Distinguished Young Alumni Award
Gregory Scott Michie ’85
One can find himself in the strangest places when the conventional approach doesn’t satisfy.
Greg Michie took his degree in radio, television and motion pictures to Atlanta and a videotape editing job with CNN. But he felt decidedly unfulfilled. And his mind and heart drifted back to the dinner table in Charlotte, where his parents nurtured interests in education and social justice that he would discover later in life.
He went to a place quite unfamiliar, embarking as a substitute teacher in a tense neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. He wasn’t sure what he’d find there, but he was correct in his expectation that he would struggle to be a teacher in some of the same ways his students struggled against tall odds to have a meaningful present and a promising future. The quest for his own stimulation and to answer the question, “How can I help make this better?” took him deep into a culture in which caring, committed people can indeed make a difference.
Greg started writing down his experiences, and in 1999 he got them published in a book about teaching in urban America called Holler If You Hear Me. He’d been walking a tightrope between two realities–one of metal detectors and chaos and one of miracle workers and success. “Somewhere in between these two,” he said, “is where I teach.”
But classroom work is only a small part of what goes on in Greg Michie’s complete immersion in the neighborhood where he lives and works. A Tuesday night finds him leading a group of gang members and high school dropouts who have gathered to try to understand themselves and their environment better. For years, Greg brought them books about other young people and their struggles and hopes. Then one day, one of the young men asked, “Why can’t we just write one of our own?”
The book is called Reflections, a self-published work that details the conversations about violence, death, fears, and futures in the weekly discussions that go by the same name. One thousand copies were printed, and not long afterward there were orders for 5,000 more.
Greg kept his hand in video, too. The trophy case at his school holds the awards his media arts class has taken in Chicago Public Schools contests for “SSN Live”—a 10-minute live closed-circuit school news program begun in 1994 which has become a household name in the neighborhood.
Greg has been to a lot of funerals. He’s learned that a student’s coming in to the video studio uncharacteristically early may be as clear a sign of trouble as the one who’s always late. He knows gangs aren’t necessarily the cause of trouble so much as they are the effect of kids feeling closed off from opportunity.
Two years ago Greg left full-time teaching to pursue a doctorate to go with the master’s degree he got from the University of Illinois-Chicago. He is researching, among other topics, the experiences of teachers of color. He hopes to find ways to improve teacher education for the kinds of kids he taught and who taught him.
Says William Ayers, Greg’s professor at UIC, “What Greg is a master at, and doesn’t meaningfully grasp how strong he is at it, is that he’s able to let them learn. He’s able to say the center of classroom life is not the podium with the teacher behind it but is the students working inside.”
Greg Michie still wonders about his own future. Wherever he goes will start from a solid base built on long hours doing what he believes a teacher should do: Leading, coaxing, walking the streets of the neighborhood where his children live, letting the children teach him.