Walking through the streets of Harlem to teach at The Young Women’s Leadership School,
Emily Wylie ’94, a petite white woman, looks out of place.
|Emily Wylie shares a laugh with her 11th-grade English students, from left: Samantha
Rodriguez, Veronica Vasquez and Elise Irizarry.
“I am the rose of Spanish Harlem,” she says with a laugh.
But in the high-school
classroom, she’s a formidable presence, commanding attention with
a mix of humor, street-smart attitude and a palpable passion for her subject, English literature.
have to be vulnerable to your students, you have to risk yourself for your students,” she
says. “But at the same time, you have to be kind of a bad ass.”
It’s a combination
that not only motivates her students, but also moves a national audience in her periodic radio
commentaries on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.
“I want to humanize
this profession and humanize my kids a little bit,” she says. “Yes,
it’s a tough neighborhood and, yes, there are [obstacles] to them succeeding, but it’s
rewarding when they get it. That’s just delicious.”
Wylie has an unusual take on
educational issues that delights listeners and allows her to stretch the writing skills first
honed in Carlisle.
Her features range from a study of the language of textbooks to musings on
Wonder Woman, her childhood idol. “I just want to be the pretty girl who can kick ass,” she
says, something she’s training for now as she studies for her green belt in karate.
up in Connecticut, Wylie says she “would have never dreamed that I could work
in a room with kids that were not my race. But my whole career teaching, I’ve been the
only white person in the room.”
Wylie found her groove as an educator after a rewarding
but low-paying job as a poetry book-flap writer for Ecco Press. A trip back to Dickinson and
a conversation with her former English professor, Wendy Moffat, turned her toward teaching
and a one-year master’s program at
“When I was there, I was promising myself I would work at a nice Quaker
school on the Main Line,” she says. “But it just became more apparent that working
with progressive teachers is what I wanted to do.”
So she headed to the Bronx, searching
for schools with reduced class sizes that emphasized teaching quality rather than quantity
and “habits of the mind—things that intellectual
people do with their brains.”
To succeed at these schools, there were lessons she had
to learn that Brown didn’t teach
“When I was 26 I had to be able to be in front of a boy who was going to be at Rikers
Island the next year,” she continues. “I’m only 5 feet tall. But I learned
to be commanding by watching a big black woman who was a math teacher in my first school. She
would not tolerate nonsense.”
When Wylie was about to turn 30, she was itching for a change. “I
was thinking about leaving teaching,” she says. “I knew that teaching is an acquired
talent, but writing is the one thing that I really felt good at. So I wrote a piece and sent
it blind to NPR.”
The essay about why she planned to leave public education never aired,
but it opened the door. “Two
weeks later I got a call. They didn’t use the piece, but they were interested in what
I had to say,” she says.
Inspired, Wylie wrote more essays. Soon she was in a studio recording
“What’s hard is writing something that is three minutes long,” she
learning a lot about how to do ‘radiofied’ writing. I do sort of consider this
as the next step.”
The reaction from listeners has been delightful.
“Once you do it, you lose sight of the
fact that two million listeners are hearing it,” she
continues. “But it’s great hearing that people you know from all over are listening.” The
positive reaction has given Wylie a renewed enthusiasm for teaching.
“My students love
it,” she adds. “They liked the Wonder Woman one. They really
giggled in self-recognition.”
But Wylie has to walk a fine line to honor her relationship
with her students. “Sometimes
they’re a little uncomfortable, not in the way that you see your teacher in the grocery
store and are grossed out by that, but because they are listening to me talk about them,” she
continues. “They have an intimate relationship with me, so I have to make sure they
feel like I’m breaking their trust.” •
Daina Savage ’90 is a freelance writer who lives in Lancaster, Pa.