Cary Edington sat in front of me clicking through his teaching portfolio. Hair in a tuft, eyes bright, and wearing a huge smile at the accomplishment and ideas, he's always been tireless and strident in pursuing his belief that all students deserve engaged and engaging Math and English classes. The portfolio features lessons, activities, and his philosophy on teaching diverse learners, oftentimes through problem based lesson plans. A lesson plan on addressing discrimination in a community, for instance, will teach argumentative writing based on an analysis of statistical evidence gathered during the Math lesson. I admire him deeply for the ways in which he's trying to create the types of educational opportunities for his students not seen in our reports and tests about teaching. He'll soon be entering his first year of the Teach for America program. He decided to leave MSU's top education certification program to take a route more likely to place him in the kinds of classrooms and with the types of students he hopes to teach. Students not unlike himself.
Cary has been raising himself since the age of 13 when he became an emancipated minor. He worked his way through college at MSU as a janitor cleaning schools and rode his bike between campus and work or took the bus when the snow got too deep. Categorized a female at birth, he identifies as a man. When his students ask if he's a boy or girl, he smiles and asks them: "What do you think?" Whatever they answer, he smiles and turns their attention back to the lesson at hand.
Cary's teaching portfolio represents that hard-won place where possibility can emerge in curricular and pedagogical designs created for students' in urban and impoverished schools. In his well-written and provocative revised edition of Why School?, Mike Rose takes up "the experience of eduction when it's done well with the student's well-being in mind" (34). Tracing his own educational journey alongside the students he's taught and observed in master-teacher classrooms, Rose explores questions about school reform, adult education, cognition, work, development, and the possibility of public education in a society with staggering poverty rates and that too often fails to hear the stories of students like Cary. But what do we listen for when we hear a story like Cary's?
Some will hear evidence of a bootstrap story of hard work, perseverance, perhaps even, bravery. In a new chapter on, "Being Careful about Character," Rose takes up the problem of reading stories like Cary's as an indicator that meritocracy in our educational system works. Bootstrap stories (and their newest iteration in character building exercises that emphasize teaching perseverance) amount to little more than placing the onus to change squarely on the very people who are most oppressed by poverty. "If you work hard in school, through sheer perseverance, you will succeed," the thinking goes.
Cary's story is exceptional in large part because it is an exception-- an exception that offers evidence of the rule: Too few people in Cary's position actually make it out of high school, let alone through college, let alone through Math AND English. Even fewer of them actively pursue a teaching career, especially in the hopes of working with students in schools hit hardest by poverty. Rose reminds us that stories like his own, like Cary's, like so many others, are really examples of what is wrong with a capitalist society that tolerates poverty, broken social safety nets, and very unequal access to education.
Cary's curriculum will surely have impact and be helpful to students he teaches. But his success and his teaching are small doses of medicine that will only treat the symptoms of what ails the United States today: unchecked capitalism, institutionalized racism, vast and growing inequities, and failing infrastructures. We need more teachers like Cary teaching students like Cary; we need educational policy bold enough to provide the best educational practices for students in poverty without finding fault with their characters; and we need broad and smart social policy on the scale of Roosevelt's WPA projects and the scope of Johnson's War on Poverty— policy that treats all people humanely and provides safe, clean, state-of-the-art learning spaces.
Models of change, change agents, teaching, learning, expressive tools, and everyday struggles for dignity, resources, respect, and cultural perseverance.