I’ve always been interested in the power of narratives. Given my professional interests I’ve focused on their political power–what is rap if not a story?–but I’ve also recognized their power to change lives in other ways. No program conveys that better than StoryCorps. And you can hear that in the hundreds of stories StoryCorps collected. Like this one about love and conversation. Or this one about a mother who ended up “parenting” her son’s murderer.
About a month ago, the kind folks at Tell Me More asked me to participate for National Teacher Appreciation. They wanted me to do a StoryCorps episode about the teacher than meant the most to me.
I was honored, besides the fact that this reduces my NPR bucket list to two (I’ve only got Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and The Diane Rehm Show to go).
I chose Dr. Ralph Story, my English professor at Michigan and Associate Director of the Comprehensive Studies Program (CSP). But there were two others I could have chosen.
Mrs. Gilreath (Principal of an Inkster elementary school at the time) got me into Michigan. I’d applied as a high school student and was rejected. To be more precise I was given a letter of acceptance THEN informed that letter was sent in error. Simultaneously a Mrs. Gilreath’s son (then a friend of mine) had got into CSP’s summer Bridge program at Michigan but didn’t want to go because it wasn’t an engineering program. When Mrs. Gilreath told the Bridge program her son wasn’t interested, she then told them about me and sold them on accepting me.
Once I got into Bridge, Dr. Story was one influence. The other was my Bridge math teacher, Dr. Martha Aliaga. When I talked to Dr. Story about doing StoryCorps with me, I found out that Dr. Aliaga had passed away just a few weeks prior. In fact her ceremony was held 30 minutes away from my home–after leaving Michigan she became the Education Director for the American Statistical Association.
My story with Dr. Story is here. Dr. Story was the first black male teacher I had, but more importantly he was the first teacher to examine issues of race, gender, and class within the classroom. Further his teaching style was open and welcoming. From him I learned I didn’t have to leave a core part of myself at home. I could use the fact that I was black and working class, as a strength. In my writing. In how I carried myself. It became a shield of sorts, and it became a wellspring of ideas. I’d taken honors english classes throughout high school, but Dr. Story was the first teacher to see me AS a writer.
But Dr. Aliaga was as important. Most people teach math as if it required a genetic trait. And there were people who were natural mathematicians and people who…weren’t. This argument has of course, significant racial implications. Now because the formal rules of mathematics are far more rigid than the rules of grammar, it’s easy to get people to buy into this, but it isn’t true. Dr. Aliaga took the work of teaching math literacy to black, latino, and white rural kids seriously. She believed that not only was it something that could be taught, it was something that could be developed and mastered. It simply required work. To say Dr. Aliaga worked us was an understatement. But she put as many hours after class teaching us as she put into her lectures. And she took the time to praise and recognize her students. The Washington Post published an obituary.
Under Dr. Aliaga I became good enough in math that I thought seriously about majoring in it.
I was asked to give an example of how Dr. Story influenced me–the type of specific story you could craft a StoryCorps program around. Because Dr. Story’s influence on me was more…environmental…I didn’t have a specific story.
But I do have one with Dr. Aliaga. After getting an A in my summer math class, I took calculus in the Fall, one of several hundred Math 115 students. I remember preparing for the midterm–my first major midterm as a student at Michigan, spending hours going over problem sets, working on how the problems were structured, on how to think through them. Dr. Aliaga was there every step of the way. I went into that midterm more confident about it than any midterm I’d ever taken.
I ended up being the first person in the packed lecture auditorium to finish the midterm. Twenty minutes early. And got every problem right except one. In fact I didn’t get a grade lower than A- my first three semesters at Michigan.
When I heard that Dr. Aliaga passed away I was heartbroken. I decided to major in political science instead of math, but kept in touch with her until I began grad school. Everytime I’d see her she’d try to get me to consider a PhD in math or in statistics. Though I believed she took special care on my behalf, the reality is she taught literally hundreds of students. When I found out she became the Education Director of ASA I wasn’t surprised. It was her calling. She is survived by her husband, three children (my classmate Pablo, his brother Eduardo, and his beautiful sister Viviana) and 9 grandchildren.
While there are a number of exceptions, most political scientists trained at places like Michigan care more about research than teaching. I don’t think I understood my own power as a teacher until it stared me in the face. And at that point I realized how important teaching was to my life. I also realized how much I owe my approach to teaching to Dr. Aliaga and Dr. Story. They understood that perhaps more than any other thing, students need to know someone believes in them. I needed to know I was as powerful as I imagined I was in my deepest imagination. And I needed more than one voice (my own) telling me that the various teachers that had the audacity to tell me I wasn’t smart enough, wasn’t good enough, wasn’t capable enough, were wrong. Dr. Story, Mrs. Gilreath, and Dr. Aliaga did this.
I would’ve gone to her tribute had I had known, but perhaps appropriately, as her ceremony was going on, I was teaching a group of kids about politics.
Completing the circle.
As I think about this, I imagine there may be something to hearing from a few others in the academy. If you’re reading this and have some time, either respond on your own blog, or in the comments. Who influenced you?