On Aug. 19, 1999, rookie teacher Greg Wong—tie knotted just so, hair perfectly parted—faced his eighth-grade class in Helena, Ark., for the very first time. Wong, then 23 and a city-bred vegetarian, was still recovering from the slack-jawed shock of finding himself in a small town of scraggly cotton fields, shuttered stores and roadside barbeque shacks. "The rural environment freaked me out," admits Wong, who earlier that summer had driven more than 2,400 miles in his sputtering 1992 Geo Metro to get from his native Seattle to the Mississippi Delta. "It's a whole other world."

Despite his misgivings, Wong was eager to introduce the wonders of science to his students at Eliza Miller Junior High. "We used the gas jets to see the different colors that chemicals burn," he recalls. "The theory is kids love hands-on activities and your discipline problems will be nothing if you can keep them involved." Within minutes, however, a mishap sent that theory up in smoke. "I turned around, and there was a huge stack of paper on fire," Wong continues. "They're fanning it, thinking they'll put it out, but they're making it bigger and bigger. I cleared them away, stomped it out and thought, 'Fire in my first lab—this is not good.' "

It was, to say the least, an inauspicious beginning for a young man with big dreams. Just two months earlier Wong had signed on with Teach for America, the national service corps that this year placed 800 top college graduates in the country's poorest classrooms. The brainchild of Wendy Kopp, 33, who based it on her 1989 senior thesis at Princeton University, the 10-year-old program counts among its boosters First Lady Laura Bush, who says she "looks forward to helping [Kopp] reach her goal of nearly tripling the number of new teachers" by 2004.

But the corps is not without its critics, among them two major teachers' unions who argue that placing college grads in classrooms for only two years does little to solve the country's chronic teacher shortage. Moreover, Teach for America recruits receive only five weeks of training, which Karen Zumwalt, professor of education at Columbia Teachers College in New York City, calls "ludicrous. We send them in unprepared, to learn how to teach our most vulnerable children in our most vulnerable schools." Nonetheless, the principal at Eliza Miller, Ernest Simpson, is happy to have them. "I don't know what kind of training they go through, but I'd like to see more teachers with it," says Simpson, 54. "They come in with a lot of energy and a lot of new ideas."

There were days when Wong considered using his energy to hightail it out of Helena. He was appalled by the shortage of books and supplies, the cockroaches and rats that sauntered boldly across his classroom floor, and a roof so riddled with holes that rainstorms made lakes of the hallways. He also doubted his ability to get through to his poorly prepared charges, some of whom couldn't stay awake in class. "They don't go to sleep too early, and they don't get good nutrition," Wong says. But during spring 2000, Wong began to notice a shift in himself and his students. In his first hopeful e-mail missive to friends and family Wong wrote, "My kids' test scores are still horrible and they are still below grade level, but I now smile when I hear them excitedly describing volcanoes, tornadoes, astronomy and the oceans.... I love them and they deserve nothing less.... They are capable of achieving so much. They only need the vision."

Luckily, Wong was there to provide it. He transformed Eliza Miller's moribund Quiz Bowl team into confident competitors who placed fourth at this year's state championship. He secured a grant that put computers in every classroom and led a fund-raising effort that paid for his pupils' first-ever field trip outside the Delta, to the NASA space center in Huntsville, Ala. Under the banner Excellent Examples of Wonderful Work in Mr. Wong's World, he filled a wall with his students' high-scoring exams. "He knows we had a gift inside," says Kristen Ball, 14, "and he had to bring it out."

Wong understands how poverty can chip away at a child's spirit. He was reared in a Seattle neighborhood known as Rat City. His Chinese-immigrant father, Victor, 57, was often ill and out of work, but he did puzzles with his children and taught them the Rubik's Cube. On the school playground when he was 5 years old, Wong says, "kids would gather around and take bets on how quickly I could do it." His mother, Lisa, 53, helped to support the family by cleaning houses. But she made certain that Greg and his four siblings (Jennifer, now 32, David, 30, Benjamin, 29, and Alan, 21) were tested and admitted to the gifted program at their public school. Lisa, now a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Washington, recalls reading to them daily. "Kids have to have stories," she says, "so they can imagine a better future and create a better story for themselves."

Wong survived the stigma of poverty by paying attention to life's nuances. "People thought if I was in the gifted program, I had to be middle class," he says. "That was the key. They didn't treat me like I was poor. I learned to operate in that environment." But his neighborhood friends who attended regular classes didn't fare as well. "They weren't treated like they were smart," he says. "There were no expectations, because they figured these kids were going to fail anyway." Without guidance or options, Wong says, "they turned to violence, crime, drugs."

For a time Wong was headed in that same direction. He stole cars and stereos and hung out with friends who were in gangs. But when a close pal was shot to death trying to deal drugs, Wong, then 16, was scared straight. After graduating from Garfield High in 1993, he attended Western Washington University in Belling-ham, where he received a bachelor's degree in human services. In 1998, while visiting Manhattan, Wong spotted a Teach for America poster on a building. That's when the inspiration struck. "I was in an inner-city school, but [my science teachers] wrote grants and got funds to take us sea kayaking and camping and biking," he says. "I wanted to teach high school science in the inner city and provide those kids with the kinds of experiences I had."

Although he requested an assignment in New York City or San Francisco, Wong was sent to Helena, where he was not alone in his culture shock. "Many of my students had never met an Asian before," says Wong of his predominantly African-American eighth graders. "They were like, do you know Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee?" Nonetheless, he slowly began to fit in. He and fellow recruit Abby Forster, 24, who teaches technology at Central High School in West Helena, rented a three-bedroom double-wide trailer with a sagging sofa and mismatched chairs. "He makes a great Chinese chicken and rice," says Forster, "but he doesn't do the dishes as often as I do." Wong began eating meat so he wouldn't offend neighbors who invited him over for ribs. He braved the barber shop, where a swig of rotgut moonshine came with the cut. He shot hoops at the local armory with a team of teachers he pulled together called Teach You a Lesson. "He'll play basketball with us and stuff," says student Nathan Whitfield, 13, "not like a grown-up who stands on the side."

It won't be easy for Wong, who was recently named Eliza Miller's Outstanding Teacher of the Year, to leave. At the beginning of June he'll pack up his 1998 Saturn (the Geo Metro finally died in February 2000) and head to the Teach for America training institute in Houston, where he'll spend the summer advising new recruits; he hopes to stay on as a national recruiter in the fall. But no one at Eliza Miller wants Wong to go. "You've got this super teacher, and then you don't know who will replace him," says principal Simpson. "He comes and steals our hearts and moves on."

To the children, though, it's what the teacher leaves behind that matters. "When I needed help, he helped me a lot," says Johnny Randle, 15. "I'd like to be a scientist or a teacher, like Mr. Wong."

Christina Cheakalos
Linda Kramer in Helena

  • Contributors:
  • Linda Kramer.