Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Monday, April 4, 2005
From This Issue
Volume 82 • Number 4
Spring 2005

The Right Frequency
Harlem-honed teachings have found an audience on NPR
By Daina Savage ’90
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.

“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.

“You 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.

Growing 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 Brown University.

“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 her.

“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 her words.

“What’s hard is writing something that is three minutes long,” she says. “I’m 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 don’t feel like I’m breaking their trust.” •

Daina Savage ’90 is a freelance writer who lives in Lancaster, Pa.


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