Mr. Gruber: teaching justice in and out of the classroom


Mr. Gruber often speaks from his classroom podium when initiating dialogue and thoughtful discussion, often relating current issues back to important works of literature. (Photo credit: Brooklyn Rue)

A mere 15 minutes in English teacher Mr. Mike Gruber’s classroom can change a student’s entire perspective. His class discussions tend to revolve around current events, and often point out inequality present in today’s society.

Most students know of his desire for inclusivity though many are unaware of his difficult past and the reasons behind his radical passion for discussing tricky, controversial, and important topics.

Q: You are a teacher who often discusses issues such as race, sexism, and the various forms of inequality in your classroom. What sparked your interest in social justice?

A: When I was in grade school and the first black families started moving into my particular parish, my dad – who was the best man at my wedding because I think he is the best man I know – wrote an open letter to my parish newspaper advocating open arms and a welcoming attitude. That didn’t go over very well with a lot of folks in the parish. We started getting hate phone calls in the middle of the night, we were called “nigger lovers,” there was vandalizing of the house, egging, destruction of property, and the light post on the front lawn was dismantled, just absolutely destroyed and smashed.

I can remember my father taking us to an all-black parish, and I can remember basically being the only white folks. It was my first, extended, real contact with people of a different race than I was. I just became really conscious of race after that. When you grow up in an all-white environment you can be really privileged.

My second year in high school was the year of the Detroit riots. My family lived across the street from the old Mercy College at the time, and I remember the tanks and the armored personnel carriers that were parked on the lawns to keep the bell tower from harboring snipers. It was just a very vivid image in my head. I remember all that stuff really clearly.

In college, I started to study the stuff more formally in terms of literature and that was what my dissertation was going to be on at Duke. At that point, it was “the image of the Negro in American literature.” “Negro” was the prevailing term at the time for persons of color and was the standard trope in literary criticism.

Q: You have spoken of walking in a very powerful, monumental, anti-war march in Washington D.C. in the past. What was the experience like?

A: In May of 1971, the opposition of the Vietnam war was at its highest and there were a lot of marches planned. It was the largest protest march in the capital. I remember stuffing in the back of someone’s old station wagon and riding all night, sacking out on the floor of a Georgetown dorm, and making our way over to the mall for all the speeches and rallies. It was just a way of trying to make those in the halls of power more aware of how deep the discontent ran in opposition to a war that seemed more and more unreasonable, borderline stupid in terms of its waste of American lives – a lot of them the same age as me – but also a waste of Vietnamese lives and the wreckage of their land. I am not sure if we were under any illusions of what the communists were like when they took over, but I am sure there was some naivety there. It is still a war that in retrospect seemed crazy.

Q: What needs to be done so that strides can be made toward equality for all people?

A: Don’t be quiet. Find like-minded people people who are similarly committed to the changes that you want to see. The older you get, you find different forms to do that. Here, I was given the opportunity to create courses that I saw were needed. The Race Relations course is basically just something that I came up with. Nobody else that I know of in the entire country has a course like this; it is a history class basically using literature as a prism through which we can understand the whole saga of the American racial interaction and all the dynamics there.