For my final Teach for America meeting, I had to answer the question: “What would you tell yourself two years ago?” My message to myself began with “you are stupid, ignorant, and naive.” I have come so far from my bushy-tailed college graduate self and I have learned so much that it often feels like I’ve aged 30 years over these past two.
Before I began TFA, I thought that what it took to be a good teacher was simply the belief that every child can learn. I actually laugh at myself when I write that, because every teacher starts out believing that every child can learn; that’s why they’re fucking teachers. To be a good teacher it takes grit. It takes dragging yourself out of bed and convincing yourself that you can do this each morning. Aside from my ignorance about what it actually takes to be a good teacher, I have also learned a great deal about the world from my life over the past two years:
We, as a country, have not come as far as we pretend we have. We pride ourselves on making so much progress, but from my view it seems like there is just as much segregation, just as much racism, and just as much inequality as there was before the civil rights movement. For two years, I have worked at a school that serves 99% Hispanic students, in a neighborhood that consists of a majority Hispanic residents, while living in a neighborhood that is over 80% white. Next year, I will be switching to work at a school in a neighborhood that is over 90% black. In elementary school, I learned that segregation “ended” decades ago, but to me it seems like our country is just as segregated as it was before the civil rights movement. The fact that our country is segregated is not the real problem though- it’s the differences between those areas that is the heart of the problem. Between the graduation rate, the violence rate, and every statistic possible, it is clear that the quality of life is not anything close to equal in these minority neighborhoods. This fact seems obvious to any TFA corps member, but I have found that most people outside that circle have no idea just how segregated our country really is.
Many people don’t realize this sad truth because we live in separate worlds. This past weekend over the fourth of July, I spent the weekend barbequing, swimming, and spending quality time with my friends. Meanwhile, there were 74 shootings in the city of Chicago over the course of the holiday weekend, all of which occurring on the South and the West sides. The world that I live in on the weekends is a completely world from the one that I live in throughout the work week. One of the largest reasons why TFA is so challenging the first year is because it’s completely disheartening. It’s demoralizing to get a glimpse into a world that you never even realized existed throughout your whole life. I knew (or was told) that poverty existed, but I never felt what it felt like simply to drive through a neighborhood and feel the abandonment and desolation on the streets. And it’s okay that I didn’t know this world existed- what reason would I have to go hang out on a street corner in the South Side of Chicago? But the fact is, we live in separate worlds, with completely separate realities that rarely interact with one another.
None of this has changed because we live in a society in which poverty perpetuates itself. In the first few weeks of TFA institute, I used to cringe at the term “white privilege,” feeling guilty about the fact that I was given privileges simply based on the situation I was born into. But I can’t deny the opportunities I’ve been given that my students aren’t given. I grew up in an average middle class family with two working parents. I graduated from a public high school, went to and graduated from a top public university, and got accepted into Teach for America. While I will be paying back loans until the end of eternity, I also got a lot of financial support from my parents to help me through college. Among the low-income public high schools in Chicago, 50% of the students graduate from high school and 6% graduate from a 4-year college. If my students go to the neighborhood high school, not only would they likely not receive an education that would prepare them for college, they would not receive the SAT preparation and guidance that I did, and they most likely would not even know about many opportunities for college, including scholarship opportunities or loans that would allow them to go. Therefore they are encouraged to apply to the selective enrollment high schools. If they were to get in, most would have to take 2 buses and travel over an hour each day just to get to the school, most of which are located on the north side. They would also have to adjust to attending school for the first time in their lives with students of different races, backgrounds, and social-economic status. It’s not to say that they are not capable of going to college and getting a job, but our society is built in such a way that they would have to work twice as hard to do so. And that will probably never change, because what reason do the people in power have to shake up the status quo? After all, they are in power- why would they want things to change? So until the people in power have a reason to want to change things, our society will continue to trap people in a cycle of poverty.
Laughing and crying can be equally as powerful. There was a lot of crying my first year teaching. The entrance into my car at the end of the school day was like an automatic trigger for waterworks. There were tears of frustration, tears of sadness, and tears of outrage at the school and the system that I was a part of. But there was also a lot of laughter. Laughing off serious subjects used to be a trait that I considered one of my weaknesses. But I now realize that being able to laugh in the face of adversity is a powerful skill, and it doesn’t mean that you are ignoring serious matters. There is a fine line between laughter and tears, and the times that I remember laughing the most were often my worst days. The day my bipolar student punched the computer screen, yelled “fuck you” at my students, and tried to run on the roof; the day my favorite students stole my phone from my pocket and hid it in the back of the room; and the day a student wrote a facebook message to a girl so vulgar that I couldn’t look him in the eye for weeks. I now realize that my laughter on these days was not just a coping mechanism to ignore how upset I was, but rather that laughter and sadness are deeply related. On a plane one day I read a letter from a dying father to his son that summed it up better than I can. He said, “laughing and crying are more like cousins than strangers. They are how honest human beings respond to a life they allow themselves to love.”
As I finished my two-year commitment as a corps member, everyone kept saying “Congratulations! Aren’t you excited?” The truth is, I don’t feel excited and I don’t feel the least bit celebratory. I think that’s because it doesn’t feel like the end of anything. Rather, it feels like the beginning of a lifelong commitment to an issue that I will never be able to stop fighting for.