By Ted C. Fishman
Don’t let Mrs. Powell catch you talking to your neighbor, passing notes, or interrupting James when he’s reading his essay on how his Uncle Drano persuaded him not to drop out of school. If for some God-only-knows reason you do any of those things, Mrs. Powell will give you The Look: one eyebrow up, mouth half-cocked, communicating a megawatt of clairvoyance. You know she sees right through you. You know she thinks you can do better. “Yeah, I have a look,” Angela Powell says. “It’s the maternal, if-you-don’t-straighten-up-the-wrath-will-come scolding look. I’m very maternal.” Most of her students at William Rainey Harper High School in Englewood think Powell is older than her 25 years. Or at least they did until some of them set out to discover her real age.
Unlike their students, the teachers and administrators who work with Powell have no problem understanding how she can be so maternal and so young. Two years ago she applied for the Teachers for Chicago program, one of the most successful of the legion of innovations in the Chicago Public School system. Requiring one summer course and four days of “intern training,” the program gives professionals a shot in front of a classroom for two years, no education degree required. It also pays for a master’s degree once you’re in. Powell came from the business side of publishing, and like most others in the program gave up the chance for a much bigger paycheck–in her second year she makes $19,000. Yet 1,000 wannabes applied for 100 spots in the program. Powell and her husband, Gerald, now a band teacher on the north side, both made the cut. Aretha Collins, the veteran teacher assigned as her mentor, says that even coming in, Powell’s interviews and tests identified her as not just a “good” teacher or “gifted” teacher but as a potential “star” teacher. That initial enthusiasm is now tinged with anxiety. After only two years, Powell’s reputation has spread so wide that principals throughout the Chicago school system–including those at the posher, better-resourced magnet schools–have been wooing her. How long, the Harper crew wonders, can she resist? She wonders too.
The halls of Harper High School read like an African-American dictionary of quotations; there are aphorisms everywhere. At the entrance, just beyond the metal detector and the guard’s desk, loom the words of Harold Washington: “Remembrance is not enough–we must ‘Live’ the lessons of our leaders.” In the principal’s office hang posters with the sayings of Dr. M.L. King and Malcolm X and a photo mural of a visit by Reverend Jesse Jackson. Powell’s classroom has its aphorisms, too. “Only you have the power to succeed,” reads one. And another: “Say please and thank you.”
The sayings are an attempt by the new principal, Nathaniel Mason, to communicate that Harper takes learning and students seriously. Mason, who came from Lincoln Park High School only last year, has set himself the goal of remaking his new school in the image of his old one. In the past, despite a spate of innovative programs and private foundation money, only 4 percent of Harper’s student body, which is overwhelmingly black and low income, read at their grade level. Entering freshmen could not do fifth-grade work. Harper was failing so miserably that the school board took the radical step of reconstituting it, throwing out the old administration and reinterviewing every teacher. A third of them were shown the door.
Now Harper, decorated with fresh paint and new posters, centers on achievement. And teachers like Powell can help students relate to their lessons. In the Chicago system, where confident, ambitious kids often end up at magnet schools, Harper has been home to those who value education less or think they can’t make it elsewhere. So self-esteem, reputation, and respect are the currency of the classroom, Harper teachers say. Discount those and the whole educational project sinks. First, Powell had to gain the respect of her students–no mean task when you don’t look much older than they are. “At first I was worried that 23 was too young,” she says. “I went out of my way with language and discipline to make the point that I wasn’t their friend. I want my kids to think I’m all-knowing and omnipresent. If they’re doing something I don’t like, I’ll tell them.” To promote that image, she watches her kids between periods. “I’ll say things like, ‘I don’t like the way you touched that girl in the hall.'” She asks other teachers how her kids are doing in their classes. If they’re falling behind, she asks why. “I let them know, ‘You are mine. You belong to me.'”
In two years, Powell has had to deal with only one unruly student–a small number at any high school but a miracle at Harper. She caught a student in a lie and asked which of his five reasons for neglecting his homework she was supposed to believe. “OK, Mrs. Powell,” he stood and yelled. “I’ll give you lie number six, then.” Powell knows that anytime a teacher turns all eyes on a student’s failings, the situation can be explosive. Students in other classes have thrown chairs, stomped out, or offered threats. For Powell, the challenge is to enforce discipline and still let the student know she doesn’t think he’s a hoodlum or a dummy. “I always criticize the behavior, not the person.” She suggested to the liar that he might need time away from her. “He knew what I meant–suspension. I just didn’t say it. The next day the student raised his hand to say, ‘Mrs. Powell, I want to apologize for disrespecting you.'”
Respecting students means finding lessons that value their insights and experience. “Write a narrative about an abusive teenage relationship” was one assignment. “Tell me about an unsung hero in your life” was another. Last year 34 percent of her students read at their grade level, and many jumped several years in competence.
If Powell has words to live by, they come from her Grandma Ida, who raised her. “She taught me to be the best person I could be,” she says, with an unusually childlike smile. Powell’s mother was 17 when she had her, and her grandmother raised them both–not far from Harper, in fact. “My mom worked hard to better herself even after I came,” Powell says, without a hint of bitterness. “She went to summer school and night school. She sacrificed going to prom. My mom always told me, ‘Don’t miss your prom for nothing.’ She had to watch out the window while all her girlfriends went. My father even went to the prom with someone else.” Proms, Powell feels, are very important. She and her husband spend their spring weekends helping some of her senior girls shop for prom dresses. Powell does the girls’ makeup herself.
Powell was one of six children in her grandmother’s care. When she was eight, her mother gave her the choice of moving out or staying put. Powell stayed, fearing she would miss the love and security of that crowded home. Her grandmother, a divorcee, taught her that God’s ultimate commandment is to share love. “She never quoted Scripture, but she was very much a giver and taught that God is always watching and there to give comfort when needed.” Powell remembers the night her grandmother found her cowering under the covers after a nightmare and taught her the Lord’s Prayer. Grandma Ida could be strict, too. “I was only yelled at maybe three times in my life but, God, that was enough,” Powell says. Her grandma didn’t need to yell more; she also had The Look. When the students at Harper feel Powell’s stare, they’re dealing with Grandma Ida too.
At 12, Powell made her first trip to the Apostolic Church of God, a huge Pentecostal congregation on South Dorchester, where she’s still a member. “My grandmother, who wasn’t a churchgoer, came with me the next time to check it out.” After that the family went together. Religion, too, gives Powell words to live by. Proverbs is the book of the Bible she turns to again and again; a favorite verse is “Who can find a virtuous woman, for her price is far above rubies.”
Powell met Gerald at church when she was 16; he was a year older. He eyed her in the midst of the church’s 200-member gospel choir, then joined to get close to her. “We courted for five years,” she says, “and I mean courted. The lights were always on in the living room. If not, my grandmother would come and yell. And no entertainment in the bedroom!” Not that Powell disagreed. “I knew I wanted someone who’d respect me and grow with me. I didn’t want a slacker. I knew I would achieve and wanted someone along for the ride.” She dated some other boys along the way but dismissed them when they couldn’t keep up. She told Gerald at the outset not to expect sex and never to force her. “I was taught to make a man prove himself.” He agreed, and the two stayed virgins until their wedding night three years ago. That long abstinence, she says, was the hardest thing either of them had ever done. “We had to be very strategic and find other things to do. At the time I thought it was hell. We would find ourselves in the backseat of a car and both just break down crying. But I look back at it now and it was so worth it.” Powell can’t imagine a more passionate marriage then the one she has now. Their tidy studio apartment in Hyde Park is their sanctuary from the pressures of their school days.
She’s now expecting a baby, due in the fall. By the end of the spring term she’s already huge, and she can feel the baby kicking up a storm. Her students have turned the tables on her somewhat, looking out for her welfare. Teenage girls offer tips on how to avoid stretch marks. The senior boys offer to carry her books and pick up her dropped pencils. Sometimes Powell hears them speculating behind her back. “Boy, that kid’s never gonna catch a break,” they say.
What they don’t hear is Powell whispering to her child. “I tell my baby, ‘You come from a wonderful family and you will be loved,'” she says peacefully. Then a faint version of The Look creeps over her face. “But more importantly,” she adds, “I tell my baby, ‘You will give love.'” Words to live by.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Angela Powell photo by Dan Machnik.