Sunday, January 8, 2012

Bittersweet reunion

E. was one of my angriest students and that's saying something. According to other teachers, his brother was even angrier. E. fought me on everything while also fighting other students. Somewhere along the line however, E. started to trust me a little bit. He came to do what I asked about 50% of the time, which was simply amazing.

My last week of teaching, E. was serving a 5 day suspension for violently punching another student. The day before my last day, I used a sick day but came in after school to clear out some of my stuff. I saw E. walking home and he told me that on his first day back from suspension, he'd been suspended for another 5 days for again viciously punching another student. Since I knew that E would be gone on my last day, I told him that I couldn't be the teacher I needed to be while also being the dad I needed to be, so I was leaving the classroom. To my complete surprise, this angry kid who hated me at least half the time, gave me a hug while trying to hold back a tear. It made me a bit sick to my stomach, I'll admit.

Fast forward to last Friday night, Erin and I are at Crown Center, eating in the food court after we'd taken Dawson to the Holiday Lights Train. A few minutes earlier, in the Crayola playroom, we noticed the black kids in school uniforms being followed by some tired looking parents. I probably wouldn't have noticed that tired look before my days in inner-city KC, MO. While we were eating, E. came walking among a group of about 5 siblings being herded by his tired looking (most likely single) mother.

When he saw me, E.'s face lit up and he ran over to give me a hug. His mom had a "who is this guy" look on her face until E. told her that I had been his teacher. At this news, E.'s mom smiled. I didn't notice the smile however, because I couldn't look her in the eye. I was filled with so much shame for walking out on her son. Erin told me about the smile and said that I seemed to shrink with guilt before E.'s mom. I will say, however, that in the midst of all the guilt and awkwardness of seeing a former student, it sure felt good to see the smile on his face. E told me that the kids are totally disrespecting the teacher who replaced me, which is no different than how they treat all the teachers at that school.

Adding even more strange thoughts and feelings to that situation was the fact that a few minutes later, Erin was approached by one of her students and family. This family was your typical wealthy suburban family; two kids, two parents and one grandma along for the ride. The contrast was jarring. It's almost incomprehensible that two different worlds exist within the KC metro area and that the inhabitants of these two worlds are almost completely ignorant of the realities of each other's worlds. It's also amazing that, when you consider the individual school's performance records and the records of their districts, Erin and I were simultaneously teaching in one of the nation's worst schools and one of the nation's worst schools. If I had made it a whole year, I think we could've written a book.

I'm not the only one still sorting through the emotions of walking away from Teach For America's dream that "one day, every child in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education." In fact, as of early December, 28 of the 152 KC Corps Members had quit. When you consider the qualifications TFA Corps Members have to demonstrate to get chosen, including the demonstration of persevering through difficult circumstances, that's an incredible rate of attrition. When you also consider the success TFA has had in many other districts across the nation, those 28 people are making a huge statement about how dysfunctional the KCMSD really is. I wonder whether the loss of their accreditation and federal funding could result in the shutting down of the entire screwed up system.

A good friend who quit a few weeks after me was called by one of her parents after her resignation and the parent expressed thanks for what this teacher had done and frustration at having to send her child to such a terrible school.

While it sure seems to me that there is no way I could have made any impact in just 7 weeks, E.'s smile and that bittersweet reunion makes me think otherwise.

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