When Teachers Romanticize Their Students’ Poverty

April Bo Wang:

It’s one of those summer afternoons in Helena, Arkansas, where the sun is bright enough to wipe everything out in a glare of white. Even the breeze feels like a hairdryer on my neck.

I am sweating on top of Battery C. The last time I was here, I’d picked my way up an overgrown trail and had only a couple of ornery goats for company. Now, the goats have been supplanted by metal statues of Union soldiers aiming muskets down the kudzu-covered hill. Behind me, a concrete walkway leads to a pristine parking lot where a car is just pulling in. The development of Battery C is a good thing. It’s indicative of a small manufacturing town’s struggle toward economic recovery. But I just miss the damn goats.

The inequity and challenges facing my students were very real. There was nothing beautiful about their poverty.

“This land, this land … this Delta!” Even Faulkner was reduced to sentence fragments when he wrote about this place. Many great writers have tried, but it is just one of those places too immense for words. When I arrived in Helena after college for a job with Teach for America, my head was filled with romantic notions. My modest goal was to simultaneously teach 11th grade English, pocket some life experience, and write a novel. I relished the knowledge that I was living in Richard Wright’s boyhood town, on the banks of Twain’s mighty Mississippi, and 15 minutes down the road from Moon Lake, where Tennessee Williams drank himself into a stupor and wrote Blanche’s fiancé into a watery suicide.