In the Margins: Books and Teachers

My husband, Peter (poet/blogger, nature photographer, block party DJ), recently introduced me to the wonderful online magazine, The Rumpus, where there are two articles that I wanted to share with folks.

The first is by Amy Cheney, a librarian in a youth detention facility, who has reviewed several new books for “those of us who live on or are interested in the margins and the marginalized.”

Her description of the first one follows:

Dear Marcus: A Letter to the Man Who Shot Me by Jerry McGill is my current favorite book. I am especially enamored of it as I saw the originally self-published title listed on iUniverse and was intrigued by the title. When I saw an advance reading copy in a pile in the back room of a local bookstore I yelled aloud. Lorri Moore wrote about it in the New York Times Review of Books in May of 2011; in June Spiegel & Grau picked it up and created a beautiful package.

McGill was 13 when he was shot in the back while walking home late on New Year’s Eve. What happened to him after that unfolds in letters to his assailant, who was never found – or even looked for. McGill was an inner city black boy being raised by his mother, but his life is far from stereotypical. These letters take readers on an unforgettable and intriguing journey as Jerome comes to terms with his paralysis and his life. Themes of violence, hope, despair, forgiveness, anger, and living with a disability are explored both lightly and deeply, humorously and profoundly, and always honestly through stories about his relationships with family, friends, nurses, and others that crossed his path, all in a conversation and relationship with the person who shot him. The complexity of issues is presented with stunning and distilled simplicity. This is a literary page-turner that explores the reverberations of an action and a moment, the ways in which perpetrators and victims are connected. Letters alternate with short movie-script chapters and themed photographs of the profile or shadow of a young black boy, pavement, chain link fences. From the packaging, to the insights, to the defiance and challenge of assumptions, to the writing, this is a straight up gorgeous book.

There are some terrific interviews with the author, which can be found here and here.

You may find the rest of Ms. Cheney’s article here.

The second article is from a series of “Talks with Teachers” by Oriane Delfosse.  In this interview, Ms. Delfosse speaks with Chaska Conrow, who taught at Five Keys, a charter school that operates inside San Francisco County jails.

Here is an excerpt:

Rumpus: Tell me about the positive experiences.

Conrow: You know, when I taught elementary school, I was working in a lower economic area with minority students and feeling really frustrated at how terrible a job I felt like I was doing as a teacher. I was seeing all the students that fall through the cracks and now I’m seeing where those students end up—and that they’re the same people, just in older form. And they’re not bad people. It’s poverty and abuse and violence, and all the stuff that plays into what happens to a person and to the choices that they—well, the choices they don’t have—and that prevent them from being successful, whatever success is in life. So I think it has been that realization.

Also, so many of these people have children themselves…it’s really nice to feel like you’re doing something for these people that has a huge influence on a younger generation. Because they all have kids. It’s really rare to meet someone who doesn’t. And it’s going to keep happening unless we do something about it. Even though it’s really frustrating, because most of the time they do come back [to jail]—it’s obviously so much bigger than “give them a class and a high school diploma”—but I’ve definitely felt like I’m making a bigger difference in the overall scheme of things. I think elementary school just wasn’t for me. The whole school bureaucracy—

Rumpus: But the bureaucracy of the jail system is huge.

Conrow: It is. It’s terrible.

Rumpus: But you don’t feel like it affects your work the same way?

Conrow: No, it does. There’s a huge disconnect between the jail system and the charter school and its programs. It’s better than most places, I have to say. In most places, school in jail doesn’t even exist. We’re just trying to make something positive happen within that system. It’s hard. It’s really hard. It’s not an easy thing to do.

Rumpus: How is it hard?

Conrow: The hardest thing about the actual job is how hopeless it can sometimes feel. I’m working with a population of people who are sometimes of a younger age, but sometimes they’re older and I think, “How much of a difference can I even make?”

Please read the rest of the interview here.

Read more from The Rumpus here.

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About Tamar Birckhead

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