Copperman recounts days teaching in the Mississippi Delta

Annika Lindburg, Staff Writer and Online Coordinator

Mike Copperman read stories from his memoir, Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta at Nicholson library.

Joe Wilkins, Linfield associate professor of English, introduced Mike Copperman. “Mike has taught writing to low income, first generation students of diverse backgrounds at the University of Oregon for the last decade. Before that, he taught fourth grade at a rural public school in the Mississippi Delta,” Wilkins said.

Ironically enough, Wilkins and Copperman lived about ten minutes from each other in Houston. “I likely met Mike in the summer of 2002, when we were both recent college graduates training in Houston with Teach for America. Training to be teachers in the public schools of the Mississippi Delta. That fall, I was to be placed in a junior high school in the same town where Mike taught fourth grade. Those were the positions we’d hold for the next two years. Yet for this proximity, I only remember hanging out with Mike a couple of times. See when you are a teacher, you don’t have time to hang out. When you are a teacher, your classroom is your world,” Wilkins said.

“I’m going to read from two different sections of this memoir. As the title suggests, this book is about the two years I taught in the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta. In schools that were segregated and are segregated today. It remains utterly divided. I was just back there this August, and found that things had not changed a great deal,” Copperman said.

“I’m going to be reading from a section about my classroom the second year. Felicia Jackson is kind of the center of this book and in some ways the reason that I wrote it. What I am missing in the preamble is something like this: My second year, having taught a really difficult and troubled first year, I thought that I knew a lot of things. And I was warned by my program manager that I had a particularly difficult young woman in my second year and figured that I knew enough to know what I was dealing with. I began to understand exactly why Felicia Jackson was a legend when on the first day of class she stood on her desk and proceeded to rap slash sing pretty much all of the lyrics to the song that goes ‘to the window, to the wall’ and march up the classroom and tell me off. That was the beginning. She was simply more emotionally aware, acute, and more intellectually able and capable than I think anyone I’ve ever run into,” Copperman said. He then read from a chapter about the aftermath of Felicia.

“For the last ten years, I’ve taught at the University of Oregon, specifically to diverse first generation low-income college students. In some ways, because of Mississippi, and the ways it made me an educator. I wanted to read from the end of the book.”

The night finished with a question and answer portion.

Ross Passek ‘18, asked if Copperman still experiments with fiction and how Copperman balances between the two. As Passek knew Copperman started writing this book as fiction.

“So I definitely still write fiction. I find the process is both similar and not similar. I struggle with different things in fiction and nonfiction. With nonfiction I struggle with being able to recon with the difficulty of accepting that the scale of my own mistakes and allowing myself to be culpable for them. I struggle with the reflection and retrospection. In fiction, I have a difficult time with the sheer invention of it. They are different but related tasks for a prose writer,” Copperman said.

Sarah Schaff ‘17, asked Copperman how he knew he wanted to be a teacher before Teach for America.

“I had no intention on being an educator. MFA programs have gotten a bad rep. No one should tell you you can’t be a writer. There are enough terrible things in the world that we live in right now that someone wanting to learn to write poetry or express a beautiful line, that’s not the problem,” Copperman said.

This talk was a part of the readings at Nick Series. It was also livestreamed.