Tomorrow I start my third week of student teaching (fourth if you count in-service days). And I am so excited. We’ll be working on making personal timelines and writing autobiographies. Each classroom at my school is named after a famous peacemaker. Ours is the Frederick Douglass room, so we’ve been reading a lot about his life, and how he wrote an autobiography. The kids have been so fascinated by his life and I think they’re excited to write about their own, just like he did. They’ll also be learning the first of the Great Lessons that are part of the Montessori curriculum, about how the universe began, from a scientific perspective, and all of the different creation stories that people have used throughout time to explain why it began (because science can explain the how, but not the why). It’ll be cool to take such a global perspective on creationism when at least a third of our students are Muslim, one is Jewish, and the rest are more or less different varieties of Christian. We all bring similar, but unique perspectives to the table, and there are countless more out there that deserve to be acknowledged as well.
As wonderful as the curriculum, the teachers, and the kids in my classroom are, I can’t talk about student teaching without admitting how incredibly tough it is. My school, for good and for bad, is located in a decidedly urban area. There is a lot of beauty within the neighborhood. African corner stores, women in hijabs walking their toddlers across the street, men at the bus stop offering their seat on a bench to an elderly woman, people stopping to talk to one another, their reflections showing in store front windows, and kids walking together to and from school in their uniforms. The community carries strong ties, to both each other and the cultures they left behind.
But, as with any struggling urban neighborhood, there is also a lot of ugliness. From men in wheelchairs at far too young of an age to trash covering the sidewalks to the actual cracks in the sidewalk to no large grocery stores to high levels of crime and low levels of income. My kids carry both the beauty and ugliness of their various surrounding neighborhoods into the classroom and it shows. Already one of my youngest students has been called into the Department of Human Services because of a couple of really concerning incidents. A few other students have shown up to school incredibly tired, one falling asleep during class meeting because, she said, her baby sister’s crying was keeping her up at night. Every student receives a free breakfast in the morning, and many qualify for free or reduced lunch. Few brought all of the school supplies they were asked to bring for the first day to school (though all did show up in the correct uniform). I have no clue what happens in my students lives between when they leave school and when they return the next day. And obviously there is a wide variety in how their lives are led, just like in any context. But many of them do live in tough situations and it’s hard to think that we’re sending them back into them at the end of every school day.
And what’s even tougher to think about is my kids’ futures. How the lack of funding for our school and all of the surrounding ones automatically puts them behind their richer peers in the suburbs. How the way various social and political systems work makes going to prison far easier than going to college. How there is so much less stability, and thus less guaranteed for them, than there was for me in my own very white, very privileged life. As one prospective parent summed it up, she would, in an ideal world, like her third grade son to be able to become a doctor or lawyer, but with the way the streets are, she would at least like him to be able to read when he’s in prison. She would rather her son be a smart criminal than a dumb one. She knows the reality of our society’s systems.
With circumstances and systems like this, it’s hard to not lose hope. Why does it matter if my students are incredibly smart and learning so much right now if they’ll never be able to attend college? Why should we even have them write about their hopes and dreams if we know that there is so much in the way of their hopes and dreams becoming true? And how can we expect them to learn anything during the day when they are having to deal with so much at home?
But to lose hope is to admit defeat. It’s to say that the way our society is structured is how it always will be structured and it will never change. It’s to say that yeah, sure, Frederick Douglass was able to escape slavery and fight for equal rights in so many arenas, but he was one in a million, and nope, none of my kids will be able to do that. It’s to give up on my kids before they even give up on themselves.
So no matter how little funding is being given to public schools right now, no matter how unstable my kids lives are, no matter how little sleep or fruit or vegetables or books or whatever they need to grow and learn that they are being given, no matter how different their funds of knowledge are from what school and standardized testing expect of them, no matter how many barriers and pipelines that have been put in place to make going to prison easier than going to college, I am going to keep teaching. Keep helping decode words. Keep showing them countries and cities on the classroom globe. Keep answering questions. Keep giving encouraging words. Keep setting high expectations. And keep showing them that yes, they are smart, and yes, they can do so, so many things with their gifts and talents.
I refuse to give up hope. Because I refuse to let society and politics win.