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YLS Student Authors, Part One: Michael Johnston Writes about Education

(YLS classmates Michael Johnston and Adam Haslett have both been busy in the fall term taking classes--and promoting books. Johnston and Haslett are also classmates in the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers program, Johnston among the nonfiction selections for Fall 2002 and Haslett on the fiction side for Summer 2002. This article on Johnston is the first of two. Look for part two, describing Haslett, on @YLS soon.)

Sometimes books just happen.

Michael Johnston '03 is the author of In the Deep Heart's Core (Grove Press, 2002), a memoir of the two years he spent teaching in a public high school in Greenville, Mississippi. But he insists, "I didn't set out to be an author. This book really happened to me, and I felt like it was a story that had to be told."

After graduating from Yale College in 1997, Johnston entered the Teach for America program and landed a job teaching tenth-grade English at Greenville High School. He immediately found himself trying to manage classes with as many as 35 students, many of whom were either unruly or unprepared to learn. He also helped coach the track team and tried to learn about his new community.

In the summer after his first year on the job, Johnston started writing. "I went through that whole first year of experiences and . . . decided I would just put as much down on paper as I could."

He hadn't planned on recording events, so he hadn't taken notes or taped his conversations with students. He relied on memory and the immediacy of the stories themselves to produce the details of his prose. "These were all relationships that were really fresh and still developing," says Johnston. In his second year in Greenville, Johnston wrote daily, getting up early to write for an hour in the morning, and then writing for another hour before bed. "As things were happening, as stories were developing, I was writing about them."

The process of writing even became a part of how he taught. "It became such a good analytic tool for me to gauge how my students were progressing to write about them, because it forced me to think about this one student in the sense of a full narrative trajectory: where did she or he start, what troubles did he or she go through, and where is she now."

Johnston revised and edited the manuscript after he left Greenville, as he completed a master's degree in education policy and administration at Harvard and subsequently during his first two years at YLS. But he worried about getting too far away from his subject to accurately write about it. "I couldn't have scrapped it all last year and rewritten it, because it just wouldn't be faithful to what the experience was," he says. He cleaned up the writing and sent copies of chapters to the people he had written about to check for factual accuracy.

As Johnston worked on crafting his writing into a book, he wanted the focus to remain on the students and the people he met in the Mississippi Delta, and so he included details of their challenges and failures, as well as successes. "The more one writes about successes," says Johnston, "the more they tend to be about the writer than about the kids. . . . I still feel like it's a hopeful book. That's the way it was conceived and written, and I hope the way it reads."

A grave tone was probably unavoidable. In the Deep Heart's Core portrays the individual consequences--in one town, for particular students--of many of the nation's most pressing social problems. The first chapter of the book is a sort of meditation on race and the phenomena of segregation and "white flight" told through Johnston's search for an apartment in Greenville. Other episodes immediately evoke problems that often flare up in newspaper headlines. Johnston finds a bullet hole in a window in the school but can't tell if the shot came into the building or went out. He meets with the mother of an unruly student but finds her intoxicated and unable to control her son.

Through the pages of In the Deep Heart's Core students drop out of school, get arrested, and fail to capitalize on their dreams. But Johnston watches other students who surprise him with their successes. One bright student regularly bests Johnston, his English teacher, in grammar contests. Other students start a chess club, after Johnston introduces them to the game. They organize a citywide tournament and beat teams from the local private schools, becoming local heroes. By the end of his second year, Johnston's classroom becomes a hangout for academically minded students. And through his constant effort at the school, he finds "the feeling of redeeming exhaustion that comes when you work so hard for something you believe in."

The title of Johnston's book comes from an isomorphism of phrase in a Mississippian's description of the Delta and a poem by William Butler Yeats. Johnston once heard a man call the Mississippi Delta the "deep heart's core," meaning the center of the heart of the deep south, and evoking the legacy of racism, slavery, and segregation. Another day, while teaching in class, he serendipitously came across the Yeats poem "The Lake Isle of Innisfree." In it Yeats wrote of the "deep heart's core" to describe the part of him that idealistically longed for a better life. It is a part of the message of Johnston's book that all of the struggles he witnessed in the Delta exist alongside a vision of hope.

Though the book has a last chapter and a terminal sentence, the influence of that period in his life hasn't ended. Johnston often returns to Greenville and has remained in contact with many of his former students. The characters from his book have gone on with their lives, and many have surprised him with what they've done after he stopped writing. "You can't pretend, like fiction, that their lives are confined to that piece of the arc. They had stories before and the story continues after, so it's never really closed," says Johnston. The paperback edition will include an endnote revisiting some of his former students.

After he graduates from YLS this coming spring, Johnston hopes to return to working in education, maybe as a principal or administrator in a large urban high school. And though law school may seem like strange training for this pursuit, Johnston says that he always intended to use what he learned at YLS to improve education.

"There are actually these concentric circles of rule-making," Johnston explains. "The rules the school makes that bind the students, and the rules that the principal makes that bind the teachers, and the rules the state makes that bind the principals and the school districts. . . . It was as I started to work my way out through those concentric circles that I got more interested in law, because that was when I realized that law is the last circle. Law sets the boundaries inside which all these events take place."

Academic classes such as Justice, taught by Bruce Ackerman, or The Bill of Rights, taught by Akhil Reed Amar, helped Johnston think about "how society ought to be structured." He is currently working on an independent writing project focusing on education law. And he hopes that even his experience in the Community Legal Services Clinic will apply one day to his work in education. "When you have kids who need representation for some sort of small criminal matter or for an eviction or for something like that, it just helps to have a responsible lawyer around."

In the fall term, Johnston mixed his studies with a twenty-two city tour to promote his book. One stop brought him back to the beginning of In the Deep Heart's Core. McCormick's Book Inn, which appears in Chapter One, hosted Johnston for what turned into a four-hour book signing and community discussion. "This great combination of community leaders and teachers and parents and students all got in the room and really wanted to talk all of this stuff out."

Thinking of all that happened because he wrote this book, Johnston says, "It was always fun to write, and I was delighted that someone wanted to publish it, but I was never sure that people would actually read it. But they have."