Excerpt from There is Only Here: “What Remains”

Michael Copperman

Of those years in the Delta, much is gone, and what remains are moments and images which are brief and overperfect, freighted with the burden of how I was, and all I imagined I could achieve. It is impossible now to recall the fever dream of changing the world one lesson at a time, undoing injustice by benchmark met and lessons learned, or to recall the daily disappointment of benchmarks missed and lessons abbreviated. I can recall the rare moments when there was silence and the children worked and the sun poured bright through the rear windows and I could stop for a moment, dustmotes shifting through the still hot air as if bourne by the scratch of pencil to paper and the whisper of words read aloud. But mostly now the children are hard to recall, faces retreating into shadow, voices receding to clamor. Mostly, that absence is a relief and that silence is a blessing — it means that finally, I can let go a little. Leave off the harrowing of conscience. Rest.

The Delta changed me. People speak of how idealism ought to be tempered by experience, and think it a benign process: growing older, becoming wiser. They’re wrong. You can’t restore faith. I wouldn’t have been teaching a decade now at the University of Oregon if it weren’t for those two years in the Delta, would long ago have traded in my Stanford degree for a job with status and decent pay. Each day in the classroom with eighteen-year-olds of diverse background, I see my fourth-graders grown up, and a part of me imagines that somehow I am speaking directly to the children for whom I wanted so much. Yet back in Promise, children I taught walk the dusty streets headed nowhere, and I don’t have it in me to help them. It isn’t work ethic I lack, but the courage to fail — to fail again to save a child who doesn’t have a fighting chance.

Some nights I lie awake bargaining, trying to get back to the man I was, and imagine the children, a world away in shacks on the wrong side of the tracks, hearing the bark of a stray dog, the far-off whistle of the train bound elsewhere, always elsewhere. I left them behind, and so cannot let go; and so, if I close my eyes, I can hear their voices:

“C’mon and pitch it, Mr. C! Hey now! How you gone do me like that? That don’t count as no strike!”

“What the capital of Ory-gun is, Mr. Copperman? Everybody live in a tree there, right?”

“How come you always got to talk so careful, Mr. C, all like, ‘Hello, my children, today is a day when we speak using all the words we have in our Dictionary here’?”

“Mr. Copperman, how come you not black and you not white but you say you like Nas? Don’t you got some Asian person music or something so you ain’t stealing folks’ music?”

“Mr. C, I told my Grandad bout how you was teaching me that Ai-Ki-Doe after school so I can be tough, and he say, ‘Boy, that Chinaman may teach you the Kar-aaa-te, but I still gone have the Car-aazy!’ So is we gone learn the Car-aazy too?”

“But Mr. Copperman, how you know you don’t like a Kool-aid pickle if you ain’t had none?”

“Oooowee, look at he face — he don’t like them pickles!”

“Mr. Copperman, this a poem I wrote for you. Roses are red, Violets is blue, You making a face like you stepped in poo.”

“Man, shoot. That ain’t nothing. That like half a poem. Here a real poem: Roses is dead. And violets dead too. Cause I on fire, and this — ___ — just burned you.”

“That ain't no poem — you can’t use no swear words in no poem.”

“Mr. Copperman, is that a poem?”

“Mr. Copperman! Mr. Copperman! Mr. Copperman!”

And they are with me again, clamoring to be heard, bright-eyed, cheeks shiny, hair shaved close on the boys or braided to tight rows or pulled back clean in buns on the girls, their uniform polos starched and their khakis belted tight, sitting straight in “listening learning position” or slouching beneath their desks with arms crossed or buried in a beanbag chair or crouched deep in a kicker’s stance at the plate on the kickball field or speaking while doing the heel-toe two-step at a sockhop beneath the strobing lights, arms and hands waving, faces upraised, demanding my attention in calling out, joking, declaiming, being absurd and serious and smart and so full of joy and anger and outrage and curiosity, such — kids.

And so it is: the further I am from the Delta, the clearer I hear them — perhaps this nearness in distance is how the past clarifies as it recedes from reach, so that finally what is left is distilled, too perfect to bear. Those kids are after all no longer children but full-grown men and women who likely even have children of their own and jobs and aspirations and adult burdens now. They are no longer my charge, but they are with me as they were, their faces bright and voices loud. And because what happened then is inalterable, it is possible now to love them purely as they were, without the need to have them behave or achieve.

Perhaps that is why I have begun to forgive myself for having failed them — because maybe I didn’t fail them after all, anymore than they failed me. They were bright, good kids, beautiful in all they didn’t know and all they wanted. The poverty that limited them could be ugly, but they were not. And while I could be ugly in my frustration and all the arrogant naïveté of youth, I was not such a bad teacher. Not as good as they deserved, but as good a teacher under the circumstances as I could manage. There was nothing wrong with me or wrong with them. We were a classroom, and for a time a sort of family.

There was so much trauma and trouble and loss along the way that for a decade I couldn’t understand why I kept gazing back, mulling over what was gone; though it finally is simple: I left a part of my heart in the Delta. Since I left, I’ve always held back a little, unwilling to risk everything again the way I did back when I didn’t know you couldn’t change the world through force of will. A part of me will always remain with those kids, and I will always yearn to return to them, to be with them once more and hear the cadence of their voices, see their upturned, eager faces, and have time for just one more chapter read aloud, one more times table and one more lesson, one last chance to be there with them and so be whole again — to be once more, simply and only, Teacher.

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