Twenty-six years ago, I began co-ordinating a program offered at my university (University of Minnesota) for bright high school seniors. The course is taught in their high schools by their teachers and carries university-level credits recognized by colleges and universities such students attend. This excellent educational program is called College in the Schools and I was Co-ordinator of the Literature offering. When I assumed this role, the program had been led by a professor in the English Department who was not fully committed to either the curriculum or the teachers, so morale was quite low. One of the veteran teachers was good enough to tell me this and ask that I spend time immediately trying to improve that morale so more excellent teachers wouldn’t leave because they felt undervalued by the man in charge. Today, twenty-six years later, College in the Schools Literature (CIS Lit) is the largest of the thirty-something disciplines the University offers. Each year, about 1,000 students enroll from about fifty schools in Minnesota.
In my thirty-seven years as a professor in the English Department, I made two last friendships with women colleagues, and was warm friends with several men who were able to accept me and my intellectual interests. But the department and I never truly shared priorities. For me, my energies were directed first to teaching young people to love good writing, second to pursuing my own research interests, and third to being a citizen in my department. The department value research first, research second, and teaching/service a distant third. I came to know and value faculty in a college called General College, established for women and men who had not gone directly from high school to college because of work or family or both. But the University neglected that college until they closed it completely, so once again, I understood that my priorities were not in alignment with the institution that I employed me.
When I begin my work in CIS Lit, the women and men who were teaching the course in their schools were so eager to strengthen their pedagogical strategies when I talked about new ways of engaging young learners; they wanted to read new books by and about a growing body of multi-cultural writers; they wanted me to help me learn about critical approaches to those writers; they wanted to share best practices with each other rather than hanging on to successful techniques in an effort to benefit their own positions. They wanted me to help them establish and maintain community as what they needed most to thrive in their schools. Because I was so excited finally to have found a group of people who did share my priorities, I have worked as hard as I possibly could to answer those rigorous requests from the cohort.
Recently, I attended my last professional development meeting with the teachers before stepping back so a superb colleague can take on the role of co-ordinator of the course. I was to give my usual lecture on a critical approach–intergenerational trauma and its connections to the two original sins of this country–genocidal treatment of Indigenous peoples and enslavement of black people brought here from Africa and then spawned here through rapes of black women by white landowners. Then we were to have a good-bye lunch where I said my formal goodbye and the teachers had an opportunity to share a favorite memory connected with me. It was intense and beautiful and so loving for all involved. I knew almost immediately what I wanted to say to these wonderful women and men. So I told them that they had given me the only community I had had in connection with my decades of working at the University of Minnesota. That is because they put first and foremost what I tried to put first and foremost when I was teaching my own courses. We all want young learners to become adept at reading words written by writers determined to push the language into new areas and new linguistic formations. They want those same young learners to listen to themselves and their fellows rather than relying on some sage at the front of the room to offer intellectual colonialization by pouring great truths into the minds of the unlearned and unwashed. They are modeling for their students the deep value of literature and the arts in general to saving our world from impulses that divide and frighten one group in relation to other groups. And, perhaps most important of all, these teachers have met me every step of the way for these twenty-six years, pushing me to push them so we all keep growing.