Over-Achievement, Salvation, and Alienation

While I’ve been away, I’ve been catching up on reading the ever-growing stack of books on my desk. I have been reading and re-reading sections of Telling our Lives: Conversations on Solidarity and Difference, a remarkable and complex account of a multiple-year conversation among three women from the working class: One African-American, one Jewish-American, and one Irish-American. One is lesbian, the other two straight; all are now academics who have been meeting around kitchen tables to record their many-layered conversations about their lives and work.

They each talk about early engagement in school, the development of a keen competitive edge, the centrality of early literacy in their identity development. They write:

For all three of us, public presentation of self, enacted within and through the discursive regimes of the school, would become extremely important. At the same time, however, outstanding academic performances indicative of high levels of public literacy do not tell the whole story. The flip side of our overachievement (and to some extent, its motivation) was marginalization — primarily class based, although other factors contributed. The houses we built of words always had shaky foundations.

I come back again and again to these questions of how to best serve children poised at the boundaries of class divides that they can’t possibly understand, sensing the precariousness of their footing, floating between the joy of accomplishment and the quiet sense of unease that they cannot name.

Certainly, we can educate the teachers of these children that so much is going on beneath the high test scores and competitive treks through the classroom library.

Yet I know of few teacher education programs that come even close to engaging in such work.

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