Work Hard, Get Smart!

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 28 2011

Hard Work

I’ve never worked so hard for dinner in my life. Seriously, who knew lo mein would be such an adventure? But tonight, that adventure proved to be just what I needed to turn my mindset around. Let me back up and explain.

Today I rented a zipcar (my scooter is still in the shop for repairs because it was vandalized a few weeks ago) and headed over to my school to meet some teachers, the principal, and the secretary who I had been talking with over the phone. My school’s outward appearance was a little lackluster, but I didn’t let that get me down as I marched into the building, eager to put faces with voices. The secretary greeted me with kind hands and a soft smile and led me to the third grade hall. She pointed out the “gifted” classroom (I secretly sighed a little inside knowing my kids would not be the ones who were assigned to “gifted”), and introduced me to the head custodian and my neighbor. When they unlocked my classroom’s door, and I stepped inside, I felt the warm rush of excitement leave my body, and it was replaced with a cold, paralyzing tingle: fear. My classroom was filled with dusty odds and ends because it was a storage room the year before, and it contained thirty desks. My mind reeled to think of those desks filled with wriggling bodies. My neighbor’s room was clean, organized and was receiving the finishing touches of bulletin boards and nametags. Meanwhile, I spent the day removing ancient, ripped books from my shelves, cleaning and resetting the clock, and trying to get the torn maps attached to my chalkboard to roll up the way they should. My neighbor helped me create a list of all the things I will be required to have in my classroom such as the standards posted, a bulletin board for reading and math, and a place for VIPs (very important papers) to be returned.

I rearranged the kids’ desks and my neighbor’s husband me move my desk. After hours of work, I looked around and still felt scared that my room was not yet looking anything like what I had envisioned. I left school feeling defeated and scared. I had already heard teachers complain about zero parent involvement, and learned that last year’s CRCT scores were unusually low. The reality of being a teacher in a low-income community steamrolled me today for the first time.

I was nervous and doubted my decision to become a teacher for a few hours. When I got home (my natural gas is still not turned on for hot water or cooking) and realized I had no food, I knew I would have to venture back out into the sticky Atlanta air. I grabbed my bike and started riding to the nearest Chinese place. When I arrived, I decided to duck into the dollar store to pick up some bulletin board border that my friend suggested, and the cashier laughed and joked with me until finally I smiled and laughed. The ride to the shopping plaza was easy: about a mile and a half of downhill. I dreaded the entirely uphill ride home.

I had no choice. Much like my decision to become a teacher with no prior experience, I was aware it would be a challenge. As I rounded a corner and faced a steep incline, I knew I would have to work to make it home. I stood up on my pedals, shifted into a low gear, and pushed down time after time, inching towards the top of the hill. A little more than halfway, I was breathing hard and moving so slowly that a spider probably could have outraced me. I had to stop. As soon as I did, my bike began to roll backwards and I grabbed the brakes to keep me steady. I stopped, planted my feet on the ground, and my mind started speaking to me: “What are you going to do? Walk your bike up the hill? You can do better. You would surely get lost and frustrated if you tried to find another way home.” So I sat for a few moments, catching my breath, thinking myself through this challenge, and when  lifted my head my gaze met a beautiful sight. An undeveloped lot grown over thick with greenery had become a safe haven for fireflies and as the sky turned shades of pick and purple, these small creatures came out of hiding to dance. Their lights blinked all across the field in the twilight, and I was captivated by the sight.

I realized that if I never stopped, I would have been too focused on getting home quickly to notice this living masterpiece. For a few calm minutes I simply watched and breathed, and when I felt I was ready, I replaced my feet on the pedals, stood up and began to push again. Now that I was refreshed it was a little easier, although I talked myself through the entire curve of the hill. I told myself that I would never give up, that I knew I could conquer this hill just like I could conquer the low expectations for my students, and that I would have to sweat to get either one accomplished. The downhill side of that ride was an exhilarating coast that I was sad to end when I arrived at my address.

Being in my school today was a tough dose of reality, but I know now more than ever that perseverance and a deep belief that all children can succeed will carry me through the year when things get tough. I’m sure I’m in for many more challenging moments this year, but I know that being confident in my abilities and looking for the joy in the situation will carry me through.

2 Responses

  1. Chris Remler

    I am so grateful for your post! I am a new teacher also, in a low income Title 1 school in South Carolina. While not in Teach for America, (and I am sure at the age of 46- I am much older than you) I am feeling much of your feelings (and fears). I so admire your determination- both on the hill and in the classroom- and it made me realize I am not alone!
    You WILL be a great teacher and you WILL make a difference! Thanks for helping me today!

    • j00lerd

      You rock my sox! Thanks for the feedback; I’m sure we will both be amazing!

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