Downtown Voices

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September 8, 2003 // UPDATED 11:03 am - April 30, 2007
By: Julie Landsman
Julie Landsman

To work where you live

A teacher finds her new life intersects with her Metro State students.

In heavily Spanish-accented words and with a voice shaky with tears, the young woman reads to the class: "I am from a land where there is always war and no one has food." Another woman next to her read from her paper, "I am from a small town in Wyoming where teachers forded the river to get to their school." A man from Mississippi had a story about civil rights days and the tumult there and the love, too. And so it went, around the room, to end with my own story of my father, a test pilot who told stories of courting my mother by buzzing her college dorm in his silver plane.

Finally, I am teaching close to where I live, not only literally, but in spirit as well. Metro State University has classes in the evenings and on Saturdays. Its students are adults who work, raise children and often take classes toward a B.A. degree after a full day on the job. Some Metro students are adolescents, taking college classes for high school and college credit. Many in my new class are over 30, a significant percentage over 40 and some over 50. It is diverse in every sense of the word: in age, ethnicity, culture, language, nationality and in residence. We are all there to explore what is meant by an "Introduction to Urban Education."

That first night, we debated whether urban schools are different from those in the suburbs or rural areas. This was a heated discussion, students already taking each other on, challenging assumptions about race, immigrant status, economic class and what each might mean for a teacher in front of a diverse class. It was exhilarating and respectful. Puzzled, thoughtful looks crossed the faces of many in the room. Many in the class concluded that rural and urban schools have the most in common. One man, a military officer who is starting a second career, said at the end of the three hours, "My head is spinning. This is going to be interesting."

I hope so. I hope each evening is filled with the kind of laughter, thought, intelligence and even confusion I saw last night. It is the way we learn: we rub shoulders, agree and disagree, feel hurt and joy, and come back and do it all over again. I firmly believe that those who teach and learn in urban institutions are individuals who will be the leaders in the important task of integration and compromise, celebration and understanding in the years to come. This may happen in a corporation that employs recent arrivals to our shores. It may be in a law firm that opens an office overseas or a medical clinic that pointedly recruits men and woman of color to fill its vacancies.

Hearing the stories of the migrant laborers, the complicated lives of the teen parents, history through the life of the older man who was barred entry to a restaurant in the '60s, the way uniforms made life easier for the young woman who spent her years in Catholic school, we opened our minds. It is what we humans do best, I think: tell our stories and go on with the tasks of living, earning money, raising babies or tending to our elderly mothers in nursing homes.

For the next 14 weeks, we will talk with each other, argue, step back and reflect. We will become puzzled and confused and even hurt; yet we will be there the next Monday night, after rethinking an assumption, changing a false impression.

This class symbolizes why I am here in Downtown now, 10 blocks from the Minneapolis campus of Metro State. The confluence of job and home finally arrives. For the first time since retirement from Minneapolis Schools four years ago, I feel at home in a classroom, speaking about city kids, city teachers. It is good when life integrates and resonates. At almost 60, I have found the harmony for which I think we all yearn. Perhaps finding it at my age is not a fluke. Perhaps it takes us this long in a lifespan to know what we want to be when we grow up.

Julie Landsman lives in North Loop.