At almost 74, of all the people in my life, it may be the teachers I remember most vividly. Mrs. Kelly, my first grade teacher (who began it all); my fourth grade teacher Miss Thomas (who, when I approached her that initial day in class and said “Hey, you,” assured me in the kindest possible way that I would never call her anything but “Miss Thomas” again); Mrs. Casey, my sixth grade teacher, who inspired such an urge to read, to learn, to explore that I’ve never forgotten her (nor the way I madly waved my hand in class in my excitement to have her call on me); and finally, Mr. Shank, who, in high school, turned me on (a phrase of which he wouldn’t, I suspect, have approved) to literature, to journeys into worlds I would never otherwise have known and might never have stumbled upon. What would my life have been like without them? I can’t begin to imagine or to express my gratitude all these decades later.
To a child, each of them seemed so important, so self-possessed, so almost regal, how could I ever have imagined that they, like the teachers walking out of classrooms or going on strike in protest today across red-state America, were actually workers, proletarians, members of a class that made, at best, modest salaries and stood not at the peak of our world but somewhere toward its bottom. In recent weeks, both students and teachers from America’s embattled schools have stunned the nation by taking to our schoolyards, streets, plazas, and squares, to the press, TV, and social media to protest an ever more weaponized version of America and a new gilded age country in which the 1% are always the winners and, tax cut after tax cut, there is invariably ever less funding for peripheral matters like schools or infrastructure. It’s been inspiring to watch the way those students and teachers grasp just how they’ve been confined in our society and how they are refusing to accept their places in the present scheme of things or the world that goes with them.
Today, Steve Fraser, author of the just-published book Class Matters: The Strange Career of an American Delusion, takes a look at how confused so many of us have been when it comes to the realities of class, in and out of the classroom, in an American world that seems to be growing more unequal by the moment. It’s time for all of us to go back to school and learn again from this country’s teachers (and students) about how that world actually works.