In the forward to Radical Presence: Teaching as Contemplative Practice, by Mary Rose O’Reilley, Parker Palmer writes “the ‘secrets’ of good teaching are the same as the secrets of good living: seeing one’s self without blinking, offering hospitality to the alien other, having compassion for suffering, speaking truth to power, being present and being real” (ix). I’ve just finished my first week of teaching for the fall 2014 quarter and I’ve struggled with that a bit–I think I’ve been successful at it too, but it’s a challenge. The other night my wife, Sara, asked me if I was going to teach in the Gateway program next year, which is the program where my community college takes on high school dropouts as students in an attempt to get them a diploma and to help them reset their lives. Mind you, we’re a week into the first of three quarters, so I was a bit surprised by her question. She told me that she thought it brought me down. She went on to contrast it with the ethnic literature class that I taught the previous summer, which had brought me a lot of joy. I had to concede that the first week had been difficult. My section of English 0950 is very immature and really aren’t a good fit for the Gateway program. They are immature and nearly devoid of cultural literacy with no real awareness of even the most important events of the day. They are alien to me as Parker mentions in his introduction.
Even though I grew up without a great deal of material resources and with parents who didn’t have an education beyond high school, I was a voracious reader. I was curious. I think that I saw being smart as a good thing and I wanted that. I think one of the problems here is that I project my own intellectual curiosity onto these students and am disappointed when they don’t have it. Or perhaps what I should say is that they don’t value it and thus have chosen not to develop it. I come back to that writing prompt I gave them on the first day and know that many of the students in my 0950 class value money. Or they think they do.
I’ve also been reading a book called Defying the Odds: Class and the Pursuit of Higher Literacy by Donna Dunbar-Odom wherein she discusses the “conventional wisdom” that argues that children who grow up in a “book-rich environment” make kids who are readers (45). Dunbar-Odom has always found this to be an interesting assertion because she grew up in a working-class house of “indifferent, infrequent readers” (45). In fact, she says that her work in that book is to figure out why some seek “higher literacy against all expectations […]” (45). I love that move because I’m that kid. I sought literacy against the expectations and reality of my circumstances. There were no books in my home except the ones that I brought in to the home. My father did read the paper everyday, but that really is the only literacy practice that I saw undertaken and modeled in my home. So perhaps the reason I loved my students in my ethnic lit class this summer so much is that they were really very much like me. They were students who didn’t come from literacy rich environments, but who had nonetheless turned to reading, and most importantly the reading of literature, for something they weren’t finding elsewhere.
I want to come back to another conundrum in my own personal life. Last night I went to Oktoberfest at Gerda’s with my wife and son. We met several parents from Maxwell’s school, which is a private co-ed school in Omaha. Last year, during Max’s first year there, I struggled with the school, which I love in some ways, and the kinds of values that come with it, which seem at times to be less about education than about status and the maintaining of privilege. The contrast is especially stark when I teach in North Omaha during the day, across the street from dilapidated houses and where I’ve seen the SWAT team twice and then pick up Max in the afternoon in a long train of Mercedes, Accura, BMW, and Porsches (2 and 4-door and what is the point of a 4-door Porsche). In fact, we had been invited last year to a back-to-school get to know you shindig and I had an anxiety attack when we rolled up to the mansion and I saw how well-dressed everyone was. We didn’t go in–I couldn’t have done it and thankfully my wife didn’t press the issue.
But back to Gerda’s. Gerda’s is a neighborhood joint and it’s my kind of place. And I did well with the parents, but, in a way, they are like my students who were talking about being rich. Within two minutes of sitting down with a man that I met, he was telling me about his time at Georgetown and Michigan. He probed about my educational status, asking if I was a K-state alum because of my hat. I didn’t offer that it was my graduate degree or anything else. Later, I heard him talking about where to go skiing in the spring given the sad state of the short spring break that the kids get. I’ve never been skiing and see it marked by class. Plus I had no idea that our spring break was too late and too short. I’m really amazed at the stuff I don’t know when I arrive at the intersections of class. A couple of minutes later, the men across from me were talking about their Porsches–one of the men just bought a house in Regency (a neighborhood that has a reputation for being incredibly wealthy in Omaha) so that he could tear it down and build a new house–he needs something with six garages for his sports car collection. What’s interesting is that there was little to no talk of the work that these folks did. I have no idea what these men do or what their wives do. It’s a weird disconnect because I grew up hearing men talk about their work, but it’s one of the things that I’ve learned by observation: the more one makes, the less they talk about how they make it. I don’t know why. But again, these folks are not bad, but they seem just as interested in the material as my students. So I can’t judge my students’ low literacy and educational achievement as the root cause. It must be somewhere else.
But then, am I the alien that Parker is talking about? I know that many writers have talked about the disconnect that happens when one moves between classes and from an uneducated place to a an educated place. Sherman Alexie’s character Junior in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian is one of my favorite examples. Jr. doesn’t feel at home with the white educated kids for the most part and his launching out into the world to pursue an education has separated him from his home community as well. I feel like my best students, and again, perhaps what I’m really saying is “the students who are most like me” are like Jr. and suffer in this way.
And what does it mean to be present and hospitable to both of these groups–the first of which made me angry this week because they didn’t share my vision of escape through education and the second of which makes me angry because I feel like they’ve misused their education and advantages–they haven’t achieved any kind of critical consciousness or lifted anyone up–they’ve just reified their own position (I don’t really know that though, so I’m making assumptions here). Yet I’m drinking with them and my son is playing with their sons, so we must share something.
In returning to Dunbar-Odom’s book, I’m trying to find an answer. I love the move that she makes to show two major arguments about the uses of literacy. On one side she places Allan Bloom and Harold Bloom and E.D. Hirsch who, quite reductively, see literature as a way to show what is best about culture and to instantiate and propagate that culture. Dunbar-Odom says that this tradition claims that “the grand narrative of literacy is that it will enable prosperity and critical awareness” (45). She contrasts that with Freire, Finn, hooks, Gramsci and others who she argue see “the same emancipatory function” of literacy “in different terms” (46). Interestingly, I have no idea what my students or the parents at the bier garten are thinking about this.
I wish all of this had some sort of neat conclusion. But what I know is that when I’m honest, my definition of literacy is complicated and comes from both the position of thinking of literature of emancipation and of transmitting culture. I know that I love students who are like me and that I genuinely want to help struggling students even when they are not like me. I want to offer them the hospitality that Parker Palmer discusses. However, I’m coming to see that it’s a dangerous fallacy to think that all of my poor and working class students will want the kind of emancipatory narrative that I’ve wrapped myself in as I’ve moved from the working class home I grew up in to being a college instructor with cultural capital and even some material capital. I have to remember something I saw years ago as a good analogy. There was a man in Nebraska City who was in Alcoholics Anonymous. He had helped many people get sober and put their lives together. Really a pretty terrific guy. Well one day he was attempting to help a woman, they were sitting at his kitchen table, and she looked at him and said: “I don’t want to be your fucking miracle.” At the time it stunned me. And it’s one of those moments that has always stuck with me. I have to be mindful that my students may not want what I want for them, and no, it isn’t just a case that if they knew what I knew that they would. My awareness is not their awareness. It’s that they are different and alien and I must meet them as they are. But I wonder if that line is bullshit. Who knows. Tomorrow I teach again.