Can Give” describes how Tevin, a student in foster care, appeared to have experienced extreme malnourishment, fetal alcohol poisoning, and crack while in utero, and had even been the person to discover the corpse of his murdered mother. Copperman is shown Tevin’s case file and reports what the student saw that day: “all down her shoulders and chest and all over the white porcelain was blood from her throat, which had been slit open from clavicle to clavicle.” The student’s behavior continues to be rough, though his capability is there: “He wrote the word fuck a hundred times when asked to write a five-sentence paragraph—complete with five periods to satisfy the assignment.” Copperman literally throws the student into the hallway after Tevin spits in his face. It’s a telling moment in the midst of monumental—if not uncommon—first-year teacher behavior challenges. “I struggled to recognize that not only couldn’t I create new lives for my kids, but on my worst days I couldn’t even make progress in teaching them to read, write, and understand fractions,” writes Copperman. “Many of these children had hard lives and they brought their circumstances to school with them. . . . How can one respond to constant disrespect without anger?”

In the above context, in the chapter “Persistence and Penance,” Copperman is referencing his own anger, the disrespect being the student behavior toward him. Of course, bad behavior is also a form of anger, itself a response to constant disrespect of a different sort: of being a child growing up in a segregated town, being teased for having clothes that are dirty or a body that smells, having developmental delays and issues related to a parent’s addiction, the instability of a one- or even a no-parent household, the difficulty of being raised by grandparents, the consequent problems rooted in the “solution” of corporal punishment, an educational system that thinks testing is the way to improve education for children living under such a matrix of oppressions, the casual racism in a town where confederate flags fly on major streets and where the place most likely to appear integrated is the local Walmart. Copperman writes: “Lynching in adjacent counties was in the memory of her parents and grandparents; who was I to claim that change had come in a place so substantially unaltered by time? Here at this school, even now, we kept black children fenced in with barbed wire, and at the Academy football field I passed on my way home each day, hoops of razor wire kept them out.” He describes another student, Nyson, whose disability went undiagnosed until so late in the year that he’d been resourced to a special education facility. “I’d failed Nyson, had missed the meaning of his first zero on the diagnostic and every subsequent sign, even his own writing on the wall. All those months he begged me to notice, and I let him suffer there alone, the only one who cared enough to look in the right place.” He ends up back at the school, and is properly diagnosed with dyslexia related to both reading and math—the latter of which Copperman says he should have seen when the boy wrote “10 x 10 = 010” on the test Copperman had posted.

First-year teachers make many of the same mistakes, regardless of talent and placement—and here we certainly have a talented teacher in a difficult and unfamiliar placement. Our first year in New York, my wife and her middle-school colleagues attended a great many “mandatory meetings”—happy hours at nearby dive bars. In Copperman’s book, some of my favorite moments from the first year describe life outside the classroom. Though set in 2002, Copperman’s description of the experience of being a young man of Japanese and Jewish descent teaching in a place where such racial multiplicity is buried underneath a tense, historically laden binary is insightful and important in this moment. “Club Sweet,” for instance, shows Copperman invited out to a Delta-style “mandatory meeting.” He’s not quite in his element, but neither is he when he stops to eat at the only Chinese restaurant in the area, only to find the woman at the grill and her teenage son bringing him a home-style, off-menu feast. In both cases, others recognize his dislocation—or, in the case of the China-King Restaurant, their own in his. They meet it with kindness, and the relief is real.

Teacher testifies to the pressure that young, bright idealists can experience when encountering entrenched inequities. It’s not something new, either. In “Harm,” Copperman describes a conversation about burnout with his father, who worked early in his career in ERs serving low-income and sometimes homeless and mentally ill patients. Copperman’s father describes a man who came in four days after he’d almost died of alcohol poisoning; the father settles the patient roughly into a gurney, and after leaving for a minute, he returns. Copperman’s father relates the conversation to his son: “‘Thank God you come, thank God you come, there was a bad doctor here hurting me.’ He didn’t remember I’d treated him that way and left him there, any more than he remembered it was me who saved his life.” In the stories of these students from his first year—of Nyson and Antiquarian and Tevin—there are echoes with the elder Copperman’s experience.

The structure of the book into first year and second makes sense. But it does build in some of the same problems that TFA’s two-year model has: namely, the problem of the lame duck, and one who has just recently come to know how much they do not know. Much of the second year sees Copperman actively engaging the forces he’d come to understand over the course of the first year—among them what he sees as his own ineffectiveness. He doesn’t quite have the time or momentum to fix much of this, in part because he’ll soon be leaving. It’s not a flaw of the book as much as the TFA experience. What holds “The Second Year” together are his efforts to reach a single student, who he calls Felicia. Because she is behaviorally disturbed but preternaturally bright—the kind of student a principal friend of mine calls a “program breaker”—he engages her in a yearlong struggle to tap her potential. At the start of the school year, he arrives at school to find her curled up in front of his classroom door. Copperman doesn’t know this, but all the other teachers in the school had refused her. She starts the year with a tirade when she’s not allowed to use the bathroom: “Stupid ugly little Chinaman gone send me to the office for dancing? Shoot, I gone tell Assistant Principal Winston he need to send that mean little slant-eyed man to go back where he come from . . . . ” It’s not long before she’s refusing to read The Cricket of Times Square on principle. It didn’t have to do with literacy though: “Mostly she was superproficient [on tests], though on one section of a test from third grade she’d literally received no points at all, which could only mean that she’d correctly chosen the wrong answer to each question.” Her reading level was “currently unestablishable due to exceptional speed and frequent digression on all comprehension questions.” He makes her his project:

What emerged was an extraordinary and violent defiance, a nature so ruthlessly oppositional it couldn't be mastered. . . . In the overlap between impossibility and impossibility there had to be some truth that connected with the gentleness I could sometimes exact from her with a smile or compliment. There was something about Felicia that was worthy of effort—and I’d bring it out.

He finds himself trying to reach her to the detriment of other students. Out of frustration, late in the year, a student named Solomon mocks his teacher:

Felicia Jackson, that’s enough out of you! I already asked you to stop being terrible to everybody in the world six other times today! It’s not OK to poke Serenity in the back of the head, kick Solomon in the shins, all the while meddling Serenity and mocking me behind my back all at the same time all day every day! I don’t appreciate being called a Ching-Chong Chinaman ought to go on back to China and fry me some rice! No, don’t even talk! That’s a consequence! That’s another consequence! No, I don't discuss consequences with fourth graders!

She eventually is transferred to a series of facilities for disturbed youth, ”and then sent back within a week: they didn’t know how to handle her combination of acuity and defiance.” She ended up, he learns, finishing school. As of the publication of Teacher, she worked at a Sonic drive-through in Promise.

This book was a consuming read, but reviewing it took me far longer than I thought. At first, I thought this had something to do with my own proximity to a rough year I had working in a school myself—but it wasn’t that, or even the evergreen excuse available to a working parent of two children under age four. No, the hardest thing to explain about the book is this: Rather than having its narrative distorted by memory or ego, its structure captures a distortion in the experience of TFA itself. In that first year, the dramatic details underpinning a narrative of monumental adjustment to the incredible responsibilities assumed by a novice in the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the United States overwhelm any other possible story. In that second year, the teacher is both better and aware of how much better they need to be—but is also leaving.

Copperman has for many years taught low-income, first-generation students of color at the University of Oregon. That experience, sketched out at the end, offers a grounding through-line, which keeps the exquisitely rendered memories from fishtailing into a defensive nostalgia or a facile self-flagellation. These memories are of children who now may well have fourth-graders of their own. Time has worn off anything extraneous, and the voices of the students ring as clearly on the page as they did in the room where they originated. Teacher offers a glimpse at a lost planet, recognizable from our own, spinning on an axis with its own specific gravity.

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