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From the streets

BY ALEX RICH | FEBRUARY 01, 2010 7:30 AM

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Jerald Walker escaped his high-crime neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, came to the world-renown Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and stayed for 10 years.

He and his wife still have strong feelings for the Iowa City area.

“If someone said we could move there tomorrow, we’d be packing tonight,” Walker said.

Walker, an associate professor of English at Bridgewater State College, in Bridgewater, Mass., will read from his book Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption at 7 p.m. today at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.

It’s been a hard and treacherous journey for Walker.

He had to fight poverty and addiction to get where he is today. He was born in the Chicago housing projects into a large family and to blind parents. A student of promise early in life, he found himself engulfed in crime and drug addiction by the age of 17.

“I would consider changing after a night of being too high and waking up hung-over,” Walker said. “Criminal behavior and remorse were not enough to change me.”

As a teen, he idolized his brother, Tim, a college student and math major. But Tim too, was drawn into the life of crime.

“Tim was a fantastic person, and he took me under his wing,” Walker said, but added, “Tim kind of recruited me into the street life when I was a kid.”

His life changed, however, when tragedy forced him to take stock of his situation.

“A friend of mine was murdered 30 minutes after I had seen him,” he said. “The murder made me decide ‘that’s enough.’ I stopped using drugs and drinking heavily.”

He also had to cut ties with his brother.

Walker enrolled in college, and was drawn to creative writing. A teacher encouraged him to apply to the Writers’ Workshop, and he began his literary life.

Street Shadows chronicles his life story; it is Walker’s first attempt at a large nonfiction project.

“I had always written about my youth, so it was not unusual,” he said. “But those were usually fictional short stories. My wife would read the fictional stories and ask why I didn’t tell the truth.”

Homecomings like Walker’s have become a tradition for many graduates, said Cole Swensen, a faculty member in the Workshop.

“Prairie Lights is such a great supporter of literature, and students have a warm feeling for it,” she said.

Meanwhile, Walker now looks to his students as his personal heroes, drawing on his own experiences to help them.

“A lot of these kids come from blue-collar backgrounds and have very difficult lives,” Walker said. “Seeing these students fight for education is inspirational.”


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