Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Michael Copperman's "Teacher"

Michael Copperman has taught writing to low-income, first-generation students of diverse background at the University of Oregon for the last decade. His prose has appeared in The Oxford American, The Sun, Creative Nonfiction, Salon, Gulf Coast, Guernica, Waxwing, and Copper Nickel, among other magazines, and has won awards and garnered fellowships from the Munster Literature Center, Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, Oregon Literary Arts, and the Oregon Arts Commission.

Copperman applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new memoir, Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta, and reported the following:
Turn to page 99 of Teacher and one encounters a strange part of an outlying chapter of a book about leaving Stanford and teaching in the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta. Most of the book takes place in the classroom, and features interactions with children I taught. This chapter, “Club Sweet,” is about the blues club on the black side of the tracks I passed each day on my way to school, and particularly, the evening after school one week when I went there to meet other teachers. The book is also about belonging—that is to say, assuming the identity of teacher in the black community, and never really fitting in given that I am a multi-racial Asian American from the West Coast. Page 99 begins with this concern, as I don casual clothes for a night out after a day in school in the boy’s room of the school on a Friday afternoon, slipping on “dark jeans, {a} green-striped polo shirt, and tricolor Puma sneakers,” and adding “a new caking of deodorant and a fresh slick of hair product that did nothing to contain my curl.” I concluded that my attempts to fit in were “hopeless anyway: I’d be stared at in Club Sweet whatever I did.”

The rest of the page mostly reveals my concern with the children—I spend a whole paragraph on an interaction with a young man escorting a young girl from another teacher’s class. The end concerns my entrance into the club: “Inside, the bare overhead bulbs were harsh, so everything took on a gray-green cast like film negatives on a black screen...The floor was concrete {but} not a lacquered surface….bare rock marked with the stains of spill and riot.”

Does this transitional page of asides and logistics and initial rendering of a juke joint reflect the ‘quality’ of the whole? Perhaps some of the qualities—in the rhythm of the prose, in my tendency toward the descriptive and sensory, in my concerns about the nature of the world around me and my own place in it are consistent with the rest of the book. However, the page is hardly representative, inasmuch as book is mostly about myself and the children I taught.
Visit Michael Copperman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue