Thursday, July 3, 2008

To those who put it on the line

Teach For America is done. I wrote a summary of the good and bad parts of these past two years. Send me an e-mail if you would like a copy. I cannot put it here. My mother read it and said I did not write like myself. She said it had no personality.

"It's an objective piece," I explained. "I reported without emoting." It was true, but Mom had a valid point. I must have felt something in these two years even if I did not write about it.

One of my students murdered two of his classmates this week. He and I got along well, but I did not shed a tear. The online news report did not phase me. I am the emotional equivalent of a marathon runner who puked for most of the race; I finished but not in great shape.

At first everything floored me. Nearly every corps member got the biggest reality check of his life in the first weeks of training. Once I got to Charlotte I saw late students, absent teachers, school violence, academic apathy, low achievement, low expectations, low colleague morale and almost no opportunity for my school's most needy students. Staff gave up on students. Students gave up on staff. Students gave up on themselves. I stayed at work until 7 p.m. each day, trying to come up with something that would improve my routine. I nearly went nuts. I consistently forgot to fasten my seat belt. My friends could not drag me out on Friday nights. My friends could not drag me out on Saturdays. Life was tougher than I had ever had it. I wasn't much into being me anymore. A few college friends told me I was off.

Then, after awhile, stuff stopped bothering me. All the shit seemed to continue if not worsen, so I flipped my emotional switch to OFF. Teach For America would have you believe that I learned to limit my efforts to my locus of control. I think my tranquility was an unavoidable instinct: survival.

Most corps members seemed OK like me, but the ones who did not were a troubled bunch. Chemical addiction and absence of social interaction riddled some I knew. The few I knew who quit probably did the right thing. Some who should have quit did not. Those are sad stories.

Here was the danger: Teach For America accepts proud people. We are not the types to believe we cannot get a job done. You want us to close the achievement gap? OK, would you like sweet-potato fries and a sweet tea with that? We'll have it done by the end of the week.

All corps members failed a lot. Each of us was like a straight-A student with overbearing parents, getting an F after sincere effort. We knew why we failed but felt like we couldn't do anything about it. Some of us, including me, worked through failure and saw why we taught by the end. I can honestly say this: I taught to the best of my ability, and my students were lucky to have me in the classroom.

That's coming a long way from not going out on the weekends. I've never considered myself a proud person, but I feel proud right now.

Of course the marathon puke still dangles from my chin. I am certainly not who I was 25 months ago. Thank God I happened to fall for a great girl in these two years who put me back together when I was in pieces. She is the person who can flip my switch to ON and tolerate my own set of coping addictions: writing, reading and poker. It's the new me.

I want to dedicate this post to anyone who has ever changed his life, for better or worse, for a cause outside of himself.

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