When Reality Finds You

A week ago my close friend Thecla asked me how I was dealing with leaving Miami and the thought of not teaching my students anymore in the fall. My only response to her was that I was honestly dealing by not dealing; that pretending for the moment that this life in California is all that I have known and living in the present is what keeps me going through the summer. I am very good at this. I have done this before. I know compartmentalizing and pushing aside for later may not be everyone’s choice or the best choice, but as human beings we adapt to fit our personal survival, and this is mine.

I was reminded today though, in what was one of the longest Mondays I have felt in a long time, that reality always catches up with you, always finds a way to sit down beside you and force you to stare it straight in the eye. A silent reminder of its power, its palpable presence. 

Today was an intense day as many students’ tension was running high and there were a few incidences of events that came very close to physical violence and would have had I not had the experience and thought to restrain them. But that is not where the true intensity came from, which has always been true of my time so far in education. There are two girls in the program who have severe and deep emotional trauma running currents of pain through their lives. And at the young age of thirteen, they don’t know how to deal with situations that most adults would cave under. They bring this to the classroom and lash out at peers and teachers alike and then cry for what I can only identify for the person that they truly wish to be, but don’t know how to find.

And I KNOW them. I sat with them five days a week in a dark hallway of a sad looking building in a beautiful-souled and broken community. Over three thousand miles away, and it all still finds me.

One girl in particular today voiced how her mother had killed her father’s girlfriend, and how she had always known this but she had only recently read all the articles associated with the incidence and the gruesome nature of the tail has thrown her into a vortex she is unsure how to come out of. She cried while articulating her fear that the type of horror her mother was capable of lived inside of her. That not only does she know a monster, that monster gave birth to her. It choked all of us adults to hear such a young soul be beaten down by such horrendous and vivid thoughts. And then one of the directors said what always jerks me back to reality, slaps me in the face with that splash of cold water–there’s only so much we can do for her. 

There is so much beyond my control. So much I try and reach out with my hands that i have convinced myself are just the right size for capturing pain, yet I watch repeatedly as excess after excess seeps through the creases of hands that are strong enough to reach out, but not enough to capture everything. 

I sit in my room with the words ‘I can’t do enough’ making slow circles around my brain with the only real solace being that at the end of the day, this is my life and this is the work I choose to do. There’s still no amount of pain that could make me stay away. 

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Leavetakings Part Three: On the Brink of the Aftermath

I may look calm, but inside, my emotions are raging like the flash rainfalls of the Miami hurricane season.

Today, I had a joyous moment. One that teachers always hope to have. I got to call one of the students who is closest to me and tell him, on his birthday, that he passed his graduation qualifying standardized test. His mother promptly texted me that she was sitting at her job crying tears of joy. I told her that I was so proud of all he had done over the course of the year to stay on track. He will move forward, taking honors English and not ever stepping foot in the reading hallway again.

But what about all the other students who did not pass, which is sadly the majority of my students who started way far behind the starting line? Did they, suddenly, become part of a category of people who did not try this year? Does it negate reading level and writing growth that I saw all year? Or their growing love of learning?

I feel like I’m on a precipice that is going to slowly crumble and hurtle me forward into the unknown. And the worst part is that the unknown are my students. It hurts that the year ended with less than ideal scores for our literacy department, and that many students now have to hear that they did not pass. They will be sitting in a retake class in a dark hallway where they amount to numbers on a scoreboard–optimism draining into the tile floors. The job of telling good news is always easy, always wonderful. The job of cutting into students who left the year on a high note from tests imposed by people who know nothing of what it means to push students forward–well, that isn’t a job at all.

The biggest blow was earlier today when I had a student text me asking if he passed. When I didn’t get a chance to respond right away, he sent a second text that said “Are you disappointed in me?” I may never have been hit by words harder in my two years of teaching.

In the end, I don’t know the right choices or the right answers. I only know choices made and answers that are right for right now, and the words from a quote shared by two dear friends today: “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another”

 

Leavetakings Part Two: I Couldn’t Have Done it Without You

The first of my close friends left Miami this morning. Never again will we walk down the halls of Northwestern together as literacy teachers. Her life is pulling her in very exciting directions, and I could not be more proud. But in some ways more palpable than exiting college, I feel the sadness of the loss of the immediacy and physicality of these friendships as one by one, we fade away from Miami. The growth, the pain, the tears, the laughter, and countless late nights whether grading or dancing–I couldn’t have done these last two years without you.

And I could go on and name names, but those who mean the world to me, I hope already know how large of a role they played in keeping me afloat and still hoping these last two years.

To my co-workers, thank you for supporting and guiding me. To my non-work friends, thank you for listening and making countless crazy memories with me. There will probably never be a time that I won’t be sitting somewhere and randomly think to myself “Remember when in Miami _____.”

So with this, my last weekend here, remember, friends, when we were unprepared, wide-eyed fresh from college kids who came to Miami, had their hearts ripped out and rebuilt and reopened a thousand times over, and wiped away one last tear before hugging goodbye–but only for now, never forever.

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Leavetakings Part One: When Two Years is Enough and Not Enough All At Once

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A few weeks ago at our Teach for America Alumni Induction, my peers honored me with the award for Transformational Change. I have mentioned this phrase often in my writings as being a ‘catchphrase’ but very real and necessary at the same time. And while I know that I have so much growth left to be the best teacher possible, it touches my heart beyond words to believe that those who know me and have seen or heard about what I have tried to do with my students, feel that it has changed them. And as I close this chapter of my book on my search for educational equality, I do not know where to even begin.

This morning, just like any typical weekday morning, I got up bright and early, got dressed, and walked to my car to head to work. It was the moment that I started on that all too familiar route to work that I started uncontrollably crying. The memories–good and bad–and the guilt, the triumph, the wavelengths of emotions of two years hit me like waves crashing down against the morning sun of the 79th Street Causeway.

For me, leaving is always a process. I have to slowly digest my choice and slowly accept what comes with that choice. First, as difficult as it is, I recognize that leaving is a “second-hand conscious” decision to negatively impact others. Me leaving will have a negative impact on others. I have made a decision that will HURT other people in the process. But that is real, and that is ugly, and that is the process of change.

It took months to process that.

It took months of wondering what could I do with my students if I stayed. Months of thinking that maybe I’ll hear in the future that horrible things happened to my dear students after I left, and I would be eaten alive by the guilt of not being there.

But I’m also not the only catalyst for change. I’m not the final marker of success or failure for my students.

I cannot help but feel the guilt of knowing that the job at Northwestern is not done, that we have not reached our full potential as a beacon of hope and change within Liberty City. I know my two years here just isn’t enough to do that. But it is enough to be part of that. And while two years could never be enough, it is enough all at once. I have to believe that if planted deep enough, roots of change will hold fast and continue to grow long after the gardener is gone–because those flowers know how to find sunlight. No longer will the excuse of not having the right teacher or the right materials be acceptable, because over the last two years, my students have focused on becoming inquisitive learners. They will ask the right questions and find the solutions they are looking for. Real change is sustainable. And if it’s not, then it’s not real change–the type that will keep going long after I click that lock one last time on room 3085.

Then, just like last year, when I wonder what will my students remember of me, I got some answers from the only voices that ever truly mattered: my students.

(Letter below is from a student who has been labeled ‘very difficult’ and I have really struggled for two years to help him realize his potential. Second is from a girl who truly came a long way personally over the course of the year)

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