The closing dinner for TFA was tonight. I feel so accomplished about finishing the year. I’ve never told people that I was proud of something before. Not after doing well in high school or college or any other achievement in my life. but I am proud enough of finishing this year that I can say the words. Maybe I feel it’s okay because I failed so badly. Maybe since I suffered and was so mediocre, it’s okay to be proud.
The TFA speaker told the ’05 corps members that as they go out into the world what they need to do is tell stories. We need to tell stories about our students, to dispel the myth that upward mobility is as easy as the American Dream makes it out to be.
Next year I want to tell more stories about my students, about what the classroom is like,and what their lives are like. People need a view into the world of a high school that is not making adequate yearly progress. It’s filled with the honors students who are there because they were well-behaved and the regular students who ask me what “confiscate” means when I try to keep them from watching movies in class on their portable TV’s. I need to give more details that truly show where my students are. For example way too many kids wrote 1 + -1 = 2 on the quiz I gave last week.
I also need to paint a picture of the success I see. When I asked questions to review for the final I could tell that students had learned something, even if I hadn’t tracked it as well as I might have. Something is happening that is good. It’s the kids who get to work just because they know that’s how things go in class.
Stories. There are so many stories. I love the writer Anne Morrow Lindburgh. She had a life; a husband, and a family and didn’t focus everything on writing. She said this was almost essential though. There was nothing to write about without life. You can’t be a writer in a vacuum. You can’t exist just to write. Life must happen first. It’s a prerequisite for good writing.
At the dinner, Seth talked about how all of us were going out into the world, into the midst of businessmen, academics and lawyers who have never experienced what the average person’s life is like. Days ago, I discussed with a good friend and fellow teacher how we never really knew what life was like going to an average school, from an average family. Our AP classes and gifted programs kept us so isolated. Now the TFA corp, armed with a powerful memory of what the real world is and what people are really existing through is going to mingle with those who have never been there or seen it. Sure poverty and inequity can be discussed over cocktails or in papers at a 35,000-dollar-a-year institution of higher education but now we have been immersed in it. Seth, in a hilarious “top ten things we gained from TFA” presentation, mentioned that we now have “alarm bells that go off when we are immersed in a white upper class environment.” As in “Whole foods! Danger! Danger!”
We had our party tonight at a Country Club adorned with pictures of white men in polo shirts. It’s seemed ironic that the corps members are exiting the system to move on to bigger and better things because they are ambitious and brilliant and beautiful. My students often ask why I became a teacher if I had such amazing grades and had the opportunity to go to Ivy League Law Schools. I tell them it’s because I care but the truth is that most of us will move on to something bigger and better than our one tiny, overcrowded, hot dirty classroom. I think most of us will take the stories with us and it will change what we do, but we can move back easily into the rich, white world where most of us came from. Seth urged us to keep telling stories, when we are at work, talking to families, at parties and on dates. I laughed because I’ve talked about the achievement gap on more than one date.
It was difficult to hear some of the speeches about how hard we’ve worked and how much we’ve touched students’ lives. One speech talked about how we’ve sacrificed our health and sanity for the success of our students and I felt guilty for not doing that. I leave school to ride my bike when other teachers are still crafting lesson plans, grading and calling parents.
Sometimes I hate my students or let them fail because they’ve treated me badly. Sometimes I let the class period wind down without teaching everything I possibly could. Sometimes I teach a lesson knowing it’s a little boring or won’t reach a lot of the students. I was inspired to do better next year when I’m not beaten down and destroyed. I was inspired to make my Pre-Calc students live up to college standards and really think about logic and math. Next year will be better; I want my kids to rock. I want to fulfill the Teach for America dream that I didn’t accomplish this year. I’m sure there will still be those students who I want to kill, but hopefully I will bring out the good side in more of them (and earlier in the year!)