Who We Were, Who We Are, Who We Will Be

A four-sport athlete in high school and an early-rising working-class adult, my father was never a literary or academic man. But he was a storyteller—weaving again and again the narratives of his life growing up and then the uniquely late 1950s, early 1960s courtship and marrying of my mother.

I am hurtling toward 55, and I can still tell you every story, in intricate detail. Some times, I find it difficult to extricate my father’s stories from my own redneck past, in fact.

Since my childhood, then, I have never drifted too far from history. I recall vividly the first test I ever failed—a pop quiz in world history my sophomore year of high school. And then throughout college, I took history courses every chance I could.

If I had understood how college worked (a flaw of a working-class upbringing), I would have orchestrated those courses into a history minor; instead, I simply returned again and again to history classes because I felt drawn.

That same gravitational pull landed me in an EdD program at the University of South Carolina, where coursework and then my dissertation—a biography of Lou LaBrant—were grounded in the history of education and English education.

November of 2015 is bittersweet for me as a consequence because this is my last annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) as the Council Historian.

Soon, with irony, I become a part of the history of NCTE.

But the history of the organization and the field of teaching English—this I will never release from my intellectual and emotional grasp.

As I am prone to do, I am in constant conversation with myself about who we were, who we are, who we will be.

In a session for the newly named Outreach Network for NCTE, the discussions touched on the intersections of past, present, and future—a continuum that appears to have one damning constant—those outside the field of teaching/teaching English appear unaware of who we are as professionals, unwilling to acknowledge the wide array of disciplines that our profession comprises, and defiant to acknowledge our professional authority and autonomy.

Read LaBrant in Elementary English and English Journal (NCTE) from 1931 to 1961, and you are apt to nod your head in bewildered recognition of who we are today, feeling the weight of who we will be as inevitable as the stack of essays before us seemingly multiplying like loaves and fishes feeding the multitudes as we work in Sisyphean solitude (and for this my working-class background prepared me well).

Who we were, who we are, who we will be—our history, our present, and our future are acts of speaking (my father) and writing (me) into reality that which defined us, defines us, will define us.

Who we were, who we are, who we will be—these are the politics that shaped us, shape us, will shape us.

Who we were, who we are, who we will be—narratives retold, narratives crafted, narratives imagined.

Who we were, who we are, who we will be—as LaBrant announced abruptly in her major book-length work: “We teach English.”

This is our history to be treasured, this is our present to be defended, this is our future to be determined—and it there that we must ask, “By whom?”

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