Photo by Andrew Campbell
Editor's note: The names of the students in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.
Tela was barely 4 feet tall, with a cascade of beaded braids that click-clacked and swung as she walked. She came up to my desk on her first day, dragging her bright pink Barbie backpack, and stated simply, "Teacher, I can't read."
That sweet third-grade girl not only brought alive the realities of illiteracy and poverty, she offered one of the first hints of the resilience I witnessed time and again in children, who, against all odds, were extraordinarily resourceful and eager to learn.
I had arrived in my third-grade classroom on Chicago's South Side as a member of Teach for America, one of hundreds of recruits fresh from college on our first assignments teaching in under-resourced schools. The pitiful classroom laughed back at me. Its tile floors, spotted with bare black patches, looked diseased. Crusty amalgamated deposits of candy wrappers, half-eaten crayons and 14-year-old worksheets hid under the tables. Three broken computers crowded on top of each other on one of those tables, sad and dusty with wires poking out on all sides. The thermostat was stuck at 92 degrees and would stay that way until April, forcing me to leave the windows open, even when it snowed.
I soon learned that the state of my classroom was all too similar to the state of my students' academics. Tela was not alone in her illiteracy — I had five other students who could not read at all in September. Many could not add or subtract. Most had no idea that there was such a thing as Lake Michigan, even though they could have walked to it. I wondered how I, with only a summer of teaching experience and a healthy load of idealism, was supposed to get these students to pass a series of state tests in the spring. I knew how to clean and brighten the classroom, but teaching my students — and learning how to be a teacher myself — required more than just Windex and colorful construction paper.
First and foremost, I learned that we needed resources, specifically books. Many of my students didn't have any books at home, including Tela. This would have been unheard of when I was growing up, middle class and luckily the daughter of a librarian. It was my librarian mother and her friends who ended up donating hundreds of books to my class. Dr. Seuss quickly became a favorite among all my students, especially Tela, and she and I spent afternoons reading about cats in hats and red and blue fish. Soon Tela was sneak-reading. During math she would hide her Dr. Seuss on her lap and read it cover to cover repeatedly. When I tested Tela in May, her reading ability had jumped 2½ grade levels.
Secondly, I learned that all my students needed to be given a clean slate and fresh expectations. James, his file thick with suspension notices, was repeating third grade for the second time. Other teachers said, "Oh, you have James this year," raising an eyebrow. James was short and skinny for his age, with a goofy smile — not exactly a look you'd expect would make him the third-grade heartthrob. But James was a natural performer, witty and blessed with impeccable comic timing. He was a smooth-talking ladies' man at the age of 10, but his verbal acuity masked the fact that he could barely read.
He and I regularly stayed after school to read (since he never would in class) and wash the board.
"Ms. Michie," he said one April afternoon, "I'm swearing off girls."
"What?" I replied with surprise; two weeks before he'd asked me to attend his wedding to Sharice, where, he said, they would "exchange Flamin' Hot Cheetos" to demonstrate their young love.
"Well, Sherell wants to go out with me, and I think maybe Gloria, too, but I decided that I got to get me an education first. I don't want no kids to have to pay child support for."
James was true to his word, staying single and bringing his grades and test scores up significantly.
Yes, my students needed resources and high expectations, but I learned that what they often needed most was to feel loved and to have something to nurture as well. Devonte appeared at my desk at 8 a.m. one Wednesday. I was startled; Devonte was not the type to spend more time than necessary in school. He was one of the tougher ones, suspended often for fighting and already claiming to be a runner for the area's main gang. He had come to me at least two grade levels behind in all subjects. I had given him classroom jobs to help boost his confidence, held parent conferences and tutored him, but I still saw little improvement in his grades and behavior.
But that morning, Devonte placed the paper cup with his bean plant proudly, but gingerly, in front of me.
"Ms. Michie, say hi to Pimp."
"Pimp?" I asked, laughing. "Is that your plant's name?"
"Yep, and I think he needs a new place, so I brought in this spaghetti jar. Could we put him in it?"
Devonte had carefully cleaned the jar and removed the label.
"Great idea — yours is growing really well, so it'll need more room for its roots."
We had planted beans as a class for a spring science project. Devonte had taken Pimp, who was nearly 5 inches tall, home every night for safekeeping.
"I couldn't go to the park yesterday," Devonte told me as we scooped dirt into the jar.
"Why not? It was beautiful outside!"
"Well, I didn't have anyone to stay at the house to watch my plant," he replied. Devonte and his plant grew well throughout the rest of the year. Both just needed some extra fertilizer, more room to grow and some attentive love. By spring my students had found their successes, and I had learned a few ways to be a successful teacher. I also saw how much more my students needed and how far they still had to go — Tela, James and Devonte had been my small victories amidst many failures and frustrations.
But in spite of their circumstances and statistics, these children, like many others, are full of spirit and vigor. They are some of the most clever, plucky and perceptive kids one could ever meet. They are the little green grasses that push up through the cracks in the sidewalk each spring.
Julia Michie (J02) now teaches science lab and advises the student newspaper and creative writing clubs at Spencer Math and Science Academy in Chicago's South Austin neighborhood.
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