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.