When she came to Helena, Arkansas as a Teach for America recruit, April Bo Wang quickly learned her students’ poverty wasn’t romantic or literary, she writes in The Atlantic. Poverty in the Mississippi Delta was real and crippling.
My students came to 11th grade reading, on average, at a fourth grade level. Some were cycling back into school after a stint at the juvenile penitentiary. Some were regularly absent on days when their chronic diabetes was just too painful. Some were working night shifts at McDonalds to support a baby at home. Many of them should never have been allowed to graduate from middle school, much less reached the 11th grade.
Becoming an adequate teacher for my students became an all-consuming task. I had no energy to dream up anything but a better next lesson plan.
She’d thought of writing a novel. There was no time. She’d dreamed of being “a heroine.” But “social advocacy is all about the community—not about being at the center of one’s own story.”
She was able to make a difference for her students, but . . . “I was the best high school English teacher my students ever had simply because they’d had permanent substitutes for ninth and tenth grade English.”
Wang has founded a nonprofit called ThisLandSpeaks to fund journalists who will report on social issues and teach writing and journalism in rural communities, starting with the Mississippi Delta.
Norman Rockwell’s Murder in Mississippi is on display at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. “The painting was a startling reminder that the cause we were celebrating had not been romantic,” writes Wang.