I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I have learned some things from my sad obsession with Mad Men. Don Draper—the man with whom I have a hate > love relationship—says that if you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.
A debate about the effectiveness of Teach For America has recently caught my attention as I trek through the final months of the first year of my own experience as member of this organization.
It’s not that I don’t like what’s being said about Teach For America. Frankly, I have some bones to pick with the organization, too. But rather, my problem is that—as usual—we’re not talking about anything that matters.
We have a problem in this country where we like to avoid looking at root causes of things we don’t like. We like Band-Aids, not solutions. Teach For America is one such Band-Aid. And instead of talking about the bigger, harder, more complex issue of how public education is a fraud and a failure, we like to focus on the littler, simpler things in life: organizations or policies that are making grandiose attempts to address the symptoms.
That last word there is the key: symptoms. Needing TFA corps members is a symptom. Low teacher retention rates are a symptom. The real facts and statistics surrounding education in poor and rural areas are symptoms of a much larger, systemic disease in our public education system. Anything that aims to resolve these symptoms is not a panacea. TFA does not claim to be a panacea. If anything, it’s just like DayQuil. It’ll relieve some symptoms if they’re not too bad, but TFA will never solve the “education problem” that plagues our nation.
But TFA does understand one thing that many policymakers fail to recognize admit: the education system has failed in large part because of what structures are in place to preserve the status quo.
We don’t need to talk about the medicines that different organizations prescribe to the education problem. We need to talk about why there is an education problem—the real heart of the reason.
In other words, the conversation needs to change. We need to think more radically because the traditional way of educating has proven to be inept. We need to talk about what we’re teaching, why we’re teaching it, how we’re teaching it, and if we should be teaching the same thing in every institution. We need to refrain from accepting “norms” and ask questions that we’ve been too complacent to ask.
This education system is the very thing that has taught us complacency. We’re taught to nod our heads and write what’s on the board. That’s the “traditional” method of educating. But to put it in “laymen’s” terms, this method sucks. Why do we continue to work with a system that’s been failing the people? When will we demand empowerment by working against a system that represses us?
The conversation needs to change.
Much more on this to come…
I don't cry anymore or have the feeling like I could. I've realized his lately, especially when I've watched or heard sad things that I'm sure would have made me fall into a sad stupor before. It's strange, but I feel like my heart is hardening. And this time, not just the exterior. I mean the whole thing is just hardening. I don't feel compassion in the literal sense of the word: I don't "suffer with" anyone anymore, it seems. In fact, I feel almost nothing. Like a robot with all the answers--or at least a calculated response to things. Like a machine that just carries on to do its job.
I don't delve into the lives of my students anymore, and frankly--oddly--I don't particularly care to. I did in the beginning, but...not anymore. And I know that upon reading this, your eyes have probably narrowed and your brow has raised and you're wondering why this post seems so at odds with everything you'd expect. And you should know that I titled it "Lessons Unplanned" for a reason because I too have been wondering why this experience is so at odds with everything I'd expected.
But I expected a lot of things when I entered this commitment, and probably nine of out ten of those things did not go as planned. This has been an experience unlike any other in that everything I've ever done before now has been done exactly according to plan.
Well, Hello, Real Life, nice to meet you.
I thought upon entering this experience of teaching what we like to "politely" call "underprivileged children" (or "children from low income communities" or "high-risk children" or anything else that places humans with unique lives in very generalized categories) that I was very much aware of my identity as a privileged white girl. In fact, I wrote about it obsessively, and I certainly still stand by the things that I wrote about.
But teaching my kids--the beautiful little souls that fill up my classroom daily--has changed my identity in a profound way. It has changed me almost radically--almost as if it has changed the very makeup of who I am and who I have been all this time.
Before this experience, if you'd asked me to describe myself in three words, I would almost always say these: passionate, ambitious, and compassionate. But I'm replacing "compassionate," now, with something else to be determined when I sort through things.
In the first few months of the school year, there were so many days I'd go home and feel heavy. Some days, I would just lie in bed. Many days, I would just cry. Sometimes it was more like a desperate weeping. Because my kids would tell me things that would break my heart. I would see things that would break my heart. I would think about things that would break my heart.
Nothing has changed in their lives, but I did.
It wasn't that the weight of their problems became too much for me to bear. Indeed, I shed a lot of tears, but still it wasn't that. In fact, when I cried for them, I felt almost ashamed and weak. I wasn't actually crying FOR them. I was crying BECAUSE of them--as if their existence was just too hard on privileged me to witness. Crying because of them wasn't fair. How dare I drive home in and to my privilege, crying on the way and crying there--feeling sorry for these children who deserve better?
No. Because they would come to school the next day and they'd be humans just like me but better because they didn't go home feeling sorry for themselves. They just lived and trudged through--experiencing the range of human emotion and being--just like everyone else. And who was I to feel sorry for them when their very lives gave them the resiliency to keep going every single day? Just waking up means that despite ANY hardship they experience, they have a relentless hope and strength I couldn't even fathom rivaling.
They are incredible.
Incredible means "impossible to believe." And they are. To so many people. It really is nearly impossible to believe that people who experience the hardship they do can rise every morning and be excellent when I demand for them to be excellent.
The default stance is that "those" people already have a story written for them. Well, they don't. They wake up every day to write their story until society closes the book on them or takes the pen out of their hands. They don't choose to fail. And if it seems like they do choose failure, it's really that they just don't even know their own greatness. Consider it humility to a fault.
They are my teachers. They are the wake-up call I've needed since I was born into my privileged existence. Feeling sad and sorry, I have learned, is absolutely useless. Feeling sad and sorry sapped me of the energy I needed to be something useful. I don't delve into the lives of my kids because it doesn't matter the way we might think it does. Being their shoulder to cry on, I've decided, is not the role I'm best at playing, nor is it the role I want to play. Sure, when they talk, I listen. But I don't pry. My duty is to be for them what I know I can be: someone who loves them so much I'll look past their pains and push them to reach greatness because they've proven, just by living, that they CAN.
Today is the last day before a much-needed Fall Break, and so the day’s schedule is different. Today, our kids go to every class for 45 minutes instead of the usual block schedule. As usual, though, I stand outside my door to welcome the morning class into my room. Jose and I don’t say good mornings, but he gives me a look—a look of false mischief. But I know. I know that today Jose is going to be on my team.
Because it’s a strange kind of day, the kids are a bit livelier. Strange days throw kids off their routines, and so they’re chatty and off task.
My new ally calls across the room, “Hey, listen up, she’s talking!” And I have to do everything in my power not to stand there beaming despite the fact that the class refuses to settle down.
Jose still acts like his usual self—still making snide comments where appropriate and, of course, necessary. But today he’s on my team. Noticeably. For everyone to know and see. He’s not shy about it. He’s the best teammate to have. My very first pick.
I don’t take any special notice of him because I know that if I do, the bond will break. We operate on an esoteric Knowing—one that goes without recognition because it’s a covert code that only we can really know about. So I send a nod his way or glance in his direction with a thankful look when I know that no one will notice.
First hour comes and passes, and at 9:00 I send my class out to take their five minute break before they come back in for second hour (I have the same group for two periods).
Five minutes later, in comes everyone.
Except for Jose.
I ask one of his friends where he is, and he tells me Jose is in the office. I ask what he’s done, but his friend won’t tell me. And now I’m worried and confused, but I don’t have time for investigation. I have a class of 30 more students ready and waiting for me to begin my next lesson with them.
Fifth hour rolls around and I keep two of my students in to eat lunch with me. Eduardo* and Angel* find me in my room with their lunch plates piled with scoops of (fake) food. I’ve kept them with me—and they stay gladly—to talk to them about their work in my class.
Eduardo, who used to do absolutely nothing but stare at his desk and whine that 6 sentences for a paragraph was way too many, has suddenly come alive. He’s raising his hand to answer questions. He’s putting real, raw effort into everything I give him to do.
Angel, on the other hand, refuses to pick up his pencil—still. And this after numerous deep talks about his life and his dreams. This is the kid—the first of them all to warm up to me. He was the first one to pour out his heart to me, to stay after school in my room just to talk, to stay in my room during lunchtime. Angel is the one I bonded with first. He’s like my first son.
But he won’t do anything. He’s given up, he tells me. He wants to achieve his goals of being a singer and aw writer, but he knows it won’t happen. So he’s given up.
I have given him gentle, nurturing love. I’ve given him sisterly, straight-talk love. Some days, he will slowly pick up the pencil and slowly write his name or a one-word answer on his page. But most days—9.8 out of 10 days, he does absolutely nothing but rest his head on his arms. I’ve moved on to tough love, calling him out sternly in the middle of class when he decides to put his head down and nagging him relentlessly, firmly to do his work.
He skirts around the issue when I bring it up during our lunchtime conversation. I am sitting on the table in front of both of them, and I’m not my usual friend-like self with him this time. I’m telling him—urging him—to realize that if he gives up on his education, he’s giving up on guaranteeing himself a life he will love. He shrugs and smiles goofily in an attempt to put up a front for his friend. The real Angel, the Angel that comes to my room at the end of the day, is so unlike the one he is in public. The real Angel is quiet and small and worn down by the world.
After spending most of my lunchtime urging him to wake up to reality—or rather, urging him to do something about it—I have to go. I slip off the table I’m sitting on and land on the ground with a thump of defeat. I’m disappointed. I’m frustrated. Not just at Angel, but at the world that made him give up on himself.
I pick up the rest of my students from the cafeteria and bring them back to the classroom. It’s the day before Fall Break, and they are mere hours from their freedom now. They’re hyper and off-task, talking and giggling about other things. I’m calling for the attention, waiting for it to no effect. I’m dragging them chatting and laughing through the assignment I’ve given to them. I’m trying to talk over them to tell them to turn in their papers, but their attention is elsewhere. I move behind the podium and steady myself on it, looking down at it as if I’m reading something but really I’m just trying to hold back the stupid tears that are fighting their way forward against my will and permission. The kids begin to notice that my demeanor has shifted, they are hushing each other--
“HEY! Be quiet! Can’t you see she’s waiting on us!”
The end of the class is nearing. I stand there embarrassed by the tears welling in my eyes. The clock signals that it is time for them to leave, but unlike every other day, they remain in their seats without so much as a peep or a blink. I wave them away and tell them, “Go.” They don’t rush, they walk as though they’re tip-toeing, treading delicately so as not to shake me and make the tears slip out.
But they do.
Some students have stayed behind and they are tending to me, delivering hugs and apologies. The kids from my next class are making their way in, and they see me crying. They yell at the other students, “What have you done to Ms. Myers?!” And they come to me with hugs and love and apologies for the other class.
I feel stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. But I can’t help myself. And I can’t even figure out in that moment why I’m crying. It’s not like we’ve never had days when they talk while I’m talking. I figure it’s because I’m emotionally exhausted and feel so frustrated on the days when they don’t realize their own greatness that I cry for them. Mostly, it was Angel that made me cry. In fact, I could feel the ball in my throat coming up when I was talking to him at lunch. I twisted up my mouth to keep it from quivering right before I hopped off the table to go get the rest of my class.
My sixth hour is perfect. Any time I’m talking and someone so much as whispers they jump on his or her back with, “SHHHHHH!! Ms. Myers is talking! GOD! Ya’ll are rude!” They leave me smiling.
Even though sometimes it takes tears to show them that we are all just humans with real feelings, they have big hearts. They can be nurturing—even the toughest ones. They can show deep love and loyalty. And it is truly heart-warming when they do.
Sixth hour is my last hour of the day, so when they leave and passing period is over, I make my way down the hall to find Jose because I have a feeling he’s been sent to in-house suspension. But when I get there, I look around and he’s nowhere to be found. I leave the room and see several administrators huddled in the middle of the hallway, talking about disciplinary-administrator type things. I cut in.
“Do you know where Jose Montoya* is?”
“Oh, he’s gone.”
“Gone? Gone where?”
“He went home.”
“Why? I just had him in my first hour and he was perfect, then he disappeared for second.”
“Yeah, he won’t be back until probably after spring break.”
I can feel my blood draining from my head.
“Spring break? What did he do?”
“Oh, he got caught dealing. Big wad of cash in his pocket. He deals to the high schoolers. Yeah, he’ll be gone for awhile.”
I put my hands to my face and say, more to myself than anyone, “I had him. We were a team.”
I quickly slip away and make my way back down the hall to my room. I walk in. Close the door behind me and turn the lock slowly. I leave the lights off and numbly walk to my desk and fall into my chair. The back is tall and I turn it so that no one can see me if they look through the window of my room. And I just cry. I just weep because I had him. He was mine. We were a team. And now he’s gone. And I cry because I’ll miss him. I cry because he was my favorite. I cry because I know he made a poor choice, but that he is such a good kid with a good, good heart. I cry because this fucking country has hardened him because it’s told him he can’t be anything or do anything more with his life than this kind of thing—the same kind of thing that sends so many just like him to prison or to their early death or to a life of gang violence or drug dealing because there is no better option for them. I cry because I was just about to show him what he could do with his life. Because I had him. He was mine. We were on a team. And then The System took him away.
So I just cry until I have to stop.
Jose Montoya* is the kind of kid that can walk into a room, and you just know. You know he’s going to give you some kind of hell just by the way he struts—sly and cool, no hint of effort on his part. He makes a plain uniform look cool with his clean red Vans, his white shell necklace, and his hair spiked into a faux-hawk that looks like he woke up that way.
Jose Montoya is the leader of my first class of the day—a class dominated by fearless boys, who will do anything to entertain each other.
Jose Montoya is the leader because he is the most fearless of all. And he is the most intelligent. He understands the world around him—he understands injustice and he has learned a method of adapting that makes him seem invincible to all of it.
When we discuss social justice issues in class—which we do just about every day (the perks of teaching English)—Jose Montoya raises his hand to answer every question and to comment on everything said. And what he says is provocative and real. The things he says are the things the silenced voices of his people are saying. But he is fearless as he says them. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t back down.
And most of the time, what he says is dead on. He’s the fuel to every conversation. He is an integral part of the class, and he is there—without fail—every single day.
But he is there—without fail—every single day. On the good days and the bad days, which tend to be many.
He leads the male-dominant class into defiance with the comments he makes at me, and the way he gets out of his chair on a regular basis to strike up a conversation with his pal across the room in the middle of my instruction. He leads them into defiance by the way he chuckles at me like I’m helpless against him and the rest of them.
And yet I don’t back down—even when I do feel helpless. I chuckle with him. And I call on him every single time he raises his hand. And I listen to him every single time he talks out of turn before I tell him, “Can you raise your hand and say that?” And I let him know he’s the fuel to the conversation—that he does have brilliant things to say.
From day one, we have exchanged looks—challenging one another to cave. But then, there’s a kind of camaraderie in the way we look at each other, and there are days when I can see him soften, his head cowering a bit—not in a show of fear but in a show of respect. Jose and I speak in a secret code of body language and facial expressions so that he can protect his dignity and his reputation as Troublemaker.
But I have sensed from the beginning that Jose Barajas likes me. He respects me. And he gets that I respect him. He’s just been testing me to see if he can trust his instinct with me.
Today was terrible. His defiance was so strongly directed at me that he influenced the entire rest of the boys in the class to blatantly defy me. There was a point during the hour and a half that I stood there, filing through the rolodex of things-to-do-in-a-classroom-crisis, staring blankly at their faces and hoping that doing nothing would do the trick.
By the end of the hour, they were somewhat on track, but it was so miserable that it set a bad tone for the rest of the day.
As Jose walked out of my class, I told him, “Jose, I want to talk to you.”
“When?” he said as he made his way down the hall.
“Just whenever you have the time.”
He laughed. “Never,” he said over his shoulder and strutted away.
I folded my arms over my chest and thought: Typical.
At 12:50, I take my next group of students to lunch and, alone, make my way back to my room to enjoy my own. Usually, I have a horde of students trailing into my room to eat lunch with me. But, thankfully, not today.
Five minutes don’t go by before Jose’s head pops into my room. I wave at him and then realize what he has just done: This is his way of telling me he has time.
“Come here, let’s talk.”
He doesn’t hesitate but comes in, right up to my desk. And the words come out of me like I’ve been preparing for this moment—like I’ve been waiting for him to finally soften enough to just hear me out.
“Why is it that some days you are my shining star student, raising your hand to answer every single question brilliantly, and other days you act like you hate me and don’t want to do anything I say—?”
“I don’t hate you,” he interjects.
“Oh, I know you don’t hate me. You love me. I’m your favorite teacher, am I right?”
“Yes,” he says, again without the usual sarcasm or hesitation.
“And you are one of my favorite students—even though you give me hell sometimes. We have a connection, you know what I mean? I can feel it. You know?”
“Yeah,” he nods. He’s looking at me, fully engaged in what I’m saying.
“It hurts me when you come in here and make the choice to refuse to do your work or go against me because you are so brilliant, Jose. You have so much potential to be so great. You are a leader. You’re the alpha wolf of this class—and I know you know that, right?”
“But you have to make the choice to lead your pack to greatness or to lead them in the opposite direction. Sometimes you are great, and other times not so much. You have so much power--so much. Think of all the things you can do if you use that power for good.
“When you come to this classroom, I am trying to equip you with the tools you need to make a difference in the world. Because I know you CAN make a difference, and I know you want to. I know how much you care about the Hispanic community and the injustices you face. Here’s the deal: I care so much too. I know the other day you told me even though I really want to be I’m not Mexican because it doesn’t count to have Mexican step-family—”
We laugh at the memory--
“But, Jose, just like those are your people, those are my people too because they are my family. I love my step-dad and my grandma. My little sisters are half Mexican. Those are my people. I want to do everything I can to help the Hispanic community, too, just like you. You and I can be a team—but you have to let me be on your team. You’re the alpha of the pack, so if you don’t let me in, then we can’t work together and achieve these great things. You need me, and I need you. But you gotta let me in.”
He’s nodding, watching me intently as he listens and hangs on every word I’m saying. There’s no hard front in his demeanor. This is Jose Barajas—real and true—that I finally have the privilege of talking to.
“Can you do that?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says with finality. “Yes, I can.”
“So we’re a team. We’re working together. And you’re going to put in the effort, and so I am I. Because we need each other. You are too smart not to put in the work when you’re here. You deserve so much, and you can--Jose, you can—make a difference. You have that power. I expect great things from you. So when you come in this classroom tomorrow and every day after, we’re a team.”
He nods his head, looking at me directly in the eyes, promising me with that look.
I nod my head to gesture that I’m stepping off the soapbox. The bond has formed between us solidly now.
He turns to leave.
“You know I love you, Jose,” I call to him, smiling.
He turns as he’s walking out. “I know,” he says. “You too.”
*Name has been changed
No amount of college could prepare a person for a job like teaching. It’s much like becoming a surgical intern (yes, I watch Grey’s Anatomy when my mind has been fried by a day of teaching—which happens to be every day). You are plopped into the middle of things having read all the articles you could stuff your brain with but left without a clue about how to do what you need to do every day to be the best for your patients—your kids.
I am tired like I’ve never been tired before.
This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It can also be the most devastating and the most rewarding—all in one day, which makes it all the more exhausting.
In one day absolutely every possible thing can go so wrong that you have to do everything you can to keep from exploding into a weeping frenzy. And yet one student—that toughest student you have—can give you a look that let’s you know she’s letting you in, and it can make the whole day—that whole rotten day—magical.
It took me weeks to learn how to sleep. And I don’t mean stop working and get in bed. I mean, it took me weeks to learn how to shut my mind off when I hit that pillow so that I could actually sleep and recharge for tomorrow’s 16-plus hour day. I would drift into the thinnest layer of sleep—the kind of sleep in which you aren’t dreaming, you’re thinking concretely about things you need to do in a dreamlike manner.
I would wake up exhausted and use coffee as a surrogate for sleep.
College spoiled me. Even during the busiest of weeks, when I would look at my agenda and want to run away, I still had time to eat and even time to write in an agenda. Those were the days… the days I actually had time to plan the millions of things I needed to do.
The first month and a half of teaching and I’ve become gaunt because I don’t even have time to remember to eat—or my mind is too occupied with something that seems much more necessary than taking care of myself.
The stress of being the caretaker of 120 lives each day is overwhelming. It sounds melodramatic. But the reality is that the stakes are higher for my kids. Their time with me is critical. They are behind because of America’s failure to uphold the things it claims to value. They’re about to leave for high school—a high school that has been deemed a “dropout factory.” And I only have 9 measly months to plant in them the habits and mindsets they need to be successful when they’re thrown to the wolves. And on top of that, they need the actual skills to fight them off—alone, without support.
I recently drove by a yoga place on Brookside with a sign that says “Do something every day that scares you.” I almost chuckled to myself because every morning when I wake up, I get a strange tinge of fear that springs up from the pit of my stomach and seizes my heart. It lasts a mere moment, but in that moment I am terrified of the day that lies ahead.
What if I mess up? What if they don’t do what I need them to do today? What if they say something I don’t know how to react to? What if they need too much from me?
But then I walk through the doorway of my classroom. I unlock the door, push it to prop it open and read the words I’ve posted on it: “When you step into this classroom, you are global citizens. You are scholars. You are explorers. You are important. You are respected. You’re loved. You are the reason I am here.” And I feel recharged—regardless of the amount of sleep I did not get or the amount of coffee that didn’t work to wake me up. It is 6:15 a.m. and I am ready for the day and the chance to be for my kids—the kids that in such a short time I have learned to adore—the exact thing that they need.
About 90 percent of them, at the corner of everything they turn in to me, write: “I am smart. I am capable. I am important.” They don’t whine about it anymore. I don’t even have to remind them to do it. Every time I get the chance, though, I remind them individually that those words apply to them whether they believe it or not.
They’re starting to believe it.
I can feel it in the atmosphere of my classroom. Some days there are hints of joy in the air. When I bend down at the desk of even my most difficult children, and I tell them how smart they are, how capable they are, how much they mean to me, I can see it in their eyes that they’re starting to believe me. Even the skeptical ones. Even the ones that have been hardened by a life much too heavy for their age.
I can feel the joy in the way my students stand close to me when I’m monitoring the hallways during passing period. The way they ask to eat lunch with me in my room every single day. The way the girls play with my hair. The way the boys put their hearts on their sleeves for just me to see.
Bonds are forming in between the walls of our tiny classroom. Some of them slower than others, but they are surely forming. And no matter how exhausted I am when I leave that classroom each day, I can lie on my bed, mindlessly watching Grey’s Anatomy, knowing that all the energy I’ve spent is for the best cause—and the best humans—in the world.
These kids—every single one of them—they’re my heart. They’re the reason I get up every morning at the crack of dawn. They’re the reason I can wake up without hesitation at 5:15 a.m. and work until 9:30 p.m.
Learning is happening in my classroom. This month, I can feel it. But even more important than that, love is happening in my classroom. And that’s the thing that’s making all the difference. Students that refused to pick up a pen are writing full paragraphs now. I don’t have them all yet, but I’m working—relentlessly—to make sure that I have them all in time.
It’s an arduous process. Some days, I come home and cry for no other reason than because I am overwhelmed. Some days, I can’t stop talking to whoever will listen about the breakthroughs I’ve had. Some days—most days—by the end of it, I’m a zombie.
But every day gets better. And my kids give me so much hope.
It’s no wonder that teaching has one of the highest turnover rates of any profession in the country. I thought my time in college was rigorous while I pursued three majors. But what we call Institute at Teach For America—where we learn how to be a teacher in five weeks and teach summer school to kids in Tulsa Public Schools—college did not prepare me for. It seems like an impossible feat to keep up with all that is necessary to be an excellent teacher.
This is hard. This is one of the hardest thing of this academic nature that I have ever done. And this is coming from someone who would rather do homework than go out on a Friday night (I’m one of those). This is coming from someone who has been obsessed about school since the first time I stepped a foot into pre-K at two years old.
It’s hard because you don’t just get a B for falling short of excellent. Mind you, a B was always the end of the world to me back in the day. No, here, if you’re not excellent you’re failing a kid—a child with a real LIFE. You’re failing to give her what she needs to be successful, to be able to reach those big dreams she has of becoming a famous writer, a doctor, a teacher, an engineer. Our kids have those dreams. If we fail them here, we become a barrier for them to get to those dreams.
If we fail these kids now, during summer school—even in this short span of time we’re together—we potentially fail them for the rest of their lives. Because once José and Ashley and Yesmia and Brandon leave me, they’ll be inserted back to the system. And who knows what will happen to those precious children then.
Systemic racism and classism will throw punches at them as often as they have a chance to look up and see where they’re going.
So this is hard. There are deadlines to meet, skills to master in a short amount of time, knowledge to internalize all day, every day. There’s no test or quiz at the end. There’s just the classroom. We are no longer independent college students—because everything we’re doing and learning we don’t have a foundation for. It’s all fresh and it’s all new.
It’s hard, but it’s hard because I’ve hardly ever had to really work to understand something. I’ve never had to put so much thought into what I’m doing for it to come out right. It’s hard, most of all, because the stakes are lives and not grades anymore. A teacher’s work is more serious than brain surgery. We’re molding the future. And we can’t redo what we’ve done once it’s done.
It’s hard. But there are students in my class who go through this kind of challenge—on top of so many others, like poverty, racism and the threat of their parent’s deportation—every day they step into my class, or anyone’s for that matter.
Some of them are reading at a first grade level when they should be going into seventh grade next August.
Miguel* is a student in my class with the sweetest face I have ever seen, who stares at his in class assignments when I pass them out. That’s all he can do. He doesn’t raise his hand—it’s embarrassing for him. He just stares down with a furrowed brow and looks up at me as I make my way past each table of children, like he’s trying to tell me something sad and secret.
I look down at his paper every time to find no a single mark, though all the other children have at least tried to write down something. I kneel down beside Miguel and he looks at me, begging for help because I can see it in his eyes that nothing on that page makes sense.
So I read the directions to him in a whisper. Sometimes they make sense to him, but sometimes they don’t, and I have to reword the question so that he can better understand what its asking. Still his answers are simple sentences because he can’t write. Every word he needs help spelling. While the other kids are writing multiple sentences on their own, Miguel gets through one or two with my help.
If he comes to class every day, the state will push Miguel along to the seventh grade despite the fact that he is basically illiterate. If at every level he is so far behind his peers, will he stay in high school? Will he get too frustrated with himself to push through? Will he slip through the cracks of a big school serving too many kids just like Miguel—kids that don’t have the opportunities to work the system in their favor the way white middle class families can?
Miguel will not leave my class—no matter how hard I work and how hard he works—having grown six grade levels. That would be an impossible task for this short four weeks and this brand new teacher. But I’ve fallen in love with little Miguel in five short days, and he wakes me up in the morning and keeps me up at night planning, planning, planning how to make him learn quickly and effectively.
Still, he’ll leave me soon and I won’t know what the system will do to him—or not do to him.
While I have him and all the other beautiful children in my class, I’ll wage a brutal battle against the system that has held them back. I fight for them because they need to know that someone will. They need to know that they deserve a teacher that loves them and takes their lives and their futures seriously. They need someone to show them their potential and love them enough to push them to fulfill it.
They need someone who will give them a path to their big goals. They still believe they can reach them, and they should always believe that.
Oklahoma has been a stormy mess for the past week. Indeed, the weather has shown us the worst of this state—the horrific devastation of a deadly tornado—and the best of this state—the thousands of people doing everything they can to help those that lost everything in the tornado’s wake.
I keep trying to comprehend coming out of the rubble after a tornado has wiped out everything and finding nothing left. What is it like to realize suddenly that you have nothing? What is it like to, in a moment, become homeless with nowhere to go? Worse still, what is it like to be helpless in protecting the ones you love most dearly and finding that they’re gone at the end of the day?
It’s not easy to fathom, or even possible for that matter.
Oklahoma has been famous in national media this week. President Obama will be headed our way this weekend. All the major news sources talk about the destruction in Moore each day and evening, as well as the social and political responses. Everywhere—on social media and around the community—there are opportunities to donate needed supplies and money to the relief efforts for that neighborhood. People near and far from the area have dropped what they’re doing to drive to Moore and help in any way that they can.
A common understanding has arisen from this tragedy: often it is the worst experiences that bring a community together, encourage people to appreciate what they have, and cause people to generously give whatever they can.
We have seen this kind of thing happen in Oklahoma perhaps too many times. The sense of community in this state is strong and certainly gives me a great appreciation for my home. What these moments of affliction reveal about Oklahomans is that they are a people with a powerful will to give and to provide for the unfortunate.
I hope we can recognize that the will to give, to be generous and kind and caring for the needy is not simply something that just the victims of sudden, massive tragedies need. There are people so close to us, in our own individual communities, that need our care, our support, our love. There are people so close to us that have lost everything, started with nothing, or have suffered generations of poverty because of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, disease or disability.
It is a truly beautiful thing to see so many helping hands and loving hearts in the aftermath of this catastrophe. Let us not forget that we don’t have to stop helping and loving and supporting and caring when the cleanup is finished and the affected people have moved on. We have opportunities to give supplies, money, time and even just recognition every single day to people who need it in our communities. Homelessness and poverty are tragedies that happen daily and chronically. They too could use some Oklahoma love.
We were asked by Teach For America as corps members to write a short "Story of Self," which illustrates a moment in our lives that challenged us and yet showed us who we really are. This is mine.
We drove thirty hours in a broken down Suburban—a family of six piled in. I was fifteen and terrible, the rude product of too many years growing up in the invisible smog of White Privilege. For most of my life, I’d gone to private schools for the rich, despite the fact that we were really quite poor.
I had a paradoxical identity. I was the daughter of a white immigrant from Jamaica, who got knocked up at the age of 18 and had me. We grew up together, living above our means entirely, and feeling the strain of a low income frequently. After eloping and remaining married for a whopping month and having another daughter, my mother married a Mexican man seven years her junior and accidently had two more girls. Jaded and overprotective, I abhorred this new husband, associating his culture and his race with him and lumping them all into the same hate bundle.
He and his family were different, and I didn’t like it. Life at home was miserable for me, so I estranged myself from my family and clung to my private school friends whose wealth and privilege abounded. It was, at least superficially, a lot greener on their side. I became an elitist without the official certificate—I didn’t have the bank account to back it up, but I still believed profoundly that I was special by affiliation and (without explicitly admitting it) race.
Needless to say, my admittance to Mexico was coupled with a jarring culture shock like I’d never experienced before. As soon as we crossed the border, it was as though I’d been transplanted to another world. The disarray was overwhelming. Men latched onto our cars, asking for money in exchange for directions or assistance. People scrambled about outside, speaking loud Spanish and dragging little children by the arms. The cars were shoddy old things, blaring horns seeming to be their only fully functioning part. A mixed smell of manure, fried foods and thick pollution struck me as we drove through the cities.
I remember the Mexican flag—the biggest flag I’d ever seen. I looked up, out the window, behind the glass that kept me sealed from that world. I got the message loud and clear, but I didn’t understand it. This country—these people—had pride.
For the first part of our stay there, I could not figure out why.
Our trip was meant to be just two weeks. By some act of fate, however, the car problems we’d had on the way down ended up prolonging our stay to almost a month. It was in that month, without even realizing it as it happened, that reality slapped me out of delusion. And despite popular belief, the reality was a whole lot better than the sealed bubbled I’d been living in.
Trash littered the streets, the smells of fried food permeated the air, the pollution was thick, graffiti covered the walls of every building, the people were loud, the food was strange, the Spanish was incomprehensible, the buildings were dilapidated, hungry stray dogs roamed the roads, the bugs were rampant. I had never been outside of the manicured suburbia of America, and Mexico was diametrically different from everything I knew.
I wondered on an hourly basis during my first weeks in Mexico how anyone could live this way. It was like the chorus to my lamenting song about how much I despised everything Mexican.
In time, though, I became too distracted to notice the hum of that sad song in my mind. Something was happening to me as I was coaxed by time to take off my shoes and hang up my jacket and stay awhile. Get comfortable. Sit down. Have some tortillas and homemade salsa. Play soccer in the streets with the little boys in the neighborhood. Make friends with my cousin’s friends, taking pictures at the sites we visited. Fall in love with the precious little boys and girls that lived nearby. Succumb to the cheek-kissing and the hugging at every greeting and goodbye. Dance to the traditional music with the uncle that asks at every nightly gathering. Enjoy the fresh taquitos made by the old woman at a stand on the roadside in the mountains. Stand and look out at the splendorous pyramids made by the ancient peoples of this beautiful country.
The invitation was there every day, and without meaning to, I took it. And in the meantime, I fell deeply in love.
Though my initial journal entries don’t show it, a transformation was taking place in me after every day spent with the Mexican people of my stepfather’s family and friends. There was something authentic about them that I’d seemed to have forgotten could be a trait of humanity. They were not polished and plastic the way Americans were. They were people filled and colored by a rich cultural heritage that centered on family and community. Their hospitality and genuine kindness were warm and filling.
As I let myself become fully immersed in their world and their culture, my perception of them was renewed: they were not strange “others” anymore; rather, they became humans that I could value and appreciate and, most of all, love.
The journal in which I wrote during my stay in Mexico is filled with (sad and yet comedic) rants about how much I hated it and dreaded being there. But my last entry—written on the drive back home—reveals what a transformative experience that adventure was:
“I really wanted to go home—I really and truly did. But when the entire family lined up outside those two bright pink and bright green houses, it took too much effort not to let that ball in my throat get the best of me. God, I hate Mexico. But I’ve found that I can’t really hate Mexico if I love the people who make it up.
For all the times I hated this place, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy coming here. Some truly beautiful people live here. They don’t have to have the fancy, beautiful, expensive house. They don’t have to have the perfect looks. They don’t have to have anything but their friends and their family and the love that binds them and allows them to be truly, sincerely and genuinely happy, comfortable and content. They are family, they are together, they are love—to the realest extent.
I sit with my back to the seat that is supposed to be in front of me so I can watch it all pass by me. I can’t stop myself from crying. The horizon is empty without the mountains that seemed to play the role of a pair of giant arms, bringing everyone as a community, as a city, as a state, as a Family together as one.
I miss being there every day surrounded by that family. I miss the food, the homes, the constant warmth. I love Mexicans and look down upon myself for ever being prejudiced against them. I can call myself, shamefully, a hypocrite. Stupid, prejudiced people are my greatest pet-peeve, and yet I was just that. I don’t like who I am sometimes. There’s a person in me who is close-minded, but I swear I’ll send an army in to throw her out. I could be so much more than I am right now.”
That was the day I decided to wake up. Since that time, my world has been enriched because I have become fascinated by and appreciative of the cultures of people of color. I went to college and studied the world as one of my majors. I studied abroad in South Africa and Israel and Palestine and listened to the stories of the beautiful people that comprise those places. I developed a mission while in college to do everything I can to ensure that those narratives are not silenced by mainstream Western culture. Being a Teach For America corps member is my first step in a career dedicated to making sure that all people are perceived as and treated like the invaluable humans that they are.
About a week ago, I went home to visit the fam and the boyfriend, and to observe a couple of Teach for America teachers in action in their classrooms. When I go to Tulsa, I usually stay with my grandparents, because there is where I get royal treatment and I’ve been booted out of my mom’s house by three little pubescent sisters that need their own rooms.
Gigi, my lovely grandmother, my sister and I went out to lunch to Free Birds—a place I don’t really recommend for grandmothers, but whatever. I don’t really know what we were talking about, but I do remember a very unforgettable one-liner from Gigi.
Now before I give you that one-liner, let me just give you a little background about my grandma. She comes from Jamaica, where she lived until her early thirties before moving to the U.S. Here, she took up a profession as a pre-school teacher. Back in the day (and maybe still today, I’m not sure), you didn’t need a college degree to be a pre-K teacher. So, unsurprisingly given her native country and the times, she didn’t get one.
Let me also note that Gigi is a very…opinionated woman. She’ll tell you how it is without a drop of remorse. She’ll tell you, dear waiter, if she thinks you’re rude or providing poor service. She’ll tell you not to dare call her “honey” if you’re not older than she is. Yep, Gigi is one of those. And yet when she loves, she loves unconditionally and with a love that fills you to the brim.
In other words, my grandmother is a real character.
So when she said during our conversation, “College people think they know everything
,” in the snarkiest tone of voice she could muster (and she is a master at snark), I wasn’t particularly surprised but I was certainly intrigued.
Often when I visit my family at home and start spouting off some facts and figures and theories and “scholarly” opinions, I get the cold shoulder. I get rolls of the eyes and a few scoffs. I get groans that clearly mean, “Oh, for the love of God, here she goes again. Know-it-all.”
Don’t get me wrong: my family has supported me with all the encouragement and love in the world as I’ve pursued my degrees. Gigi gets choked up when she tells me how proud of me she is. My mom brags (a little too much, probably) to everyone with whom she comes into contact. And my entire family has been pushing me to go to college since I was born. Literally.
But such seemingly contradictory behavior can’t be written off as just hypocrisy. Just because the members of my family don’t have a college education doesn’t mean their opinions about college grads and academes are invalidated. In fact, they really have a point. We “college people”—and by that I think she meant students and graduates alike—really do think we know it all. But as I near the end of my college career, I can’t help but feel that while knowing all the facts and figures that I know because of my university education is important, it really doesn’t give me a full picture of reality.
The problem with academia that I have found is that it sucks the life out of life. It reduces reality to numbers and measurements. And while these certainly are important—especially for practically creating and applying policies and programs—it sometimes means that the practitioners of academia lose a little bit of their own humanity. We start to see the world in analytical terms, and we kind of forget that, oh yeah, we’re studying humans.
This is especially true for people who study humanities because it seems like everything we study is relevant to the here and now almost always.
Thinking analytically, though, can kind of take away from living.
It’s hard for me to admit that the thing I love—and I mean love—is also the thing that drains me the most. I am a nerd for school. I see the potential it has for the improvement of individuals’ lives and for the health of whole communities, nations and the world. But something about it has to change. We can’t go to school to gain knowledge only to give up the things that make us human.
I used to write poetry. I used to be an artist. I used philosophize and daydream. I used to read books just to read books, just because they were beautiful. Since college it has become harder and harder to do those things. In some cases, it’s become impossible. I’ve become sucked up in the whirlwind of academia and the pressure to fix this, analyze that. I forget that my reality is beyond a textbook or journal article, that I am not defined by academia, that I am indeed a person. Academia can in a sense desensitize us to our own personhood.
Why is it that our schools—the factories that produce future generations—don’t value good old-fashioned living? Why is it that building up “human capital” comes at the expense of making robots out of humans? Why does the neoliberal agenda reduce education to mere economic investment in the next generation? And most importantly, why do our schools essentially look the same way they did 200 years ago
Somewhere, we’re missing the mark. Our complacency is (melodramatic as it seams) deadening. The standard of satisfaction has remained the same—if it hasn’t lowered—for centuries now, and that just doesn’t
It sounds like we need some good old-fashioned radicalism.
Once upon a time there were these white guys that came together to hash out the structures of government for a new nation. They were pretty smart. In fact, they actually really had a fear of ignorant and just plain stupid people. They also were afraid of tyrants—especially religious ones. But that’s irrelevant for this story right now.
This bunch really liked democracy, thought it was a nice idea, believed in rights and stuff. But they were smart enough to realize that in a democracy, if the majority of citizens are just plain idiots, that doesn’t really make for a very functional, beneficial government
. So instead, they turned to the idea of a republic. This republic was supposed to act as a buffer against tyranny by the stupid mob.
But, said these men, if citizens of this new country are going to vote—even for representatives—they had better be at least somewhat educated so that they can make proper decisions when voting. It is, after all, a social contract, in which each person gives up some freedom to ensure that the liberties of everyone are protected by the sovereign entity to which all subscribe.
Unfortunately, all the buffers that those genius old men put up over 200 years ago have snapped under the weight of the complex nation that arose from those thirteen initial colonies. Since then, we’ve gone through events that have contorted the pretty American picture painted by the Founders’ idealism. We’ve been participated in genocide of Native Americans, Civil War, slavery, eugenics, imperialism, terrorist attacks, secret operations to exploit others, a Civil Rights Movement, assassinations, the “war on drugs,” anti-immigration policies, corporate takeover, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Instead of being an “informed” polity, Americans overdose on stupefying reports by the media. Yes, stupefying. Because the way the media (and even our classroom textbooks) report what’s going on in the world—domestic and abroad, past and present—literally makes those who read it unconscious to reality.
There is no simplified version of reality, and yet everything we are taught is served to us on a silver platter comprising out-of-context clips and quotes and a deluge of facts without anyone to critically analyze or question them.
Let’s think about how we got to this place. For centuries—indeed, since before the founding of this nation—white colonists and later Americans have been denying access to the marketplace of ideas to specific groups: women, any person of color, any non-land-owning white person, immigrants, etc. Denying access means that these groups have been denied the ability to contribute to the production of mainstream public opinion, sentimentality, ideology, and culture.
In other words, we have a long history of unquestioningly accepting whatever the “authorities” say. There have been only brief periods in our history in which people have really challenged authority, but this is not one of those eras.
Today, among hippy college kids, being outside of the “mainstream” is “cool.” But face the fact that mainstream America holds the power because of their numbers and their political clout. So if you’re under the impression that you’re cool because you think mainstream is uncool, you should realign your values: You should give a shit that mainstream tends to mean unconscious to reality. You should give a shit that being “mainstream” means being part of the majority that just floats along the political and social brook of ignorance.
Whether you sit along the edge of the river or you’re floating along in it, it’s going to continue to erode the foundations of that democratic republic those beloved old men created. And then we’re all just shit out of luck, because when everything’s flooded only those at the top will be fine. Even more, they’ll be the ones that throw you the lifeboat…or not.