Drinking The Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 11 2014

Something Out of Nothing

If I thought that life after my TFA years would get easier, I was sadly mistaken. While no one outside of my 22 coworkers will ever truly understand what we endured this year, all there is to do when looking back at this mess of a year is to laugh. Our hopes were high in August. We were opening a brand new middle school, under a leader we all admired, with a staff that was eager and passionate. After a month of discussing our school’s values and talking through each detail, we were ready to open our school.

The night of parent orientation was the first night we went into the building. School was supposed to start in 3 days, but as we looked around at the cement walls and open stairwells, the whole staff looked around at each other, knowing there was no way in hell this building would be ready. It was then that we were told, for the first of many times, that the building wasn’t quite ready, and school would start a week late. As we passed on this bad news to parents, in an unfinished room, with unfinished walls, and with an unfinished ceiling, we got the sinking feeling that it would be more than a week. And then, it rained on our unfinished ceiling. No, it poured, and it trickled down the stairs to flood the unfinished basement in which we were holding parent orientation.

But school did not start the following week. The building had flooded, making matters worse, but there was no more time to waste, and, as Lupe Fiasco would say, the show must go on. So we had our first day of school outside, on a playground, in 100-degree weather, right outside of a vacant school. Although there were 50 vacant school buildings across Chicago due to the controversial school closings, a rule was made that no charter schools could occupy the space of a closed public school. So we withstood the sun and the heat as we tried to convince our 6th and 7th graders who have never gone to school together that this school was the real deal, as we guzzled bottles of water and desperately tried to find shade. The next 3 days were a teacher’s dream come true: 3 back-to-back-to-back field trips around the city with middle schoolers whose names we didn’t know and who didn’t know each other, nor how to act in public.

As we were told again and again that the building still wasn’t ready, the next four months can only be described as a black hole of misfortune. We moved from the crowded gym of one school, to the technology room of another, and finally to a full wing of another school, where we combined and co-taught two classes at a time in the space of one classroom. The name of the school where we rented out space was ironic and seemed to laugh in our face every day: Hope Institute. That word, hope, seemed to haunt me ever since I had made a vow to myself at the end of my Israel trip 2 years ago to never lose hope, no matter what odds were against me in my classroom.

But now, in my 2-in-1 classroom at Hope institute, as I weaved through to get to students in the back of the room, and hit my ass on desks due to the overwhelming amount of bodies and desks in my small shared room, the odds seemed really against me. Many of our kids were coming from closed public schools, and it quickly became apparent why these failing schools had closed. It seemed that our students had the social-emotional capabilities of first graders; we literally had to teach them how to interact with other humans and each other. Aside from that, they were years behind academically. I can distinctly remember sitting in a coffee shop, grading their initial writing and compiling a list of their writing grade levels: Kindergarten, first grade, Kindergarten, Kindergarten. There was an occasional second grade writer, but no one was higher than fourth grade. And oh yeah, I was teaching sixth grade. I cried as I graded their papers, not because of the seemingly impossible feat ahead of me, but because of the complete failure of our public schools to educate our kids and their apparent ease in just passing kids along through the system.

I had made a vow to remain hopeful no matter what. But how could I remain hopeful when my sixth graders didn’t know how to write a complete sentence? How could I remain hopeful when my co-teacher and I had to spend an hour of our class one day teaching the kids how to skip lines when writing a draft in their notebook? How could I remain hopeful when it became December, and we were told, once again, unsurprisingly, that the building was not quite ready?

When you feel hopeless, all it takes is one moment to get you back on track and restore your faith. Although we thought it might never happen, we finally moved into our building in January. It was the week before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, so we were reading and talking about Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream 50 years later, and whether the students thought his dream had come true today. I was starting to feel disheartened by my students’ simplistic black vs. white comments, when Tatyana opened her mouth. In every class, there is that one student who gets you up out of bed in the morning. For me, that student was Tatyana. She is only twelve, but her maturity and wisdom is years beyond her classmates. Five months earlier, Tatyana’s 1-year-old baby sister was shot in the head and killed by a stray bullet. A year before that, her stepfather was killed. Every time Tatyana spoke, the room went still. Her classmates respected and looked up to her, and they called her “Preacher Tati” because of the way she captivated the room. When I called on Tatyana, she stood up and took a second to think of the words she wanted to say. Then she said, “Sometimes I think, why did Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks fight for our rights if we’re just going to let our community fail, give up on our education, and watch as black people kill their own. We’re the ones that need to do something to fix our own community.” Such insight was coming out of the mouth of a 12-year-old. This was a girl who would undoubtedly make it out and impact the world. In that instant, all of my hope was restored.

It would be unrealistic to think that all my kids would catch up to grade level in one year and undo years of inadequate schooling, but there were huge successes, despite the challenges. Many of my kids grew 2 or 3 years in reading. Their writing grade levels went from Kindergarten and first grade to an average of 4th grade, and they consistently wrote in complete sentences. Through tireless repetition, they began to learn how to interact with each other and how to act in school. And we did the impossible, making something out of nothing: we opened a school, without a building. There were countless moments that I could point to this year that I felt hopeless, and it’s hard to have hope when you’re let down again. And again. And again. But every once in a while there is a moment, like Tatyana’s comment, that reminds me that I must have hope no matter what. What I’ve come to realize is that hope is not about believing that things will be better; it’s about knowing that they will be better. Because they have to be. When I find myself losing sight of that truth, I think of a quote I heard a few years ago: “Most people say you have to see it to believe it. I think you have to believe it to see it.”

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