In 1997, after graduating from Yale University, Michael Johnston signed on with Teach for America, the nonprofit group that places college graduates in needy school districts. His book In the Deep Heart’s Core (Grove Press) recalls his two-year stint at Greenville High School, where, as a white English teacher, he taught mostly African American students in the impoverished Mississippi Delta. Johnston relished the challenge; he was hoping, through literature, to inspire his students to think critically about the history of their region, which he revered as the birthplace of civil rights. (Later, he’d earn a master’s in education at Harvard University and co-found New Leaders for New Schools, a nonprofit that recruits and trains principals for urban schools.) But early in the book, Johnston makes clear just how naive he was.
In the first few days of school, I had established a system of punishments and rewards called “The Three T’s: On Time, On Task, and On Target.” For each infraction of one of these rules, I subtracted five of the “3T” bonus points, with three detractions in one day leading to an automatic detention. Corelle—a 20-year-old sophomore with a troubled past—had spent his three strikes in the first five minutes of one particular class, and I was reluctant to issue him detention when I knew his reaction would disrupt the class even more than the intolerable racket he was making already.
As the volume of his conversation overtook my lecture, I could feel the attention disintegrating: Two heads were down on desks, three boys in the back of the room were talking, two girls and a boy were stealing each other’s pencils and backpacks. I desperately needed a last stand and knew it had to begin with Corelle.
“Corelle,” I said, “that’s it. You’ve got detention.”
I crossed to the desk to fill out the detention form.
“You can write out whatever you want,” he said, “but I ain’t going to no detention, I gotta go to work.”
This was a customary response, and I had developed a knee-jerk retort that was equally unhelpful.
“Well, you should have thought of that before you started behaving like a child.”
He turned his chair around, looked straight at me, and said: “Hey, Mr. J., you going to buy my booze for me? You gonna buy my dope? You gonna pay to take my girlfriend out Friday night? You gonna buy those good condoms for me? If you can’t do that, I ain’t coming to no detention.”
The class was in an uproar, laughing and hollering and slapping on desks. Corelle grinned and turned back to the girl he’d been talking to, glowing in victory. I continued writing the detention slip but knew, based on Corelle’s somewhat convincing speech, that it would be useless. Suddenly I caught sight of the class roll and was taken with a better idea. I scanned the paper for Corelle’s name and followed my finger across the page: 322 Russell Street. I endured the 80 minutes of chaos that followed Corelle’s trenchant comment, fueled only by the hope that I might have happened upon a panacea for my troubles: I was going to see Corelle’s mom.
Corelle was my first home visit. It was only my fifth day of school, but perhaps I should have expected that someone like Corelle would demand such an approach. The yard of his house was without a blade of grass, and its dust had risen and settled on the white wooden house so many times that the two had grown to a muted similarity. Dilapidated stairs spilled from a screen door that had long been without a spring.
In the yard, two boys gestured with the combination of listlessness and sporadic energy that marked so much of my students’ casual conversation. I thought both boys were students at the high school, though I had no idea how old they were. I parked my truck and got out. From the moment they saw my face, the lively discussion ceased. I introduced myself and told them that I was looking for Corelle. One of the boys said he was at work and would not be home for some time. After some prodding, I discovered that both boys were Corelle’s brothers.
It turned out that the one standing was Corelle’s older brother, who was supposed to be a senior at Greenville High but had not yet shown up for school. He had been thrown out of school the year before for fighting and had yet to re-enroll. I later found out that his little brother, who seemed soft-spoken, was not enrolled in junior high because he had received a year’s expulsion for threatening a teacher. They told me that their mother was at their grandfather’s house since he had recently passed away, but they said I could go in and talk to David, their mother’s boyfriend.
A large, sternly built man answered my knock on the door. David’s athletic build and his face suggested that he was no more than 30, but the miles written across his eyes promised that he had seen too much to be so young. He filled the doorway and parted his lips enough to show that he was missing several teeth. It was not until his initial skepticism gave way to moderate interest that he moved enough to indicate that I might enter.
A card table stood in the center of the room. Behind it were two shelves that constituted the kitchen; to the left, a torn-up recliner faced a corner full of knickknacks that indicated a sitting area. David’s concern for Corelle seemed to increase with my stay. He was in the middle of taking my phone number and promising to take away Corelle’s car when Corelle’s mother walked through the doorway. She was thrilled that I had come; it was obvious that I was the first teacher ever to visit the house. She was quick to condemn Corelle before I even started speaking, beginning a tirade about how hardheaded he was, how he refused to “get his lesson,” how many times she had told him about studying and minding his teachers, and how quickly she would get on him.
She showered me with compliments, remarking how young I was and how impressed she was that I had come by on Corelle’s behalf. “Shoo’, Corelle ain’t had a teacher call me or talk to me since el’ment’ry school,” she said. “Dat’s the problem, ain’t nobody care no mo’, dat’s what he need, he need somebody like you who gonna stay on him, make sure he do right and get his lesson. I tell ya this sho’ as I’m sitting here, he a had some more of you way back when, he sho’ wouldn’t be acting a fool the way he is now.”
Five minutes of our conversation had passed before I realized that Corelle’s mother was high on marijuana. Her eyes were bloodshot and unable to focus, her movements were slow, and her laughter was sporadic and irrelevant. It struck like a powerful blow, taking my air for a couple of minutes and leaving me listless and defenseless. Fortunately she did not stop speaking long enough to expect any response from me, so my recovery went unnoticed. It was her tirade on morality that cleared my clogged head like a muted television whose volume is suddenly restored.
“‘At’s what I always tells my kids, don’t be stealing, don’t ever steal nothing. Jus’ ain’t no sense in it. If you need sump’n, den ya ax for it, don’t go stealing fuh nothing, cause you sho’ bound to get in trouble. That’s why I tell ‘em, I says if you want some dope, ax me! Don’t go stealing from somebody down in the park to buy it. Don’t go jumping on some crackhead or little children to take no money for dope. If I gots some dope, I’m gonna share it with you, and if you gots some I expect you to share it with me.”
I wanted badly to leave Russell Street, knowing that the longer I remained, the more intractable Corelle’s situation looked and the deeper I immersed myself in the most heartbreaking of stereotypes. I guided the conversation toward a conclusion, neglecting the careful steps I had planned for securing open lines of communication. I had come upon a problem much larger than one requiring a periodic phone call home. Followed by a chorus of thanks, I made it to the door, where Corelle’s mother told me for the third time that if all of Corelle’s teachers were like me, he never would have turned out this way. She knew he was in trouble. In fact, she considered him worse off than that. In her eyes, Corelle’s case was terminal and irrevocable; she was left only the job of anesthetizing his gradual departure. The screen door slapped shut, and I stumbled into the dirt yard. I nodded to Corelle’s brothers, too disheartened to be diplomatic, and climbed into my truck.
My stomach was still dropping when I rounded the corner and started down the street adjacent to Hardy Park. I noticed a gathering of kids on a bench not far off the road, and as I passed I nodded to them. Seconds later, two or three of the group got up and started running after my truck. Most of the group consisted of women, even young girls, and I wasn’t panicked. Soon the runners petered out like falling stars, but one last runner showed no sign of slowing, and as she closed on my truck I could see the look of horror on her face. I stopped the truck, rolled down my window, and let her catch up to me. She stumbled to my door with the loping strides of a sprinter after she has crossed the finish line. The dark face stopped at my window and did not speak. She looked much older now than I had thought. After a long pause, she began stuttering, “What da you...where da you want the people to go...can I have a sucker....” She rambled like a toddler too overwhelmed with the complexity of things to focus on any one thing for any one instant. Then her eyes flashed, and the child was suddenly gone. “I’ll do anything—I just— whatever you got, a few bucks can get me just...I’ll get in there with ya...”
She started drifting backward as if the car were pulling away, though my foot was firmly on the brake. She began drifting still faster, as if the terror of things pulled her with greater and greater force back toward the park, toward her partners, who watched from where they stood, hovering like scattered leaves after a swift wind.
Before I could think to give her some money or ask her if I could help, she was gone, tumbling backward and then running to the group from which she came. I watched the girls rustle and stir into a pile, the last leaf tumbling slowly back. I released the brake and eased slowly away from the park and down California Street, looking into the eyes of each person lounging on each porch, feeling them look back. First an old woman, then a group of younger boys, then an old man and woman together—each pair of eyes reflected the same thing: a sadness hardened over with acceptance, a longing dwarfed by a knowing.
The blank stare I received from those faces was a mixed acknowledgment, a defiant protest against my desire to make categories where they might not exist. But buried beneath those stern glares was an embittered wish for a world where a man’s goodness and badness might stand alone as the variables determining his worth, a wish that even the most impossible circumstances might afford some hope.
Excerpted from In the Deep Heart’s Core by Michael Johnston. Copyright (c) 2002. Reprinted by arrangement with Grove Press (www.groveatlantic.com).