Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 02 2009

Full Circle

Well, I’m back in the warm and welcoming arms (and the warm and welcoming 400 thread count sheets) of the Meriden Comfort Inn, back where it all began some five weeks ago. Though it was fairly pleasant yesterday, the weather has since quickly corrected itself and returned to the nasty grey perma-drizzle of Induction, thus confirming my suspicion that the sun does not, in fact, ever shine on Meriden, Connecticut, the place that God forgot.

It was deeply odd walking back through the lobby doors again. I don’t want to be so dramatic as to claim I was a different person last time I was here, so I’ll instead say that the last time I was here I was merely different. This is 1) broader and more easily defensible, 2) true, and 3) the sort of dimly nuanced and generally unfulfilling observation that I would characteristically make at such an opportunity for reflection.

The truth is the memories are already becoming an enormous coffee-stained blur. One thing I can say, though, was that Institute was genuinely fun. I mean, yeah, it’s hard and all that, but it’s a situation not unlike going to war – because your circumstances are so extreme, you form equally extreme bonds with the people around you, and you form them quickly. I’ll miss a number of people very much, not least among them my kids – even the ones who occasionally sent me home dead-eyed on the bus after a day of havoc and gleeful recalcitrance. I really wish I had some way of knowing what would happen to all of them. They’re good kids, each one, and I wish I could have done more for them.

I’ve had a number of discussions with other corps members about TFA’s belief that every child, no matter how seemingly apathetic or defiant, wants to succeed in school. That particular position was by turns the most comforting and challenging thing to remember in the classroom. On a good day it seemed totally self-evident as I watched even my most difficult kids plugging into the lesson, engaging in vigorous debate or writing feverishly as some idea finally revealed its full, staggering depth. On a bad day, that statement seemed like a taunt – every child? That can’t be right. Even Rex? Surely when they say every, they really mean most. Yet on neither day was it any less true.

Friday was the last day of Institute, and we closed out the summer with a final gathering of the K561 staff in the school’s cafeteria. It was a truly odd feeling to be completely finished and to know I’d likely never be back in the school – I feel a little guilty, too, because for most of the last week of institute, I feel like I wasn’t all there – at least when I wasn’t teaching. I was conserving my energy and enthusiasm for my time with my kids, and the rest of the time I was on auto-pilot.

I want to share two final anecdotes from class, one funny and one important.

On the last day of class, Emily and I decided to take the last three or four minutes to answer questions about ourselves. One student asked if I was going back to Atlanta eventually and I told him I didn’t know. When they asked how old we were, Emily and I both responded that we were 22, fully expecting outrage and shock – instead, most of the kids just said something like “that sounds right” or “I thought you were, like, 23 or 24 maybe.”

I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that, given the chance to ask Emily and I anything they wanted, all of the kids’ questions were innocently curious – they were really more interested in finding out who the hell we were and why we were teaching them than trying to make a scene.

I don’t remember who asked the last question, but it caused a bit of a hush to fall over the classroom – “how much do you two get paid?”

Emily and I turned briefly and smiled at each other, and Emily answered “nothing.”

“Nothing? What do you mean, nothing?”

“Nothing,” I said, “we’re doing this for free.”

“FREE? FREE? YOU’RE DOING THIS FOR FREE? WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?” yelled one otherwise quiet kid.

Emerald, a look of amused surprise on her face, said “Hell, I wouldn’t put up with me for four weeks without getting paid.”

The best, though, was Rex. Utterly astonished, mouth hanging open, he stammered “Free? I, mister…I really didn’t…I’m so sorry! If you woulda told me you were doing this for free, I wouldn’t have…damn, I didn’t know!”

As refreshing as it was to know that Rex was doing it on purpose the entire time and knew better, nothing else touches the moment I had with another student, Grace. Grace was part of the group that I called “the Superstars” – the kids who could easily derail an entire lesson if they coordinated their efforts. She seemed to struggle with the classwork at times, but it was hard to really gauge her level of understanding – she was receptive to one-on-one talks and seemed genuinely appreciative of extra help, but she would never let down her shield of defiance when other students were around. She didn’t always complete her work and I was a little worried about how she would perform on the final test.

When the day of the test came, I circulated around the classroom as the kids worked, making sure no one was asleep or quitting early. Grace seemed to be writing a fair amount and, oddly, didn’t stop when I walked by – typically walking by Grace’s desk was enough to make her put down her pen and give you that sardonic can-I-help-you? look.

As I graded tests later that day, I came across Grace’s about halfway through the stack. I quickly flipped through the pages and saw that she’d completed all of the questions and written the required essay – that was a good sign.

With each question I graded I became more excited and more nervous – soon, she’d gotten the first twelve questions right. Then she’d gotten the first thirteen right – fourteen! C’mon, Grace, c’mon, you’ve got this, I thought, you’ve got this!

With 22 of 23 short answer questions correct she had easily become the highest score so far. I eagerly turned to her essay and immediately saw clear organization, transition words between paragraphs (and we learned those the day the naked lady showed up!), direct quotation, paraphrase, supporting evidence – it was there, it was all there! I quickly tallied up the points and found Grace had scored a 96 on the final test. I decided to call Grace’s mom that night to share the good news, but then realized Grace was still in school – she was in Ms. P’s class upstairs.

I jogged up the stairs, took a visitor’s pass and went into Ms. P’s class to sit in the back (thanks, Claire!) When the bell rang a minute or two later, I followed Grace out the door. She’d already caught up with a group of her friends, and I called her name a few times. Eventually one of her friends noticed – “Grace, he’s calling you” – and Grace turned around, looking deeply inconvenienced.

“Grace, c’mere for a sec,” I said, and she trudged over to meet me in a corner of the hallway. “Tell me what you think you got on the final test.”

“Mister, I don’t know. It’s the end of the class, the day is over, I just want to go home. I don’t want to think about that any more.”

“Grace, you got a 96. You killed it, Grace, you tore it up – you’re the highest score in the class. I wanted to congratulate you.”

Grace absolutely melted. She clasped her hands over her beaming face, jumped into the air -

Really?,” she said, “I did? A 96?”

“Yeah, Grace. A 96. You knocked it out of the park, and it was all you. You did an incredible job.”

She smiled for another few seconds and then looked at her shoes, suddenly shy.

“Well,” she mumbled sheepishly – but still smiling – “I guess I just had good teachers.”


2 Responses

  1. Congratulations for finishing the Institute and for having left your indelible mark! Grace’s story is very touching. My personal favorite was the reaction from Rex though. So many choices any of us might have and would have done differently if ONLY we had a little more foresight about the back story, the personal choices…

  2. Anna

    What an inspirational post! And congrats on getting through institute! I worked at NYC institute this summer, and the motivation and drive of all of you CMs were truly *incredible*. Best of luck in the fall!
    (I also got a good laugh out of the naked lady story. :-D)

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