Educating Michie

On the South Side of Chicago, hope and identity are as difficult to hold onto as innocence. But a teacher and his students aren’t giving up.

Tuesday night might not happen. It should just fold silently into Wednesday, no questions asked, like all the other days in South Side Chicago. The clock drones on the wall, challenging the otherwise quiet room with doubt, and Greg Michie ’85 sits on a cheap piece of furniture and waits. The flannel shirt on his back, the hiking boots on his feet, the pale of his complexion, the slightness of his build-what do you need to see to understand that he is not the sort of man one expects to find in this room? Do you need to see the men for whom he waits? The men who bring the dark circles under his eyes, the failure of sleep?

Joey is one. He is 16. He was sitting in his living room one evening, falling asleep while watching television. Next thing he knew, his sister was wrapping his arm with a T-shirt as the blood soaked through, as his leg stung and swelled, as police gathered around him, arguing among each other. There were four bullets in all, and it didn’t matter that Joey isn’t really in the Saints. You live in Saints territory, you’re at the mercy of their enemies.

Armando, 20, had a brother named Beto once, but he was killed by the rival La Razas. Just walking two girls home. That’s all. And Omar, who, at 16, lost two years of his life to a prison sentence, to a haunting blame laid wrongly at his feet. How aged youth becomes when viewed from here, how tired.

Your wisdom says that Michie, a middle-class white man from Charlotte, and these men, gang members and high school dropouts, the sons of Mexican immigrants, all wish to be somewhere else tonight. And perhaps you are correct. But a man can find himself in the strangest places when he can’t find himself in convention. A man can ache for Tuesday night.

So you must turn your back on wisdom, halt your conclusion’s leap. You must go back. Back to when Tony was an eighth-grader, when he climbed three flights of stairs each morning at Seward Academy, a public elementary school in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. There, in a classroom that belonged to a North Carolina man who looked nothing like him, Tony saw himself in the books and videos shown to him. He did good things for his community, for his Latino culture.

And for a short time after that, he went to high school.

At 8:15 this evening – give or take 10 or 15 minutes – Tony the 20-year-old is still climbing, up four flights of stairs to the lounge at Holy Cross Catholic Church, just across a narrow side street from Seward Academy. Michie sits, still waiting. So do Father Bruce Wellems and Marco Lopez, an outreach worker. And the doubting clock, proven wrong again. And the two dozen guys who shouldn’t be here, Joey, Armando, Omar – they are waiting, too, for this, for Tuesday night.

“Out there on the street, you wouldn’t talk about the stuff we talk about in here,” says Tony. “When somebody else talks, everybody listens…in here it’s different.”

It is known officially as Reflection. When he enters the room, as he has faithfully for the past four years, Tony greets the group individually, the twists of gold around his neck swinging like pendulums as he bends to grip each hand, as he locks onto each pair of eyes through a hooded sweatshirt that canopies his face. He could be meeting clients at a business lunch, but there’s a sinew about those eyes. Souls, you see, are non-negotiable.

All of them come to this hour-long group discussion with countless scars – some that can be seen, and many more that cannot. Here is Jack, perched on the back of a couch, letting loose an insane laugh, like a siren. The sound of his own voice, such a kick right now. Jack is so like Tony when he first began coming to Reflection, obnoxious and high this evening – but he is here, you see? -taunting both his demons and his dreams until one of them beats the other to the ground. Jack, who at 18 describes himself as an “old-ass man.”

This group will do good things tonight, too, although they may not fully realize it. They will think about their place in this world, although they might not always understand it.

In that sense, they are not unlike Michie, who has struggled for more than a decade to become a teacher. He was 26 when he moved to Chicago, disillusioned with a videotape editing job at CNN in Atlanta, feeling that the days were limping along without purpose. He was not certain he would find a fuller life inside a classroom, in a neighborhood where sidewalks are less likely to be cleared of snow, where the city’s polish fogs into a thin film of disrepair and police sedans roll with expectation through the streets. It was just a substitute role, just a way to pay the bills. But that was long ago, childhoods away from here.

A New England woman in a wheelchair who was dying of pancreatic cancer gave birth to Reflection. She told Father Wellems, a spiritual protégé of hers, that gang members and dropouts were not community exiles; like it or not, they were community members. Irene Dugan said they needed a place to think, to talk, with each other and with adults who cared about them. And Wellems knew that Michie, who had many of these men as students, who understood that reading about others could help you understand yourself, was just the man to join him.

“OK, Marco, anything going on in the neighborhood, any updates?” Wellems begins.

“Yeah, UPS was here last week, interviewing. But I couldn’t find you guys, so … but we got some things coming up, Nabisco needs guys.”

“The cracker people?” someone asks. Marco notes that they pay $9 an hour. “Good money,” he says.

Everyone nods. “Straight.”

Sticks is sitting in the corner with his long legs stretched in front of him, wearing a Rhett Butler moustache and a blue security guard uniform. “What are you, the Five-oh?” Michie and the rest of the group tease. Sticks wants a GED test date. He’s too old now to go to Dugan, the alternative school for dropouts that sprung from Reflection, where Tony is now an honor student. Sticks has a job, yes, but he wants that certificate. It means something. Community college one day, maybe.

Michie clears his throat. “OK, I have something to tell you about the book,” he says, raising his voice above its slow and humming nasal tone. “It’s done. I sent it to the printer today.”

The book is called Reflections, a self-published work of the young men in Back of the Yards detailing their conversations with one another in this room. About violence. Death. Fears. Futures. They had only 1,000 copies printed – but have received orders for at least 5,000 more, and Seward students are buying them daily. For years, Michie had brought the group books written by other young people about their struggles and hopes, writings to which they might relate. One evening, about a year ago, one of the guys objected. Too conventional. “We’re reading all these other stories,” he said. “Why can’t we just write one of our own?”

Michie understood that desire. When he wrote his own book, in 1999, he wanted to show people the education of a teacher in a neighborhood most of us only know from the stockyards of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. He wanted to show his flaws more than his strengths; but more importantly, he wanted to give his students a platform to show that they were as strong as they were flawed.

Teaching in urban America, Michie wrote in the introduction to Holler If You Hear Me, is often refracted through two sets of lenses: one of metal detectors and chaos, and one of miracle workers and success. “Somewhere in between these two,” he said, “is where I teach.”

A red balloon floats home

A trophy case at the entrance to Seward nearly bursts with awards, dozens of Emmy-esque statuettes won by Michie’s media arts class in Chicago Public Schools contests. In one public service announcement the students created, teens sink into a couch in a gloomy living room, stoically jabbing a remote control at a television hour after hour. The message: What are you doing with your mind? In another, a boy’s voice lists choices he might have made. The final words: “I am only 16.” It is the voice of a young man sprawled like a chalk outline on the concrete, a beer can in his hand, a blood stain at his side.

Michie helped the students produce these, along with what has become a household name in Back of the Yards, “SSN Live” -Seward Student Network, a 10-minute live closed -circuit news program that he began in 1994.

SSN’s studio is still in room 305, the classroom Michie had before leaving to pursue a doctorate in education from the University of Illinois at Chicago. The room now belongs to one of his first students, 22-year-old DePaul education graduate Nancy Serrano. It sits at the end of a long hallway that is dotted with the sort of cheerful messages one expects to find in a grammar school. Banners of mismatched colors shouting positive reinforcement: “You don’t have to be big to have courage.”

Adjacent to the room, to the right of its entrance, is a peach-colored walk-in closet 6 feet wide and 18 feet long. This was the space in which Michie taught his first class at Seward, a class of eight students who had to shift this way and that to let another person inside, the space where he first met Serrano as a 13-year-old.

On Wednesday, at 7:15 a.m., Michie, dressed in blue jeans, flicks on the lights to 305, beginning a day that will not end until 9 p.m., following a PhD class at UIC. He returns to Seward each Wednesday and Friday morning to produce “SSN Live.” A few moments later, 14-year-old Bernardo rushes up the steps and into the room, breathless from the climb and the cold, wearing a maroon T-shirt with “Seward Academy” printed in gold lettering.

“What’s up, man?” Michie says with surprise. “You’re early. How did that happen?”

Bernardo smiles distractedly, drops his bookbag and whirls to the panel of three video monitors in the back. He serves as the SSN audio technician. It is an hour and 15 minutes before classes will start, and Bernardo is here to set up the live broadcast, which airs at 9 a.m. – give or take five or 10 minutes. He’s only about 15 minutes earlier than usual. Still, this is not required work. And Michie knows it’s a part of the culture to be late, even for your own wedding.

Bernardo snatches the clear plastic canopy off the top of the monitors and the controls and gets to work. He is smooth-skinned, with a grin that expands easily. His hands are always busy-turning this knob, finding that piece of music. His sister, Sarah, wrote an essay for Holler If You Hear Me about wanting to become a singer. Indeed, the Villasenors are a family busy with dreams. Sarah and Bernardo’s parents bought a house of their own with money cobbled together from several small businesses they own in the Back of the Yards area.

Sarah wrote that her father was depending on her to be the first to graduate from college, describing the pressure she felt to rise above her beginnings. And she described what is a common problem in Back of the Yards: the difficulty of being neither American nor Mexican.

“I grew up in the United States. …I pretty much live the life of an American,” she wrote. “But I don’t care. Mexican is what I am. It’s in my blood. And I don’t think I’ll ever lose that. It’s important to me to hold onto it.”

Heritage was equally important to Serrano, but it took a fortuitous stroke by Michie to help her embrace it. In his first year at Seward, Michie was frustrated, working to keep a group of sixth-graders, slow readers with limited vocabularies, engaged in their studies. He had an idea to transfer the books to tape, and the first novel he chose was The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, about a girl growing up in Mexican Chicago. He had happened upon it while browsing a Loyola University bookstore.

Serrano was among the five girls from the eighth-grade classes who volunteered to help Michie record the book, arriving well before classes began each morning to work with him. One night, her copy of the book burned in a house fire along with the rest of her family’s belongings. Still, at 8:00 the next morning, Serrano arrived for the recordings, wearing clothes and shoes she’d borrowed from her aunt. She was enraptured by the opportunity before her.

“That was the first book I had ever read in my life that related to my experiences,” says Serrano, pausing for breath between quick sentences. This is her second week on the job at Seward. She is pinning a blue video backdrop to a large board as other students begin to shuffle in for the morning’s broadcast. “That was the first time I began to see myself, to see who I was.”

She chuckled over Cisneros’ chapter titled “Chanclas” – it is simply the Spanish word for flip-flops – but it was her culture, and it was nothing she’d ever known inside classroom walls with students who were 97 percent Mexican, with teachers who were mainly white. Reading a Latino book was uncomfortable for Serrano at first. It was as though her diary had become part of the curriculum. But it also was liberating.

“Someday,” Cisneros had written, “I will have a best friend all my own. One I can tell my secrets to. One who will understand my jokes without my having to explain them. Until then I am a red balloon, a balloon tied to an anchor.”

The project with the “Mango girls,” as Serrano and her fellow volunteers were called, lit Michie’s curiosity, too. He had discovered that lecturing to a passive audience was not the kind of education to which kids struggling with their self-esteem and identity responded. He was determined to engage his students in learning, to give it meaning. Quiet classrooms, he says, worry him.

Together, Michie and his students talked about the messages programs such as “America’s Most Wanted” and “Jerry Springer” sent about their identities as Latinos. They took cameras on the streets and filmed the positive aspects of their community, the ones they never saw on the local news. They examined the meaning behind explicit music lyrics. They talked about the choices they had in life, about how they could make it to college. Nothing was off-limits for discussion. Gangs. Sex. Prejudice. In short, anything and everything they would face next year in high school, all the fears that could cause them to drop out.

Quite a bit of Michie’s teaching has revolved around that respect for his students as independent thinkers – the idea that an active discussion is as much a yardstick for learning, possibly more so, than a 10-page essay on graffiti in Back of the Yards. And certainly more than a standardized test. “What Greg is a master at, and doesn’t meaningfully grasp how strong he is at it, is that he’s able to let them learn,” says William Ayers, Michie’s professor at UIC. “He’s able to say the center of classroom life is not the podium with the teacher behind it, but is the students working inside.”

Part of that philosophy comes from recognizing that he is an outsider here. It’s a fact he is constantly reinforcing in conversation, as though he were sticking a pin in the side of his own voodoo doll. In a sense, the students are masters of their own learning because only they can reflect the ideas with which they struggle. But it also raises another tension for Michie, a question of how much he can share the classroom before things get soft. “The danger for a white, progressive liberal like myself is letting kids get away with too much because they have it hard at home,” he says. “Black and Latino teachers are much better at finding that balance.”

He has learned from watching teachers of color to keep expectations high, and the kids often respond by vaulting over them. When Miguel, one of the camera operators for SSN, takes a ribbing from his classmates over an expensive video cable they think he has broken, Miguel is visibly forlorn, disappointed in himself. He asks Michie how much it costs; he will pay for it from his allowance. Michie gently takes him aside and explains it isn’t Miguel’s fault, and he makes a point to set his classmates straight on the matter as well.

“You see?” Michie says, “These are good kids.”

His obvious respect for their backgrounds gives Michie’s students the confidence to function in class as if on auto-pilot, says Ayers. That provides Michie, in turn, the space to home in on nuances. What he sees are bundles of emotions. Michie treks to the back of the room to get a piece of music. Finding Bernardo working alone, he remembers something. He asks him again – with interest rather than accusation – why he was so early this morning.

“I don’t know,” shrugs Bernardo. “Just early.”

Michie doesn’t press. But it’s odd, and he’s curious. Meanwhile, Serrano has discovered a problem. She huddles with Michie in the hallway as students line up single-file to switch classrooms after the first bell.

“Bernardo,” she says, “has been telling some girls in class that he’s thinking about suicide.”

Searching for an identity

He was seven, and he was walking to school in his neighborhood. Busing had just started, integration was in full bloom – and so was white flight. “I remember that a black family moved in on this block and someone had spray-painted ‘nigger’ all over the front of the house, in these huge, six-foot letters,” says Michie of his childhood in Charlotte. “I remember seeing that and being very confused. I knew it was a hateful thing. I imagined how those kids who lived in that house must feel, and then trying to figure out how someone could do that. How could anyone feel that much anger and hatred?”

But in his community was Siegle Avenue Presbyterian Church. On Sundays, as affluent, white residents drove up to its front in luxury automobiles, African-American men and women and children walked across the street from Charlotte’s well-known housing project to join them. Michie’s middle-class parents, George and Mary Carol, walked their three children inside, too. Ask Greg Michie about the source of his social awareness, and he points to Siegle.

“What we’re doing now,” says Michie after “SSN Live” has concluded, “is what I think every teacher should do: Walk around the neighborhood where they teach, get to know it.” Across the street from Seward, a young boy calls out from his yard, “Hi Mr. Michie!” and he responds in kind.

Though shootings are less common than they once were in Back of the Yards, memorials to lost childhoods are still a part of the landscape.

At the corner of 46th and Hermitage, next to a red fire hydrant, a wilting bouquet of red carnations and white roses slumps over the blackened wax of two candles, curtains of ice surrounding it. “It’s a memorial to someone who was shot here,” Michie says. “It’s probably the year anniversary of the person’s death. I think I remember when that happened.” He says it matter-of-factly. And then his voice grows quiet. He begins to walk again past the narrow two-story homes. “There’ve been fewer shootings, since Beto was killed.” Michie exhales into wintry air. “But I’ve been to a lot of funerals … a lot of funerals. You never know what to say to the kids to help them. As a teacher, you’re expected to have all the answers. I don’t. What I do know is that ignoring it doesn’t make it any better. Even if they don’t want to speak, bringing it up in class at least it gives them space to confront it.”

Michie’s parents, who each earned master’s degrees in education from Carolina in the mid-’60s and have worked in teaching capacities throughout their lives, cultivated their son’s eventual draw to education and to social justice. The Michies’ dinner table often was set for diversity. Breaking bread with people unlike you is an effective way to break stereotypes, and equality has become a habit for Michie.

But equality always faces the foe of time. Today is never enough, no matter how much Michie argues with it, pulls it, stretches it. “He’s very unselfish,” says Serrano. “I think, sometimes, too unselfish. His whole life revolves around the kids. Weekends, after-hours, before school, during school. He was not afraid to share his life with us. A lot of kids have said that.”

He has no family in Chicago, Serrano points out, and so he has nothing to balance outside his work. But lately Michie has felt as if he needs a little more to balance. Because one morning, he pushed the sheets back in the home he owns near Back of the Yards and found a middle-aged man who was still taking phone calls at 10 o’clock at night from students he had five years ago. He was an uncle to his sister Lynn’s new baby, but not yet a father to children of his own. He had spent a decade not only in the classroom, but carrying it home in his blue backpack, a conscience without walls. “If I’m not careful,” he thought, “I could wake up one day and find that I’m 46 and still doing the same things.”

Now 38, Michie left the full-time classroom a year and a half ago in search of more for himself. He’d already earned a master’s in education from UIC, and now he wanted a doctorate. He is researching, among other topics, the experiences of teachers of color.

His schedule is still hectic, but he now “spends more time in the adult world” – which is not particularly better, and certainly more abstract, with its Silly Putty education theories pulled from one school and molded onto the next. But he hopes to find ways to improve teacher education for people like Serrano, who will follow him. To bring more teachers of color into the classroom. To help kids cross the bridge from 14 to 15 with dreams intact.

And when they fall, of course, it is often into gangs. Each summer, Michie teaches a diversity course to undergraduates at an education institute in Illinois. He tries to help them see the many ways urban communities are viewed by society. “You often hear people say that gangs cause communities to unravel, they cause kids to drop out of school,” says Michie. “But they’re the effect of kids feeling closed off from the economic opportunities of society, not welcome at their schools, shut out by teachers and at home. These guys need to feel connected to something.”

You can’t talk someone out of a gang, Michie has learned, but you can’t abandon him, either, when he has so much life yet to live. And so there is Reflection, a frayed tightrope that could break so easily, that could simply unravel, if the men stopped attending. But Reflection’s fragility also is its strength: Each time they climb the stairs at Holy Cross, a tethering is added to the concept, to the tightrope and to the triumph of education over violence. “For me, the success of the group … not the success, but the meaning of it,” says Michie, “is that they keep coming back. No one is making them.”

It is a destination of infinite, but not hopeless, steps. It may be easy to look at a Bernardo and a Jack as two different types of kids – one worth fighting for and one worthy of dismissal – but the distance between them, says Michie, is as slim as the walk from Seward to Holy Cross. Jack was Bernardo once; Bernardo could be Jack one day. In ninth grade, students enter a high school environment where the pressures blossom early. A different gang claims each floor. At home, parents need help paying the electric bill. Become a gang member? Resist and drop out? Stay and get a diploma? Quit school and get a job? These are choices that alter the course of lives. But these are still choices.

There are rare times when the rest of the world is quiet that Michie thinks about adopting a child of his own – especially now, when he doesn’t fill an entire class day with children. He misses them. Michie needs the kids as much as they need him. They are a link to those long-ago neighbors who had to come home to the house with “nigger” sprayed across it. In isolation from his students and the members of the Reflection groups, when eating in a restaurant or driving his Volkswagen Golf – the new one, not the old one he just gave to a former student – the weight of the obstacles that young people face in Back of the Yards is heavy on Michie’s mind. “How can I help make this better?” he is thinking.

But now watch him greet a student entering a room. See his whole body loosen, the slow and humming voice reconciling into faith, his smile – usually thin with contemplation – teasing the corners of his lips. “How can I help make you better?” And this moment is where the identity crisis disappears, if ever so briefly, for both the teacher who will never be Mexican, and the kids who don’t feel like Americans.

A man can find himself in the strangest places.

A climb so steep

Michie does good things here, although he does not comprehend it.

Thirty former dropouts and Saints members have gone on to receive their high school diplomas from Dugan Alternative School. Four blocks away, across Ashland Avenue, the La Razas gang was inspired by the Saints – the very people they attack with violence – to start a similar program of their own. At Holy Cross, a congregation once scornful of its violent sons has learned to open its arms.

Ten percent of students at Seward go on to college now; when Michie arrived, it was half that many-“which seems like a drop in the bucket,” he says – but it only takes one member of a family receiving a diploma to give the rest the same idea. Serrano’s two younger siblings intend to follow her lead, and the men at Reflection are proud to hear “someone from the neighborhood” has risen to the teaching ranks.

The hallways of Seward, once without culture, now boast bright murals – an important art form of the Latino community -completed by a former student who went on to study art at Columbia College. There are many differences now. “This sounds like I’m saying I made these changes,” says Michie, whose book, now in its second printing, is used in almost two dozen college education classrooms, including UCLA, Auburn and Indiana. “I don’t want it to seem that way. I just don’t want this to read like a teacher-as-hero story.” He knows why that story line is a temptation: It’s because the rest of us want it to be easy; we want to pronounce a solution, a savior, an incarnation of hope. But these are not the sentences of success.

“The danger in this kind of story is that the next thing you hear people say is, ‘If only we had more teachers like that guy, we could straighten out those kids on the South Side.’ And then it becomes the solution. It takes the responsibility off of government, off of society. It’s a way to smooth a guilty conscience. But the reality is that a teacher can’t solve poverty, a teacher can’t solve racial problems or economic inequalities. One person acting alone can’t change those things.”

You can’t see the daily metamorphosis here. We don’t have a flip-book with cartoons in each corner that we can shuffle like a deck of cards, quickly advancing the hero’s fate. What we have is a snapshot in time of a man who his adviser, William Ayers, says is still struggling with his identity as an educator. There are no small mistakes for Michie. “Greg’s humility is not false, it’s not a pose,” Ayers says. “Anyone who says, ‘I am a teacher’ is beginning to die a teacher. Don’t pin me to a wall with a label. What I want to say is that I’m struggling to be a teacher, I’m trying to be a better teacher, I’m becoming a teacher.”

Slip your glasses upon your nose again, see Michie’s two worlds: one of innocence, where a broken video cable weighs upon the conscience of a 14-year-old; and one of innocence interrupted, where a gunshot is the only expression of values available to an 18-year-old. He works somewhere in between, where both lives are worth cheering until the last red balloon floats freely, until that impossible day arrives when he is no longer becoming a teacher, but finally is one.

Let’s go back to Reflection. They’re praying now.

…Thy kingdom come,

Thy will be done

On Earth as it is in Heaven…”

The quiet chorus continues, the bodies are still. Yankees caps point downward. Air Jordans sit grounded. Their owners are straight as boards in their chairs, torsos bent far over waists. Solemn as the virgin of outstretched arms that greeted them at the door. So easy to forget that half of them have been shot multiple times in their lives, or pulled a trigger themselves. Don’t pin me to a wall with a label.

“…and lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.”

The prayer ends. The group gets up and crowds around the table for refreshments. They sit, knee to knee, and they talk while they balance the piled plates on their laps. Jack just got out again last week. Something small, a two-month gun possession charge, the kind of minor jail time that dots his calendar. Before that, he was in a youth prison for one year. He’s a bit more gregarious than usual tonight – it’s the cocaine.

He refills a Styrofoam cup with soda and turns an eye to Michie, who knows that the young man is waiting trial on a more serious charge that likely will have him behind bars for a much longer sentence. And he knows that Jack is scared, for himself and for the 3-month-old baby he has at home.

“I want to go around with you, Michie, when you present the book,” Jack says. “I want to talk to your classes about it.”

“We’ll do it,” Michie replies. “We’ll definitely do it.”

Copyright 2001 UNC General Alumni Association

Published in Carolina Alumni Review, May/June 2001. CASE Grand Award winner for Excellence in Feature Writing, 2002.