Because I kept my eyes open

Posted by adrionna on Feb 4, 2013 in Teaching |

Today I began my experience as an “official observer” of classes within an elementary school on Chicago’s near-north side. It’s a very diverse school where, sadly, 40% of the population is homeless, or in temporary housing. I briefly (30 min) sat-in on a class last week, where I was able to get a feel for the lay-out of the school and the dynamic of having kids coming from so many different backgrounds.

My assignment today was to watch/interact with the first graders. There are about 25 students in the classroom and each love -and need- attention. This is difficult with one teacher in the room, so the school is excited that my class is working with theirs. This school stresses building relationships with students so that the students are held accountable in more than just a student-teacher relationship, but rather an apprentice-mentor, or co-partnership. I’ve been given two charges, K and D. The administrator who assigned me to them described the students as those “who have needs, but who shouldn’t be having those needs.” After interacting with the students for the first time today, I understand why. They are smart, they are creative, they are funny, they are kind. But they need to know they’re doing something worthwhile, and its through these personal relationships we build with them that they put school on a higher pedestal than anything else. It’s school that will help them escape poverty. It’s education that will open their minds to the world.

This is what a teacher hopes for, anyway. This is what I hope for.

I ride public transportation often, but I rode it more often today. I people watch sometimes, but I really saw people today. I had my eyes open all day long. In essence, I was seeing these people as the first graders all grown up. Here’s what I saw.

After I left the school, around 10:30am, I saw two women on the corner, smoking cigarettes, telling each other they don’t really care what others think about them. One smiled back at me when I looked over. That was nice, but I want more for J than that. She wants attention and thinks that being silly and acting out will get her that. She’ll get attention from me for really trying to spell words during the break-out session tomorrow morning. But what if it’s not enough?

On the train, I saw someone who looked like he wasn’t really going anywhere. With a big brown paper bag in the seat next to him, he just looked happy to be somewhere warm. I was so happy that all those kids today were able to be somewhere warm, with breakfast, lunch, and dinner to look forward to. I’m proud that we, as a society, have created a place for our most vulnerable to be shielded from the harshest elements so that they can learn and better themselves.. that they’ll better the world through their efforts. I think JA will appreciate that when he’s older; he read like a champ today, and I am so looking forward to the next time he reads me a story. He was so proud of himself, reminding me an hour later “I’m a good reader.” But what if it’s not enough?

During one of my walks, I heard a dad yelling. Loud. He was holding the hand of his little boy, while his brother was walking behind them, holding the hand of their mother. There was such a lack of peace: there were tears, loud cries, and just.. unrest. I couldn’t believe that adults would act so irresponsibly around such young children.. around Kindergardeners. Around kids that would be in the first grade next year. This is where these kids are coming from. They don’t need to know about Rosa Parks as much as they need warmth, kindness, and a sense of love and security. Someone in their lives constantly showing support and encouragement. Good teachers are ready to give this to so many kids that pass through their classrooms, but what if it isn’t enough?

At this point, you can imagine I’m getting a little disheartened. It’s late, I’m getting a little tired, and I’m seeing a world working against all of the kids I tried to reach earlier in the day. This is when a young man sits down in front of me on the train and just starts talking to the family around me. No prior meeting, just a young black man eager to start a conversation with a white woman with her two young girls. What? After living through the stark privileged/underprivileged dichotomy of the day, I was surprised. Suspicious.

Turns out that just asking “Are yall on your way home?” can incite an amazing conversation with an incredibly nice woman that gives the eavesdroppers (like me) inspiration to keep going. The young man is a math major, hoping to do something really great with it. Story goes that he had a great teacher who made math really exciting. Because of those teachers, he is all about math and science and excited about what he can do in the world with that knowledge. He doesn’t think he’ll go to grad school; but he hasn’t even considered it, really. He just has his eyes set on a degree so he can make something of himself.

I’m nearing my stop and interrupt them. I tell the young man hurriedly that I started observing at an elementary school today. I told him I hoped the kids turn out like him.

He looked a little shocked, but I know it made him feel good. I hope it did, anyway.

Because he gave me an incredibly valuable gift. It’s one full of inspiration, motivation, and encouragement. Everything that I need to give those kids tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.

Because, just like the young man who had his eyes open and started a conversation with a random stranger at the end of the day, I never know who I’m reaching.

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