Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Thesis


Languages, Literatures and Cultures

First Advisor

James Barilla


“I grab Franklin and pull him upright, standing in between him and the smaller student. I spread my arms in each direction. That second of new life gives the smaller student renewed vigor. His fists shoot around and even into me. Franklin, whose punches actually hurt, gladly obliges in kind. Suddenly, I am the main, albeit incidental, object of both children’s rage. A sharp, stabbing pencil glances off my wrist, drawing blood. I look at the two cafeteria workers, dressed in white and protected by a shield of glass and the food they are distributing. They look the other way.” So reads a section of my book, Survival: a Teach For America Memoir. The book chronicles my two years in the program, which includes my experience with a tropical storm, a veteran teacher quitting at my school, racial tension, students’ struggles with basic literacy, my own breaking up fights, my controversial decision to keep certain students in the same grade for consecutive years, the state taking over my school, a visit to nationally-known Rafe Esquith’s classroom in Los Angeles, my getting fired and reassigned to a different school, teaching with a co-teacher during my second year, a student of ours winning second-place for a poem she wrote in a school district of 123,000 students, and my summer on Teach For America’s staff for a training institute in Houston. With its obvious connection to the politics of education reform and race, the implications are many. How should we train teachers? Can a teacher really make an impact in just two years? Are poor and minority students better or worse served by young high-achievers? Is high-stakes, standardized testing driving too many of our decisions about education? How do we institutionally dig ourselves out of decades of destructive racism? And because Survival is a memoir, perhaps most of all, what role do I, a young, white man, have to play in the process? The story that unfolds is mostly mine, but it also includes story threads for several of my students, including Lamaar, Kayla, and Franklin. In addition, readers will meet a few of my Teach For America colleagues and peers, such as my apartment mate, Rick, and my not-quite-girlfriend, Danica. Readers will interact with Dr. Smith, the principal of my first school, and Amanda, my co-teacher during year two. These characters will serve as valuable voices of those who aren’t affiliated with Teach For America. My book combines the techniques of memoir, much like Pat Conroy’s The Water is Wide with literary journalism in the vein of Donna Foote’s Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach For America. Because of this interdisciplinary approach, Survival will possess both personal and public appeal. Thematically, Survival explores the physical and psychological impact the Teach For America program had on me, while making the connection that my coworkers and the students we taught were also just doing everything they could to get through each day. Hence, the book’s title. Survival is an honest examination, critical and questioning when it needs to be, but also empathetic and nuanced in a way that challenges the oftenentrenched education-reform camps, one of which glorifies Teach For America and another that tends to demonizes the program. My book seeks a third, and hopefully fairer, path.


© 2015, Christopher Neal Schumerth

Available for download on Monday, January 19, 2026