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Overcoming Life on the Streets to Teach Literature

BRIDGEWATER, Mass. — Before he taught English at a Massachusetts college, before he completed two terminal degrees at the University of Iowa, before he took courses at a local community college, Dr. Jerald Walker was a drug-abusing dropout running the streets of Chicago, committing petty crimes.

His five years living an urban nightmare ended right after a drug-dealing friend who had just sold him cocaine was fatally shot in another deal at the same place. The close call got his attention but he says that was not what turned his life around.

“I think it was the values instilled in me by my parents,” says Walker, an associate professor of English at Bridgewater State College. “They never left me. They were just buried.” Those values, taught by his blind parents, are simple enough: hard work, honesty, decency, respect for self and others.

“My dad was a hard-working man. He often had two jobs — blind,” Walker recalls.

Those values may be why Walker never reached the worst depths of street life. He kept a job, avoided prison time, backed out of a gang and refused to engage in gunplay.

His ascent from the street to academia is chronicled in his new book, Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption.

Walker came to Bridgewater State in 2002, a year after the public college in southeastern Massachusetts hired his wife on its faculty. He was tenured in 2008 and promoted to associate professor last year. His colleagues didn’t know about his criminal past.

“No one knew of my pre-college days. They’re learning it now,” the 46-year-old says.

He started in Chicago at Loop College, now Harold Washington College, a community college where a White English professor recognized his writing talent. Edward Homewood went as far as to drive his student to his alma mater, the University of Iowa, to enroll as an undergraduate.

On that trip, Homewood marched Walker into the office of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and announced his young charge would be coming to the prestigious graduate program. He did ultimately make it through the competitive admissions, receiving an MFA in creative writing. Then he completed a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies at the university.

All has not been smooth at Bridgewater State. Only one other African-American had ever taught in the English department — and for only a semester. A few weeks after Walker was hired, a colleague stopped by his office to inform him he was not qualified for the job, implying he was hired because of his race. Walker, who teaches creative writing and African-American literature, did not rise to the bait.

Another colleague asked if she could expose her dog to his two young sons, so the animal would get accustomed to being around African-Americans.

Walker says Bridgewater’s president, Dr. Dana Mohler-Faria, who is Cape Verdean, paid a personal visit to show support after both incidents.

Since 2008 Walker’s wife, Dr. Brenda Molife, has been a top assistant to Mohler-Faria. Initially, Bridgewater hired her to teach art history courses.

Walker seems a little concerned that his memoir, which recounts the two incidents with teaching colleagues, may reflect too harshly on Bridgewater State. “This is a good school,” he says.

The English department’s vote on his hiring, he notes, was 22 to 1. The lone holdout — the colleague who later said Walker was unqualified — no longer works at the college.

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