One thing we love at Little Patuxent Review is to celebrate the success of past contributors. Our latest opportunity comes from Jay Wamsted, whose nonfiction, “Walls,” we published in our Summer 2017 issue.
The Best American Essays 2018 edition, published this month, named “Walls” as a “Notable” in its collection. Jay is a math teacher in southwest Atlanta, and the majority of his writing centers around race, racism, and the urban school. His essays and articles have been published in various journals and magazines, including Mathematics Teacher and Qualitative Inquiry. He can be found online at The Southeast Review, Under the Sun, and the TEDx YouTube channel, where you can watch his 2017 talk “Eating the Elephant: Ending Racism & the Magic of Trust.”
We’re very grateful he’s willing to answer a few questions for us.
Q: Did you have any expectation of receiving this honor? What’s it been like for you as a writer to return to a piece after it’s been published for almost a year and a half?
A: I was stunned when I received the email. I knew, of course, that there was a lottery-ticket kind of probability I could get that news, but I had to read the email from Steven Leyva three times before I finally got it into my head what was happening. Coming back to the piece has been delightful. Alexis was an important part of two school years for me: the one where I taught her and then the subsequent one where I wrote about her. Getting to revisit her story somehow has been both sobering and encouraging.
Q: It’s my understanding that this piece went through some editing before publication. What was that process like?
A: The biggest thing is that in its original form the essay was in second person. Dominique Cahn, LPR’s nonfiction editor, rightly suspected that though effective at evoking emotion, this constant “you…you…you” was sidelining Alexis’s story in favor of the reader and writer. Dominique suggested we move it to first person, and we had this big a-ha moment: finally the piece felt like it was primarily about Alexis because the pronouns weren’t getting in her way.
The other thing I’ll note is that I have received at times some pushback about being a white writer whose only stories come from teaching black children. I completely understand this fear of a modern-day sort of colonialism, and I try to guard against it in my work as best I can. At the time of “Walls,” however, I was going through a phase where I was muting the subject of race altogether and trying to elide it with the problem of poverty. Dominique saw past that, and surprised me by asking for more about the Mays community in general and about Alexis in specific. For example, she encouraged me up to describe Alexis physically—to let my reader know she was black. I had been reluctant to do this prior, but it was such a gift to write about this young black woman with some sort of candor, to describe her the way I like to imagine a friend of hers might have described her.
Q: You seem in this piece to consciously avoid moving from the story of your main character into any sort of argument about public policy. Can you talk about this choice?
A: I definitely have some work where I’m more aggressively focused on policy, but it might be that my writing is more effective when I let the stories of the students speak for themselves. To me, “Walls” is about belying the myth of the meritocracy—not every talented American is going to escape the sandtrap that is growing up in poverty. Income inequality is a terrible deal and the system is broken; our politics needs to turn toward the neighborhoods in which children like Alexis live. I could go on about this all day, but like they say, “Show, don’t tell.” Hopefully that message more effectively gets through to the reader in showing Alexis as a real person. It’s easy to ignore a rant or a screed, but I’d like to believe that no politician who met Alexis could be unaffected by her story.
Q: I’d say many writers are teachers, but not necessarily of math. Would you say your teaching and your writing have influenced each other? How so?
A: This question connects back to the previous one. It is safe to say that the last two decades have seen an incredible politicization of our public education system, from No Child Left Behind to Race To The Top to our current charter school free-for-all. It would be easy to argue that math teachers around the country are on the front lines of this process; after all, when you hear about how we stack up as a country against Europe and China, you always hear about our poor math scores. Behind these numbers, however, is a simple fact: America’s upper-class children do great at math and our lower-class children do pretty badly. Nobody out there thinks that’s because poor kids aren’t as smart as rich kids; we all know they aren’t being given the same opportunities to learn. In that sense, my writing is inextricably linked up with my teaching of math: there is this social injustice out there that we all know is untenable, and I only have a couple of relevant skills to help fight it. I like math, and I like to read and write. In that sense I think there is considerable overlap between my teaching self and my writing self.
Q: What new projects are you working on?
A: I’ve got several short pieces in the works, but I’m really excited right now about research I’m doing into the history of segregation in Atlanta. My school is in a part of town that has an all-too-common history of segregation, desegregation, and re-segregation; I’m becoming fascinated by the way that the story of Atlanta has played into the disparities we see around us today. Alexis wasn’t born in a vacuum—she’s the recipient of a long legacy of racism, both the systemic kind as well as the more explicit. I’m hoping to work out a book where I can weave the personal stories of students like her into the larger picture of history and, yes, public policy.