By Ben Joravsky
Like other young and talented teachers before him, Greg Michie decided to write a book about his days in the classroom of an inner-city public school. Unlike most of the others, Michie doesn’t pretend to know the answers. Teaching, to him, is a craft that can never be mastered.
This message is particularly relevant as Chicago’s central office fills classroom vacancies with hastily trained neophytes who have been told that teaching can be as easy as following the school board’s scripted lesson plan. Michie’s book, Holler if You Hear Me: The Education of a Teacher and His Students, should be required reading for these rookies.
“Teaching is the hardest job I ever had,” says Michie. “And the hardest part is the unexpected. It can’t be scripted. You’re dealing with human beings–you can’t pretend that every day will be the same.”
There’s a genre of education narratives that features a lone crusader who after minor setbacks achieves what everyone said was impossible: transforming a classroom of knuckleheads into high achievers. Michie’s book breaks this mold. In the tales he tells he fails almost as often as he succeeds. But there are lessons to be learned in either instance.
As he tells the story, he stumbled into the profession in 1990 when he started substituting at a school on the south side. Within a few months he was working full-time, and in 1992 he found himself teaching English to seventh- and eighth-graders at Seward, an old public school in Back of the Yards, a mostly Mexican-American working-class community.
He went in with big dreams and expectations: he was going to be the sort of progressive-thinking, sympathetic nice guy that kids really love. Within a few weeks many of his illusions were shattered. It wasn’t just the petty intrusiveness of the central office, with its rigid rules and regulations, or the school’s deteriorating physical condition (“Sometimes you baked and some days you froze”). It was also the students. Too often he had a hard time just getting them to pay attention.
In a series of painful and powerful episodes he describes being mocked, taunted, defied, and lampooned. There were days when his students chatted, fought, laughed, and tossed paper airplanes as if he weren’t there. Their insolence and apathy wore him down. He worried that he was too permissive and passive. He wondered–do they only respect an ogre? He became obsessed with maintaining order. He sometimes lost his cool and retaliated in ways that were, in his words, “cruel and unnecessarily punitive.”
From day to day he never knew what to expect. One gut-wrenching chapter recalls how a seventh-grade girl accused him of intending to molest girls on a camping trip he was chaperoning. She later admitted she had made it up because she was bitter at not being able to go on the trip. Yet he remained shaken even after his name was cleared. The incident undercut his confidence about how close he could be to students. He wondered how he could maintain his ideals in a system that seemed determined to crush idealism.
Despite it all, he became a good teacher. He learned from some of his colleagues, such as Moses Green, a six-foot-three math teacher who “while he categorically rejected gang culture, accepted the individuals who were wrapped up in it. He listened to them, he related to them as people.”
Michie trusted his instincts and developed his own style. As much as he could, he let his students choose the poems, books, and songs they studied. He got them to write their own songs and stories. He designed a video-studies class and taught the kids to make their own movies. He brought Sandra Cisneros to school, and it amazed the students that a working-class Mexican-American girl so much like them could become a great writer. His efforts won him a Golden Apple award and the gratitude of countless graduates who’d come back to his classroom to say thanks.
“I think it’s not only possible to maintain your idealism, but it’s incumbent on all new teachers to hang on to it,” he says. “When I talk to teachers in training I always tell them to stop for a second and think about every idealistic notion they have about teaching and what school’s supposed to be. Then I tell them that when they go in there and it’s a lot more messy and painful than they realized, they should remember this moment. They should never forget why they went into teaching.
“I don’t think anyone ever has that triumphant moment you see in the movies, where afterward the teacher knows exactly what to do. Those moments have always struck me as false, and in fact they are sort of destructive because a lot of young teachers can get disillusioned when it doesn’t happen that way to them. In my experience, you might have a triumphant moment on Tuesday and then on Wednesday everything sucks. Overall, you come to appreciate the importance of each and every small triumph.”
He worries about some of the trends he sees under the current regime. There’s too much meddling, particularly in curriculum planning, and far too much emphasis on standardized achievement tests. He wonders whether the next generation of young teachers will have his freedom to develop their own styles and techniques. “Everybody reads the papers, everybody knows what the pressures are–it’s all about raising test scores,” says Michie. “The principals are under so much scrutiny. And I think their fear trickles down to the teacher and then to the student, so everybody’s afraid, and operating from fear’s not always good. I just saw the curriculum guide they passed out for kindergarten social studies. It’s 300 pages. I have no idea what’s in there. But if I got a 300-page guide I’d be afraid. I’d be intimidated. They say it’s only for teachers who feel they need help, but put yourself in the place of a starting teacher. Most of us want our supervisor’s approval. Unless you have a strong sense of self you would bend to what’s required and follow the test guide and become obsessed with tests. A lot of creativity will be lost.”
Michie gave up his full-time position at the end of last year so he could finish his graduate studies in education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. However, he still volunteers at the alternative high school for dropouts he helped found in the area, and he occasionally substitutes at Seward, where he’ll lead former students reading passages from his book on October 14 in the school’s library.
But he’s not sure if he’ll return to full-time teaching once he gets his degree, though he will stay in education. Whenever a good young teacher leaves the classroom, it’s always too soon. “I love teaching and I might return to it, but there’s a lot of things I’d like to do, so I’m really not sure,” he says. “I think I was getting better. There were things I did at the end I couldn’t have done at first. My reactions and responses were based on things I had to learn. Teaching is an art. It’s something you continuously develop.”
Hit by a Bus
Among the many virtues of Michael Patrick MacDonald’s new book is its tragic account of the self-destructive impulse behind the defiant rage of the white working class.
All Souls tells the story of the great busing battle in Southie, a predominantly Irish neighborhood in Boston, but in many ways MacDonald could be writing about Bridgeport, Canaryville, or Back of the Yards.
“We were all very proud to come from Southie,” says MacDonald. “But the perception of Southie wasn’t the reality. The perception was that it was well-to-do and privileged and that whatever we had was better than the blacks. Our leaders and politicians fed us that line and we bought it because we needed to believe that. In fact, we lived in a ghetto.”
His book has many of the characteristics of the great working-class literature of Nelson Algren and James T. Farrell. It’s all there: the isolation, bigotry, addictions, and violence; the worship of neighborhood gangsters; the contempt, almost hatred, for outsiders, including “liberals,” judges, newspaper reporters, suburbanites, and blacks–especially blacks.
In 1974 a federal judge named Arthur Garrity Jr. ordered Boston to integrate its schools. Within a few months buses bearing black kids from Roxbury began rolling into Southie.
What followed can only be described as insurrection. In one street-fighting scene after another, MacDonald describes kids battling cops and tossing bottles and rocks at buses. He was only eight at the time, but his family was involved. His mother played the accordion and sang songs at protest rallies. A famous photo from those days that’s reprinted in the book shows Kevin, an older brother, scrawny and shirtless, firing a rock at a bus.
In retrospect, MacDonald sees great irony in their rage. Why were they so angry? What did they have to lose? As he tells it, Southie was tough and shabby long before busing. His own family lived in a run-down housing project where most residents subsisted on public aid. They listened to soul music and talked black street jive. You figure they’d welcome the black kids, or at least take their presence in stride. But no, they saw themselves as warriors defending their sacred Celtic turf.
The protests lasted for several years, while a generation of Southie teens was destroyed. MacDonald knows dozens of kids who dropped out rather than be bused to Roxbury, where they’d be greeted by the fists and knives of angry black teenagers seeking revenge against anyone from Southie. A local gangster idolized by many brought cocaine into Southie. It hooked hundreds of kids and many died. MacDonald recalls one stretch when a week rarely went by without a teen suicide. Four of his ten siblings died young.
“More and more often I found myself sitting at the window, noticing how clean-cut all the teenagers in the neighborhood looked, with ties on and wet hair slicked back like Catholic school kids, gathering out on Patterson Way for the three-block journey up Dorchester Street to the funeral parlor,” he writes. “You wouldn’t even recognize some of the roughest ones among them….It was becoming another one of our Southie traditions, these groups of spiffed-up kids gathering to see their friends in a casket; and Ma found herself wondering which one would be next.”
MacDonald dropped out of high school but managed to find his way, in part by leaving town for a while (he spent a year in Chicago). Eventually he became a community activist who helped organize a crime-fighting program that united black and white neighborhoods. He finds lessons in the busing madness that would be useful to activists in Chicago’s poor white neighborhoods, whose residents have a history of voting for hacks who promise (openly or not) to protect them from the blacks.
“What happened to Southie with busing is what happens when someone is making a decision unconnected to the community he’s dealing with,” he says. “It was very hypocritical. Judge Garrity came from Wellesley, a very wealthy suburb. The decision he made had no consequence on his family or his friends. I know that at the beginning the busing movement came out of a grassroots movement of African-American mothers. I have the highest respect for what they were trying to do. Those mothers were heroes. There are many people in Southie who would sympathize with those mothers. Our schools weren’t much better than the schools they wanted to improve. But in those days it didn’t really matter. Then you could get a pretty decent manufacturing job with a high school diploma. A lot of those jobs don’t exist anymore.
“Those blacks kids who got on the buses, I think they were courageous because they probably felt they were doing something that would change society in a good way. But I doubt if it was worth the amount of violence and the aftermath of drugs and despair that we saw. The irony is that for a lot of people in Southie, busing was the best thing to happen to advance their careers. I’m talking about [the gangsters] who took advantage of all the despair and made money selling drugs to our teenagers, and the politicians who gained power through division and racism. They weren’t leaders, they were manipulators.”
A few years ago MacDonald moved back to Southie. There are more Asians, Hispanics, and blacks now. The greatest threat to the locals is rising housing prices brought on by gentrification.
“I’ve changed a lot since those days,” he says. “I was only a kid then. I’ve seen more of the world. I think diversity is good. But I wouldn’t force it. I’d encourage it as much as possible. The best way to do this is community building across race, to find common ground together. If busing hadn’t been forced, if it had been a voluntary thing in which kids from different neighborhood went to a special school in a neutral zone, it would be very good.”
MacDonald’s book, relatively unknown here, is a best-seller in Boston, where it’s been serialized in the Boston Globe. He says he hopes to write another book, perhaps concentrating on his year in Chicago, a pivotal time of his life.
“I came to Chicago in 1989 when I was 23 and had to get away from Southie,” says MacDonald. “I was living in an apartment at Barry and Wolcott. I was just sort of hanging out. I didn’t have a job. I had friends there, people who had lived in Boston and were all part of the punk rock scene. That was how I made my mental escape, actually, by getting involved in the punk rock scene. Anyway, I moved in with these guys and we all sort of hung out. I was sort of lost and disillusioned and exiled from Southie. I didn’t know what I was going to do.
“Chicago was good to me. I enjoyed the scene. I remember I took a drive [to Bridgeport]. I saw this little kid with red hair and a dirty face riding a Big Wheel. I thought, this is the face of a kid from the heart of Southie. I’d come all that way to get away and it was like I was back home.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.