High School English Teacher, Rapper
“I always never wanted to be nobody.”
At the time of our interview, he had been teaching for four years at Springfield High School. He is also a writer and performer. His essay “Oedipus-Not-So-Complex: A Blueprint for Literary Education” is a chapter in Jay-Z: Essays on Hip Hop’s Philosopher King, edited by Julius Bailey. He has received a number of honors, including The Grace Patton Conant Award for Literary Creation. He is a Golden Apple Scholar of Illinois.
He talks with me about his own difficult journey toward teaching and the impact of “internalizing” the travails of his students, some of whom he identifies with.
In my sophomore year at Eisenhower High, I met Gwendolyn Brooks and had this really wonderful experience and exchange with her dealing with poetry. I knew who she was, because when I was in fourth grade, I had a teacher who recognized that I liked to rhyme words, and she gave me these anthologies. One was Afro-American poetry and one was 20th century poetry, and I remember circling all of the poems that rhymed. Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” was one of those. I thought it was like a rap song. I could memorize that. Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes were the ones that I loved, and Claude McKay.
I remember hearing on the announcements that she would be in the auditorium. I’m thinking there’s no way. This woman was in this book that I was given in fourth grade, and I remember her as black words on white paper. I remember her as a dog-eared page in a book. I’ve never seen her, I don’t know what she looks like, but the words are youthful, the words have this energy to them.
So I decide that I’m going to write a poem and give it to her, because this fourth grade teacher had told me that I’m a poet and Gwendolyn Brooks has indicated that she’s a poet, so we’re kindred spirits. I have to meet her. I have to show her what I can do. So I write her a poem, during English class, ironically.
Now I am waiting until after she speaks to give her this poem, and I’m standing there kind of like fidgeting. I get to the front of the line, she says, “Well, what do we have here?” I want to stuff the poem back in my pocket now, because I’m embarrassed, but I give her the poem, and she kind of looks over her glasses at me. “It’s beautiful.” I say, “Cool.” She’s like, “You know what? How about you sit right here next to me, and we’ll talk in just a moment.” She goes through the whole line, everybody gets their autographs. Then she takes the book that she had read, it was The Children Coming Home, she signs that for me and she puts her address in there. She says, “I want you to keep writing, and I want you to send me more stuff like this.”
I went back to class; I’m telling my teachers, “Gwendolyn Brooks told me that she wants me to send her a collection of my poems.” My English teacher at that time says, “Well that’s your assignment.” So during that period she would let me go, if I was finished with work early, to the library and work on just writing poems. I ended up getting together a collection of poems and sending them to her.
And, you know, she writes back little edits on my poems, things that she really likes, circles phrases that she thinks are cool. Some of them were printed too lightly, so she said, “I couldn’t read this one, try to send a darker version.” It was remarkable because now I’m having a conversation with this woman that existed in eminence before, now she’s a regular person. She’s like a person who’s telling me that this creative side of me really means something and that I should continue to pursue it. It really did make me understand that’s who I could be. Just being recognized for being able see things from a unique perspective or a perspective that a lot of people shared but couldn’t articulate.
I look back at that fondly. I was told by a poet that I’m a poet. It’s something I’ll always acknowledge because it was at that moment that I honestly saw myself as a poet. I think even at some point in college, I feared it. I really thought, I don’t want to let her down. I don’t want to not be good. I also read that Gwendolyn Brooks, when she was 16, met Langston Hughes. And he says to her, “You should keep writing.” So if that’s the case, I really do have a duty to make sure that any kid who gives me the kind of attention that I gave Gwendolyn Brooks, I’m going to give them my attention. I feel like it’s an obligation.
When did you first start seeing yourself as a teacher?
I think I was fighting being a teacher, I was fighting it, because I didn’t want to be a square. I didn’t want to be the guy with the tie in front of class, you know, saying “Did you know that….?”
Mrs. Leech, who recommended me for the Golden Apple Scholars Program, she saw that when I was a junior in high school, she saw that in me. She says, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I say, “I figured I was going to get a job at the factory my dad works at like everybody else.” She says, “You know, you’d make a great teacher. Have you ever thought about that?” I say, “No.” She’s like, “Well will you think about it for me?”
Another Gwendolyn Brooks moment.
A.D. went to college as Golden Apple Scholar. But in his third year, he really wanted to pursue a recording career and left. “It was spontaneous. I think that at some point I realized that the people who were responsible for getting me to college, the people who were really sort of rooting for me to get there, I didn’t really have contact with those people. So those would have been the people I would have talked to, to talk me out of it.”
Did you have much contact with your parents during this time?
I did, but they’d never been on a campus, you know. To them, it’s not really a place. College is the Great Beyond. None of them are going to come to campus. One of my older brothers dropped me off, and I think we had enough money maybe to get a bite to eat. He left me there with the food, and now I was in college. The supplies that I had were the supplies that I got from Golden Apple the previous summer. I had nothing in the way of preparation for college. That being the case, there was really no accountability.
I called my mom once and told her that I didn’t feel like I should be in this school, and she said “Well, it’s your decision to make.” She didn’t ask a question about why I didn’t want to be there. The conversations with my dad were all about basketball. “Have you talked to the coach? How many practices have you seen, who’s the point guard, is he better than you, do you think that you could take him?”
He wasn’t interested in the academic.
No, it wasn’t an academic thing. It was, You’re in school to play sports.
During the spring term. My roommate and I decided one week that we weren’t going to go to class, we were going to go do some shows. I had a show that I was doing and we were recording this. I said, “You know what? College is going to still be here. My friends will still be here, so I’m going to leave school and I’m going to start recording. I didn’t call the Golden Apple Foundation or anybody, I kind of just disappeared. Was gone.
Where’d you go?
I went to Decater. You know, there was this place on the lake where they dock boats. I would park there at night and recline the seats and sleep, get up and go take a shower at a friend’s house or something, you know. My back windows were tinted so nobody could see all my stuff.
Living in your car?
Yeah. Eventually, I tell the friend who I was recording with what’s going on, and he’s like, “No. You’re not going to stay in a car, we got a couch you could sleep.” At that point, I get a job as a currier and it becomes real to me. I’m no longer a college student. I’m a person who’s in the real world. I still have the rap dream, so I’m writing two or three songs a day. It culminates in 1999. I record an album. We start promoting, we do shows. Everything kind of starts coming to pass and people know me, like I’m A.D. the rapper. I go to places to do shows and my posters are up. It’s like, these people don’t even know me, why do they want me to come to these places? I get an opportunity to headline a couple of pretty big deals. I’m thinking, okay. I’m on my way. I’m going to make it; this is going to be it.
A very close friend of A.D.’s is sent to jail for possession of marijuana and cocaine after his apartment is raided. By luck, A.D. , was not with him that day. He maintains contact with his imprisoned friend.
He says to me, you need to get that degree. We need you to get that degree. I say, well why? He says, you’ll be better equipped with the degree than without it. I hadn’t thought about it, but I was still reading a lot and I was focused, more focused on academic work than ever. So that was when I ultimately decided to go get myself registered for those classes.
What do you think he would say if he saw you teaching?
I think he would say, “I saw that in you. I’ve seen that in you, and you’re doing what you’re supposed to do.”
Is there a hope that you’ll become very popular rap star?
No, not anymore. I still record and perform. But. I think that I really want people to hear my music. But there’s also, there’s comfort in what I do. I really love teaching, and I love working with the kids that I work with. So even with the notoriety, even with people listening to the music and liking the music, I don’t think that that would put me outside of being an educator. I truly do believe that there’s an element of education going on every time I’m on a stage.
One of my students, when I came here to teach said, “You’re kind of like Hannah Montana.” I guess she puts the wig on and she goes to school and she’s a regular kid, and then when it’s time for her to be Hannah Montana, she’s Hannah Montana and nobody recognizes her. So on the weekends, when I’m out doing a show, I’m AD Carson, I’m AD the Rapper. And I come back, I’m Mr. Carson.
It’s not the same dream that I had when I was a second year undergraduate, because then I really did believe that I was going to be famous, that I was going to be the next JZ, and I don’t see myself that way now. The novel I just finished is a combination of prose, poetry and lyrics, and it speaks to the idea of a kid who writes raps because that’s his release. I can’t not write raps. It’s what I do. That is my form of expression. I can’t not write poetry, and in that same way, I can’t not teach. So all those things make up me, and if I stop doing any of those things, I’m cutting part of myself off. So as much as I tried to deny those things when I was younger, you know, growing into myself, I see that I need these things. These are all things that I need. I need the kids in the classroom as much as they need me.
Your e-mail signature says “A. D. Carson, Somebody in the making.” Tell me what that means to you.
I think the thing that has followed me is, I always never wanted to be nobody. So whatever I’m doing, I’m in the process of becoming. So I’m not that yet, but I’m in the making. Whatever that is. I don’t know what it will be or when I will finally feel that I’m there, but it’s the same with the students. I’m learning every day. So even if I’m just a better me in the making, I’m striving toward that.
I think that’s what it is, the idea that we are all becoming, always.
Several months after this conversation, his novel, Cold, was published by Mayhaven Publishing. He later left Springfield High School for Clemson, SC, where he is pursuing a Ph.D .in Rhetorics, Communication and Information Design. As part of the program, he is documenting each semester with a mixtape. They are available on his website http://blogs.aydeethegreat.com/audiovisual/ or directly at soundcloud.com/adcarson.