Back in 2003, the commissioner of Chicago’s Department on Aging showed up at a bookstore event to have me sign a copy of Long Time, No See. Joyce Gallagher must have liked what
she read – she phoned me later to invite me to lunch, and in-between bites of egg salad sandwiches at Maxim’s, she asked if I’d teach a writing class for seniors. “I have the application right here,” she said, her fingertips drumming what I guessed was a big brown envelope.
I was not a teacher. I had never taught a class in my life. I said no.
You’ll do great!” she said, passing the envelope across the table to me.
The form had been pretty much filled out already, all I needed to add was a title and syllabus for the course. For that I enlisted Carolyn Alessio to help.
Carolyn was a new friend in Chicago back then. She used to write and edit the Chicago Tribune Book Section, and she had won a Pushcart Prize — a prestigious literary award honoring the best work published in American small presses. Mike and I were still new to Chicago in 2004, and I was just starting to get used to this part of living in a city – you rub elbows with accomplished people like this all the time, and it’s thanks to people like Commissioner Gallagher, Carolyn Alessio and dozens of others that the “Me, Myself and I” memoir class I lead for Chicago senior citizens has been an overwhelming success. So successful, in fact, that this week I added a third memoir class to my schedule.
My friend Carolyn is a teacher with successful students, too – she left her Tribune job to teach at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a private school known nationally for its innovative ideas and emphasis on building student character. She is extremely generous about sharing teaching techniques and ideas with me and is perfectly willing to let me “steal” the creative topics she comes up with for writing assignments.
During the Chicago teachers strike last month Carolyn wrote an op-ed piece for the Chicago Tribune with an anecdote about how watching clips from the 1982 film “Gandhi” helped her students understand his influence on Martin Luther King Jr.:
Gandhi quiets the crowd in the famous scene and speaks calmly but forcefully. He persuades with logic, feeling and a strong sense of ethics. He skillfully handles the British army partly with humor but also a sincere pledge to avoid physical combat or retaliation. Neither side ends up rioting, at least not as a result of that meeting.
Carolyn and her husband Jeremy have two children who attend a Chicago Public School, and while she was eager to get them back in class last month, she also supported the striking teachers. From that op-ed piece :
It might seem like I was straddling two systems, but as a private school teacher and parent of two students at a strong Chicago public school, I saw shared areas of concern. Teacher evaluations based on student test scores constituted a key dispute between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union, and for good reason — defining teacher performance mainly through test scores could undermine teachers’ deeper mission of developing character.
The Chicago teacher’s strike is over. I’m guessing that “building character among students” was not a topic on the negotiating table, but it should have been. As Carolyn Alessio says, all true educators are on the same side of that mission.
Carolyn Alessio has taught high school in Chicago for the past 12 years. She is the prose editor of Crab Orchard Review, a recent guest editor of Fifth Wednesday, and the recipient of a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. I am lucky — and honored — to have her as a friend.