Meeting Mr. Wilson

Let’s back it up about ten months. On the day that I turned 21, and as I trained to be a Resident Advisor at one of Michigan’s many residence halls, I received an email from one Adam Wilson. He introduced himself as a Recruitment Director with Teach For America and said that I had been recommended by Felix Lopez, a friend of mine who at that time worked for the University’s Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs office. He said that he wanted to meet with me to introduce TFA as an organization and a mission worthy of a two-year commitment. Yet, to be completely honest, at this time I hadn’t the faintest as to what TFA did outside of an admittedly vague understanding of what it was. I conferred with my dear friend and colleague, Andrew Lantz, about whether a meeting such as this would be beneficial at all and concluded that apart from appearing as an unsightly blot in an otherwise open calendar it could bring no conceivable harm. I decided to go, even if only to humor Mr. Wilson, if that’s what it came down to.

It didn’t, and as you probably expect, this turns into a ‘little did I know’ story right about now. Adam wasted no time in explaining how wide the achievement gap was and how closely it was tied to race, which in turn had a high positive correlation with socio-economic status, how it had been assumed for the longest time that some kids are just plain dumb and how better resources, including teachers, could make the difference in the lives of the children TFA Corps Members served. I remember sitting quite still across from him as I absorbed the horrifying statistics he threw at me. I had known that there were problems, but the stark inequalities that Adam was now opening my eyes to were so incredible that I didn’t know whether to get just as passionate and furious as him as he made his presentation or to wait for him to break into a laugh and tell me I had been punked.

And he made no bones about telling me that this was probably going to be “the hardest thing” I would ever do, adding in tandem that it would also possibly be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. People like me were needed, he said, to sustain the movement for educational equality. I knew the value of a good education. This was something I could get behind.

In truth, however, fierce and contagious as Adam’s conviction was and fast as I was becoming a believer in the cause, by no means did discovering TFA result in a radical shift in my life plans. Having existed inside the academic bubble for as long as I had, I was now ready to take some time off and explore the real world before going for a degree in law. Adam had said this would be challenging, to say the least, and I had been craving a taste of the real-life grind. I couldn’t find a reason to not give it an honest thought.

So I called my dad on the way back from the meeting to tell him about the wonderful work TFA did and how prestigious an organization it was and how it would stand out on my law school application and how it would open up doors and scholarships and so on and so forth. I was concerned that my parents would see this move as little more than an attempt to run away from a second degree, so it was important that they understood it as a stepping stone to law school. Hence, the pitch.

Don’t get me wrong, though. The perks had certainly made it easier for me personally to commit to the program in the first place, and I did at that time probably make more of the bells and whistles than I do now. In retrospect, the add-ons were simply a way of getting our foot through that proverbial door. Induction, as we will see in my next post, was the cement that solidified our foundational commitment.

As it turned out, however, I didn’t have to dress it up. My parents had never doubted my judgment and had always been supportive of every decision I had ever made, from choosing commerce over the hard sciences in high school to political science over economics in college. Teach For America, then, turned out to be an easier sell than I had originally thought it would be.

Two years? they asked. Two years, I promised.

FTK

When they said this would be the “hardest thing we’d ever do”, they weren’t exaggerating – not in the slightest. In fact, if you were to ask any of the five hundred or so corps members here at the Houston Institute, they wouldn’t mind telling you that “hardest thing ever” is an understatement of the highest order and one that doesn’t come even remotely close to capturing what we’ve been put through these last few weeks. Honestly, I would say that the involuntary flinch and shudder and darkened expression on the faces of those who have gone before us as they make the aforementioned pronouncement is far more telling of the nature of the beast than any combination of words put together in service of describing the brutality of the experience we call Institute.

I’ve gone on rushes before, but nothing like this. From Model UN conferences to sleepless nights leading up to that dreaded exam, I know what abusing my sleep pattern looks and feels like. But at three weeks in, when you find yourself still going full throttle, you know you’re in a different ballgame altogether. The toll on your body begins to feel all too real, and you start to wonder when things will finally let up. It is at this time that you remind yourself that you’re here for something greater than yourself, and that quitting carries a significance you’ve never known before. Now, when you fail, a generation fails.

You know you’ve become a teacher when you tell your friends that you “slept in” that morning and still woke up at 6.30am. We tell ourselves that our bodies are getting accustomed to less than five hours of sleep on average, but really, it amounts to little more than wishful thinking. You zone out in Curriculum Specialist Sessions, doze off in your Differentiated Time and start to truly cherish those 20 or so minutes of bumpy shut-eye on the way to your school site and back. Yet, you persevere knowing that you’ve had your time and that you’re here to give the kids theirs.

As the pressures of lesson-planning collide with the charge of effectively managing and teaching a bunch of tough kids, the whole thing starts to look like an insurmountable challenge requiring mental and physical strength of Herculean proportions. A few of our number have already bowed out, and for the rest of us still hanging on, a recently acquired sense of deep and genuine concern “for the kids” keeps us chugging. “FTK” becomes an expression of solidarity, a banner under which we find ourselves united in our collective mission to educate. FTK, they’ll say upon hearing that someone has to do their lesson plans all over again. FTK, when waiting for upwards of an hour to make copies of assessments and guided notes for next day’s lesson. FTK, when a blue-bleeding Michigan Wolverine must (grudgingly, mind) work alongside an Ohio State Buckeye.

For the kids, we keep reminding ourselves. And if you had never truly bought into this mantra, you’d have quit a long time ago.
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A word on the blog itself.

I’ve been wanting to chronicle my experiences since before I left for Houston, but I never could find the time. This 4th of July weekend is perfect in that I’m able to sit down in one place, organize my thoughts and get this blog started.

Now, although the primary function of this blog is to provide an account of my journey as a new teacher, I will also on occasion throw in things that interest me, from American foreign policy vis-a-vis the Middle East to music. I hope I’m able to update this blog regularly and I hope I don’t fall out of it.

Here we go.