January 27, 2020 News & Features » Cover Story

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Parallel Worlds 

To give her students a way forward, Lara Dos Passos Coggin draws on her own past and the life of her famous novelist grandfather.

click to enlarge Lara Dos Passos Coggin holds a portrait of her grandfather, whose home is a national historic landmark in Westmoreland County, Virginia.

Scott Elmquist

Lara Dos Passos Coggin holds a portrait of her grandfather, whose home is a national historic landmark in Westmoreland County, Virginia.

There are plenty of poetic lines in the “U.S.A.” trilogy by John Dos Passos, all originally published during the Great Depression. But it’s the snippets of pithy dialogue that feel modern, especially in a new age of institutional breakdown.

A few pages into “The 42nd Parallel,” a character tersely says: “It’s the system, John, the goddamn lousy system.”

Even if we take damn-the-system rhetoric for granted now, Dos Passos painted an America that parallels our current situation. His novels reflect a chaotic society where union leaders and millionaires grapple with the effects of rapid change upon their souls.

He also took inspiration from world travels — including a camel ride across the Sahara Desert — and an education at Harvard University. Today, his granddaughter Lara Dos Passos Coggin says she feels magnetically pulled towards a similar insatiable curiosity. She’s a former director of the RVA Future Center at Huguenot High School, which provides counseling for students who are planning their post-graduation lives. She now teaches at the school. Her students come from all over the world and speak many languages.

click to enlarge John Dos Passos made his name with the “U.S.A.” trilogy, which chronicled a starkly divided country. - LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
  • Library of Congress
  • John Dos Passos made his name with the “U.S.A.” trilogy, which chronicled a starkly divided country.

Dos Passos Coggin considers herself a global citizen with a passion for teaching English as a second language. But more importantly, she has arrived on the scene with a heart as big as her grandfather’s. Few assets could be more essential when dealing with high demand for guidance in local schools. An international classroom, an impassioned teacher, a debate over funding — this complex dynamic would be right at home in a story by Dos Passos.

As biographer Townsend Ludington notes, from his first writing Dos Passos “stood outside the conventional mainstream.”

“Monopoly Capitalism, bribery, lying and on are the bêtes noires of today, and Dos Passos til the end of his days attempted to show us that,” Ludington wrote in an email to Style. “America itself was an uncompleted project, at its best a system that could benefit everyone. But he warned his daughter Lucy that ‘there is a great deal more evil than good in the human character.’ All that he had witnessed during a very full life convinced him of that.”

With each passing year, it seems that the fate of local schools is debated from a strictly financial angle. But emotional capital is being put to work by Dos Passos Coggin, her colleagues and her students. Personal integrity is the currency, not dollars and cents. Leading by example is the inspirational stimulus.

And there’s plenty of inspiration to be found — especially from a literary past.

On a Friday afternoon at Huguenot, Lara Dos Passos Coggin is tidying up her classroom. Her role as teacher began last September with a boom. Students were wide-eyed and full of optimism, even if their English was rough.

At the beginning of 2020, however, reality is sinking in. There are papers, forms and cultural norms to navigate. There are field trips not everybody can come along for due to personnel constraints.

Constraint is a word familiar to anyone who’s followed the conversation about the Richmond Public Schools — financial, in particular. But the smaller constraints aren’t often spoken of. For example, if Dos Passos Coggin simply wants to take a field trip to Reedy Creek, multiple teachers must abandon their posts to serve as chaperones. The strain put on personnel is precisely what Dos Passos Coggin saw in her role as director of the school’s RVA Future Center.

click to enlarge Educators rallied at the Capitol Bell Tower on Jan. 27. “Ideally, we would be having Red for Ed rallies all the time,” says Lara Dos Passos Coggin, pictured with her son Ignacio Angeles Coggin. “Anything to bring a united voice in front of legislators.” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Educators rallied at the Capitol Bell Tower on Jan. 27. “Ideally, we would be having Red for Ed rallies all the time,” says Lara Dos Passos Coggin, pictured with her son Ignacio Angeles Coggin. “Anything to bring a united voice in front of legislators.”

“In that role, I felt a huge sympathy for my school counselors, because they were toiling away on this administrative backlog, while I got to share all these celebratory moments with students,” she says. “My feeling is that I owe these counselors a debt. I think in union terms, perhaps because of my grandfather.”

“But there is definitely a strong energy to RVA Future, in terms of the physical office itself and the people behind it,” she adds.

Responsible now for her own classroom, Dos Passos Coggin is moving deeper into the role of nurturer. She gets to work with many first-year students and is present for parent-teacher nights, which have seen huge turnouts. In a nod to her previous role, she has a future board in her room: It’s covered with articles about young creatives. But there are many unglamorous moments in her job, like when a former mentee from the RVA Future Center calls her up and asks for help filling out a free application for Federal Student Aid.

To be clear, the traditional role of school counselors isn’t being supplanted by Dos Passos Coggin or the RVA Future Center. Instead, there’s a heightened awareness that resources are thin, and not just monetary resources.

“What other kind of budget is there besides a needs-based budget?” Dos Passos Coggin asks. “I find the term kind of funny.”

City officials are aware of the demand for emotional and interpersonal capital — life guidance in the most basic sense. In the fall of 2015, five RVA Future Centers came out of the Office of Community Wealth Building, the initiative once headed up by Thad Williamson, a former senior policy advisor to Mayor Levar Stoney. Currently, the nonprofit Education Foundation is handing over the centers to the schools, according to executive director Ty Toepke. When the transition happens in July, funding will be handed over as well.

“We’re not just handing [the schools] a giant expense,” Toepke says. “We have a lot of first-gen students interested in going to college, which creates some challenges. … Sometimes they don’t have the support structure outside the school to help them understand the financial aid, scholarship or application process. And then there’s a percentage who don’t go on to a two- or four-year college. We need to make sure we have viable career paths for them right out of high school.”

When Toepke hired Dos Passos Coggin as director of the Huguenot High Future Center in September 2018, he recognized her pedagogical expertise and her Spanish fluency. But he also saw a fire in her, too.

“She has a tremendous passion for serving students who are often underserved in other ways,” he says.

Passion is a must for keeping up the spirits of her students, Dos Passos Coggin says. “A lot of my students have left everything they’ve known to come live in America, but there’s more distance to travel, linguistically and socially,” she says. “Hills after hills to climb. They don’t know what to do, they may be feeling marginalized, and so I try to get a jump on their problems. Right now I’m trying to recapture the optimism of when they first arrived.”

Colleagues can attest that teachers need to wear many hats in the modern school system. Lyons Sanchezconcha is a fellow teacher at Huguenot High, as well as a college and career-bound facilitator with the Sacred Heart Center.

While there are some supplemental systems for guiding students in place, he says, there can never be too much: “Teacher strategies that work can include smaller classroom sizes, mentorship opportunities or opportunities for extracurricular engagement.”

click to enlarge “[Lara] has a tremendous passion for serving students who are often underserved in other ways,” says Ty Toepke, executive director of the nonprofit Education Foundation. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • “[Lara] has a tremendous passion for serving students who are often underserved in other ways,” says Ty Toepke, executive director of the nonprofit Education Foundation.

He hesitates to place blame or responsibility on any one person. He knows that large institutions are more complex than society generally comprehends.

“The tall task of public education is to educate everyone who comes through the door. … This tall task can’t and shouldn’t fall on one person,” he explains. “As the individual who interacts with a student one-on-one, teachers need a way to feel heard, involved, and, most importantly, supported in helping meet the needs of their students.”

Dos Passos Coggin gets a boost from friends like Sanchezconcha at work. But when in search of answers to present-day problems, she often finds clues in the accounts of her famous grandfather.

It’s amazing how we can inherit personality quirks from our families. The attitudes of John Dos Passos have certainly been passed on.

“[My father] admired forceful and talented women, professional or not,” says Lucy Dos Passos Coggin, Lara’s mother and the author’s daughter. “He believed that citizens needed to be involved and informed for government to work. His distrust of power would certainly hold true today.”

Love for Virginia was inherited, too. John Dos Passos’ mother was from Petersburg and his father immigrated from Portugal. Lucy still lives with her husband at Spence’s Point, a historic landmark near the Potomac River that was home to her father. Her godmother once remarked that John “could have chosen to be from anywhere and he chose to be from the Northern Neck of Virginia,” even though he had lived in Spain, New York, Paris and Cape Cod. Others must have recognized the man’s stamp on Virginia: Every year, Longwood University bestows a literature prize in his name.

As Lara talks about reading through a recent biography of her grandfather, it’s hard not to think of her own resilience within the public school system. The book is called “The Ambulance Drivers” (2017) and it’s about her grandfather’s wartime service with Ernest Hemingway. Dos Passos was encouraged not to write about the wartime horrors he saw — after courageously detailing everything, he was hauled before the authorities of the ambulance corps.

“When I read that, I felt so comforted,” Dos Passos Coggin says, reflecting on her urge to speak up even when it’s discouraged. “Because it’s just normal compulsion within me, there’s not a lot I can do about it. I thought, ‘Well, see, it comes from an honest place.’”

“Northam’s budget still doesn’t meet our needs, so we need to keep pushing,” she adds without missing a beat. “Ideally, we would be having Red for Ed rallies all the time. Anything to bring a united voice in front of legislators.”

Her grandfather’s politics evolved. Biographer Ludington says that Dos Passos became a satirist and even a “bitter critic” whose fictional characters “rarely have happy endings.”

“High hopes, the American dream, freedom and wealth mark the goals of most of Dos Passos’ characters at their novelistic beginnings,” Ludington says. “Amid doubt, failure, corruption, and even death — are where they end.”

As time wore on, Dos Passos began to question the value of revolutionary fervor, which Hemingway translated as apathy towards the Spanish Civil War. Literary critic Edmund Wilson noted that Dos Passos was such a friendly person and once asked him why his characters were so sour.

From another perspective, Dos Passos was working out his own voice.

click to enlarge Taking a cue from her globetrotting grandfather, Lara Dos Passos Coggin is a linguist who encourages her students to explore. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Taking a cue from her globetrotting grandfather, Lara Dos Passos Coggin is a linguist who encourages her students to explore.

“Hemingway, whom he met on the slopes of Italy when both were there in 1918 as ambulance drivers, could take the relatively short moments he experienced in the war and make them into powerful fiction,” Ludington says. “Dos Passos, the shy observer, looked in on a world he had seen and tried to write a panoramic cross between fact and fiction about it.”

Eventually, political differences made it difficult for Hemingway to maintain the friendship. But Lara says her grandfather always kept the door open for “Hem.”

“My grandfather thought that everybody that he encountered along the way was just as interesting as anyone else,” she says, describing his long journey.

“That’s pretty much how I am, too.”

When people change opinions or tactics in an era of information overload, it can cause others to write them off. But if the person remains compassionate and erudite at the same time, change should be a cause for celebration.

That’s a train of thought in John Dos Passos’ world, at any rate.

“Apathy is one of the characteristic responses of any living organism when it is subjected to stimuli too intense or too complicated to cope with,” he wrote. “The cure for apathy is comprehension.”

“Dos Passos could fulminate against the very institutions he was enjoying immensely,” Ludington says of the writer in his youth. “While he told a friend that [Harvard] and all that it stood for should be demolished, he was very busily involved with the freedoms of college life.”

In that vein, Lara Dos Passos Coggin says she is always trying to balance theory and practice in her classroom. Sometimes she relies on her educational background, which put a strong emphasis on theory.

“I took incalculable influence from a program in Tucson called Raza Studies,” she says, referring to Mexican American curricula. “If you look into that, or the PBS documentary about it called ‘Precious Knowledge,’ you’ll get a sense of how I try to nurture people’s culture of heritage and identity.”

But sometimes, a less theoretical action is called for — something more poetical and free-form. Take the example of field trips again. Although it might appear like a chance to goof off, field trips can be very freeing to the international students.

“We have all these digital tools that can help us translate, but what we’re missing is a broad and deep sense of urgency of providing for our non-native English speakers,” Dos Passos Coggin says. “School administration can get frustrated when students aren’t forthcoming about their living situation, but that’s because they have a complicated home life of moving around a lot. Oftentimes, these students are discouraged by their families from leaving the house, too, out of safety concerns. So meshing with their surrounding community is a really important opportunity.”

On a recent chilly day, her class took a trip to Reedy Creek. A day with parks staff was expected, but no one, Dos Passos Coggin included, expected the greeting that was awaiting them. As one student opted for a cup of hot chocolate, parks staff began to speak with them in Spanish.

“I totally didn’t expect that!” exclaims Dos Passos Coggin. “You could sense their weightlessness in the moment.”

“We just try to make everyone feel welcome at the park, and help them develop a better sense of community,” says Tyler Twyford, a bilingual environmental educator with the city parks.

“If we spoke more languages, we would use them, too,” adds Cullen Dolson, another bilingual staff member. “Lara recognized the power of the parks as a healing place. Allowing these students to go out and explore was just as effective.”

Others agree that this innovative guidance — half theory, half practice — is the way forward for Richmond youth. Tanya Gonzalez, executive director of the Sacred Heart Center, says more mental health and emotional support programs are being made available at her center. Still, “the largest transformations happen during the smallest and most gentle moments of connection,” she says.

Back at Huguenot High, Dos Passos Coggin is planning her next trip. James Madison University is hosting “Wednesdays @ Madison” on Jan. 29. It’s a prime opportunity for her students to map out future options.

But will it help her recapture the wide-eyed hopefulness from the beginning of the school year? Maybe something like the joy felt by her ever-wandering grandfather?

“I’m trying,” she says.

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