Segregation shaped me; education liberated me.”
– Maya Angelou
Nora Glenn has taught school on and off for 15 years. For the past two years she has taught English at Gary Middle College, a charter school near the Genesis Center in Gary.
Glenn is a graduate of Andrean High School and Valparaiso University who lives in the Miller community of Gary.
Our interview took place while students studied in one of the classrooms at Gary Middle College.
“For five years, I taught at three different schools in the Gary School Corp. — Banneker (Middle School), West Side (High School) and Wirt-Emerson (High School),” Glenn began. “I’ve been laid off three times in five years. Yeah.
“Always getting laid off is disheartening. It rips your heart out. It’s horrible. I’m always on the list to get called back to Gary. I only have five years seniority in Gary. Some people have 40 years. I’m not going to comment on that. I love teaching in Gary and I have a lot of experience teaching in other places.”
Name a few of the other places.
“Well, I taught at Kankakee Valley (High School) for five years when I first came out of college. I also taught alternative education at Portage High School. At Portage Adult, I taught English as a Second Language to Mexicans. Teaching ESL was the best teaching experience of my life. The Mexican people were so grateful that anybody would take the time to teach them. So grateful … I was embarrassed. Beautiful people.”
Have you had a few incidents while teaching in the inner city?
“I’ve had more incidents while teaching outside the inner city. That’s why I’m so sick of hearing about how horrible things are — excuse me for a second … . Hey, the pants gotta be up, man. And the hat’s gotta be off. Dude, why do you waste my time with that?
“… OK, where were we?”
The differences between teaching in the inner city and the suburbs.
“I had a thing that rocked my world while teaching at Portage High School — not Portage Adult. There’s a vibe there that is not cool.”
“Yeah. I’d take my Mexican students to get their driver’s licenses or take them to the store and they were treated horribly. It made me crazy.”
Tell me about Gary Middle College.
“This is a second-chance high school diploma program. We’re a charter school. The corporation is the GEO Foundation out of Indianapolis. This school goes from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., five days a week. The students get free breakfast, free lunch — everything is free. There are no fees for anything. We have free child care.
“Some of our students are going to college on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Ivy Tech comes over and teaches a class. We pay for their college. Most of their household incomes are zero.”
Some of your students aren’t teenagers.
“Yeah. That man over there is like 48 or something. We have a woman who is 40. Most of them are heads of families. One of our students has seven kids. Life has gotten in the way. Life snagged them.
“Jeff, education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty. You can’t even get a job at the steel mill without a high school diploma. The students at GMC want to be here and that makes all the difference in the world.”
“There are a lot of kids in Merrillville and Valparaiso who are on free or reduced lunches. You’d be surprised. I watch stuff like that. I go on the Indiana Department of Education website. You read all these things and everything is all negative, like education sucks. I like to get down to what really is what. I’m a total ‘Garyite.’ I’ll defend Gary to the end. When I taught eighth-grade English at Banneker, it’s a gifted and talented middle school, my students were third or fourth in Lake and Porter counties.
“Here’s another thing I want to tell you about GMC. Here I am getting laid off and laid off; it’s disheartening as hell for me. Then I get this call from Tim Pavarnik saying he needs an English teacher.”
“He’s the principal here at GMC. I took the job and I felt good about myself because I was back teaching. Mr. Pavarnik has allowed us to make policy. He’s 100 percent behind us. I’ve never had an administrator like that.”
How many students are currently attending GMC?
“We have about 200.”
There’s a lot of controversy regarding charter schools and private schools getting money from the state while the public schools are struggling to stay afloat.
“Charter schools are public schools. I think everybody can see that there’s an equal amount of money going per student per place.
“The thing that gets stuck in my craw is the vouchers. Indiana is the state that has the largest amount of vouchers in the nation. And now they want to triple the amount of vouchers. There are many reasons why they shouldn’t give vouchers. To me, separation of church and state is one of them. Why is the public tax money going to the other area, which is never taxed? It’s not fair.”
And this is coming from an Andrean grad.
“Munster is a great school community, but they can get less money than some other school. There are some good schools, there’s no question. Gary is a rust belt. Our schools are old. We have a few thousand things to work on. But I don’t think money should be shoveled into Gary and I don’t think money should be shoveled into private schools.
“It’s all politics and money and has nothing to do with education. Somehow the governor and this secret society of education that popped up a year ago or so ago has made students the victims in this mess.”
“Gary has a strong, loud, lively spirit. The people in Gary are some of the nicest people you’ll ever run into in the world. But once in a while you gotta throw somebody a line. Things happen.
“Jeff, that play you were in at West Side High School, ‘Steel Waters,’ taught me a lot about the first 100 years of Gary.”
I’ll never forget when the late Gwen Calmese Wright’s character told my character — a Polish immigrant — that she’d like to be my neighbor but couldn’t because colored folks weren’t allowed to live in Glen Park. Some of the students in the audience laughed thinking she was joking.
“I grew up in Miller. I didn’t interact with black people until I was 5 or 6. I knew there was segregation, but I couldn’t really figure it out. There were so many black people in Gary, how could it be segregated? Well, the black people were over there (points to the west).”
Indiana could use more educators like Nora Glenn and less “secret societies of education.”
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