When Teachers Romanticize Their Students' Poverty

A TFA volunteer, enchanted by the words of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, learns that there's nothing glamorous about everyday struggles in the Mississippi Delta.
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A rundown shack in the Mississippi Delta ( Jim Denham/Flickr )

It’s one of those summer afternoons in Helena, Arkansas, where the sun is bright enough to wipe everything out in a glare of white. Even the breeze feels like a hairdryer on my neck.

I am sweating on top of Battery C. The last time I was here, I’d picked my way up an overgrown trail and had only a couple of ornery goats for company. Now, the goats have been supplanted by metal statues of Union soldiers aiming muskets down the kudzu-covered hill. Behind me, a concrete walkway leads to a pristine parking lot where a car is just pulling in. The development of Battery C is a good thing. It’s indicative of a small manufacturing town’s struggle toward economic recovery. But I just miss the damn goats.

“This land, this land … this Delta!” Even Faulkner was reduced to sentence fragments when he wrote about this place. Many great writers have tried, but it is just one of those places too immense for words. When I arrived in Helena after college for a job with Teach for America, my head was filled with romantic notions. My modest goal was to simultaneously teach 11th grade English, pocket some life experience, and write a novel. I relished the knowledge that I was living in Richard Wright’s boyhood town, on the banks of Twain’s mighty Mississippi, and 15 minutes down the road from Moon Lake, where Tennessee Williams drank himself into a stupor and wrote Blanche’s fiancé into a watery suicide.

It took only a couple days at Central High School to make me realize that, while the Delta of prosperous fields and bourbon-swigging literary men was largely imaginary, the inequity and challenges facing my students were very real.

There was nothing beautiful about their poverty. There was no way to glamorize the fact that Ty had no electricity or running water at home, that Jonathan wrestled hogs on the weekend for extra cash, or that Yaya’s relatives fought over custody of her baby to get the extra government check.

My students came to 11th grade reading, on average, at a fourth grade level. Some were cycling back into school after a stint at the juvenile penitentiary. Some were regularly absent on days when their chronic diabetes was just too painful. Some were working night shifts at McDonalds to support a baby at home. Many of them should never have been allowed to graduate from middle school, much less reached the 11th grade.

Becoming an adequate teacher for my students became an all-consuming task. I had no energy to dream up anything but a better next lesson plan. And there was no time to write; there were afterschool tutoring sessions to run and papers to grade.

But life was gorgeous. I was surrounded by human perseverance at its best. My students were creative, brilliant, intense fighters. They had been held back in a million ways—by the history that plagued them, by failing schools, by incompetent leaders, by hunger and malnutrition—and yet they still believed that if they could just finish their education, they could do anything. Our football team was less resourced than most teams in the state, but every year without fail it hopefully fixed its sights on the state championship.

A colleague observed that there was a sense of adventure to everyday life in Helena. All week, we buried ourselves into the challenge of helping our students unlock a little more of their potential. We planned and complained and cried a lot. We let the successes of our students lift us to euphoric heights and their disappointments drag us into deep despair. Every Friday night, we cheered on our football players, joining our voices with the whole town. Some Saturdays, we drove the 30 minutes to dance at Ground Zero or Red’s juke joints in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

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April Bo Wang is the founder of ThisLandSpeaks, a nonprofit aimed at giving a voice to rural communities.

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