I opened a twitter account a few years ago when my local newspaper stopped publishing daily. Twitter is the cyber town square that I used to enjoy in a paper edition. I visit to learn, relax, pontificate, laugh, explore, inquire, and debate. I so miss my daily newspaper. The limbless sometimes suffer phantom scratches or pains, I wander onto my front porch and stoop low to grab at a log of newsprint that isn’t there. Muscle memory.
I am a son of a civil servant. My dad was a Detroit policeman. He served for years in the elite motor division. With badge and service pistol, he rode a Harley Davidson the way it was intended and enforced the law with empathy.
My mom was the first generation of her family to leave poverty. Her parents worked in the factory by day, and ran their fledgling bar at night. She shared a bedroom with an aunt in a house the size of a modern suburban kitchen. She married the boy down the block and raised her four kids in the house across the street. She hosted fantastic birthday, first communion, and graduation parties for us. My mom is a cop’s wife. Enough said.
I am a product of the U.S. public schools. My family attended Detroit public schools during our elementary years. Social engineers with the deftness of a child playing with blocks implemented a desegragation plan sending Detroit kids hither-thither to schools outside their neighorhoods. The resulting flight of residents rendered Detroit one of the most segregated communities in America. Most families of any means left the city. Residency laws forced cops and fireman to be crafty in subverting the quirky law. In this way, my siblings and I became ‘guerilla choice students’ in the nearby wealthy school district, crossing district lines before a passion to market public services like breakfast cereal became policy. By dint of a relative with an address in the district, we went to a school of our choice. No one asked. We didn’t tell. The commute by rusty junkers or bikes the five miles to the wealthy school district at the end of Eight Mile Road (which changed its name to Vernier in the better zip code) framed my vision of the two countries in which I live: Wealthy America, and The Other America.
I graduated college with a business degree, a fat student loan, and a ton of curiosity. I worked diligently for a few years as a probation officer, then a law clerk, until I addressed my inner Jack Kerouac and left the country by way of the United States Peace Corps. I served in the Dominican Republic, where I often return with my family. The poor Caribbean island continues to educate me. I owe a debt to the Dominican people.
I stumbled into teaching by way of a Peace Corps Fellowship that placed returned volunteers into Detroit classrooms in exchange for a masters degree at the University of Michigan. Detroit needed teachers so badly that they would take candidates based on their pulse and a willingness to survive a few years on rice and beans. I still can’t get my arms around all the efforts to reform an industry that won’t staff its most crucial positions appropriately.
Carlos Paz is my instructional muse. He was one of my first students when I was a novice teacher in a new Detroit bilingual school. He was a wonderful, caring, generous, funny, sleepy, starch-stuffed, loving, hopelessly lost, benignly neglected, third grade student of mine for a couple of years in the early nineteen-nineties. It was my failure to make him functionally literate that has driven me to work on my instruction for a generation. Carlos is now lost in the wilderness of North American Poverty. If you bump into him, tell him to give his old teacher a call. I need his advice.
I have been a teacher for over twenty years. In addition to teaching in U.S. public schools, I have taught in a wealthy private school in the mountains of Colombia, a large public school in the high desert of northern Mexico, and in impoverished Dominican schools.
My wife is a Returned Peace Corps volunteer, a University of Michigan Fellow, and teacher, as well. She’s the type that didn’t need training to teach. In fact, she’s the type that researchers study in order to create a profile of an effective teacher. She’s a natural. It is a shame that the system that should serve her efforts to teach kids, serves only to bully her.
Finally, I am still annoyed that Natalie Merchant left the 10,000 Maniacs. The girl could sing the phone book on a street corner and still bring me great pleasure. But her voice backed by that band – sublime.
That’s a fact.