More specifically, what teaching at a low-income school has done for me.
Two things you should know about who I was in college.
1. I was a joyous person. Not to say that my life was gilded or that I didn’t work my tail off for things or that I was a golden child who never encountered hardship. Far from it, but I was more than happy; I was often ecstatic to be alive. Every day seemed ripe with promise. Hold this thought, because it will come in to play later, I promise.
2. I was (supposedly) compassionate and empathetic. I volunteered, specifically with Push America, my fraternity’s philanthropy that works with people with disability. I founded a non-profit at TCU. I drove drunk people home. I listened to people’s problems. I also pitched in when it was time to throw a party. I grew up in a low-income community; in fact, Lufkin ISD meets the requirements necessary to bring TFA in.
But I really had no idea.
I had no idea what it truly meant to do this kind of work. To live and die by each and every day, to submit wholly to a cause. Every day I see powerful examples of hope, the exceptions to these painful rules. But for every exception, I see ten examples that prove the statistics true. And it lays so heavy on my heart.
When I was in middle school and high school, I used to travel to the US-Mexican border to help build houses. It was difficult, hot work but always rewarding. We would sweat, work, and watch the house come together. In the evening, we would play soccer with local kids, laugh, and have a good time.
And then I would leave and not think about those houses.
Today, I can’t stop thinking about those houses. Not the actual, physical houses, but the houses that I’m building every day in the classroom. Because I can’t leave at the end of the week like I used to be able to. I can’t forget these kids, not even for a second.
And it breaks my heart.
My idea of philanthropy is entirely different than what it was two years ago. Before this, I didn’t know what it meant. I cared for people before, and it bothered me to know that there was injustice in the world. And as I got more involved, I saw faces attached to those causes. But never before this did this faces have names, families, nuanced features, loves, hurts, good days and bad days.
It is inescapable.
When last year ended, it took me a month to feel like myself again. I went backpacking with my dad and brother, visited New Orleans with my high school friends, lounged around my parents’ house. And sure, I had fun, but not once during that month did I feel euphoric or joyous, like the world was a hopeful, beautiful place.
I was just that beat down, that tired, that drained.
And it really doesn’t end. Here, I’m either working or I’m feeling guilty about not working simply because my kids need so much help, so much love, so much investment. I know that whatever I do, it will never be enough. There’s always one more phone call to make, one more note to write a student, one more tracker to update. In the classroom, there’s always a more nuanced way to handle a situation, a more affirming word to use with students.
The irony here is that I am so much better at this than I was last year, but I didn’t feel this magnitude of guilt. I was upset at the injustices I encountered every day, but I didn’t blame myself (at least, not to the extent that I do now).
I blamed the system, the school, the kids, the parents, myself- everything. But now, I see how much of it really comes down to me. Not that I can singlehandedly move kids from years behind grade level to academic superstars, but that I can at the very least maintain a classroom that is simultaneously a high-functioning learning environment and safe space for my kids to learn and feel respected.
And because I know what is possible, it crushes me every single time that it doesn’t occur. Every less-than-perfect lesson, every wasted teachable moment. It all weighs on me every single day. On breaks, on weekends, after school, when I’m running, during dinner, on the drive to school- I’m never not thinking about my students. I don’t mean that in a martyry, look-at-me kind of way. I just mean to say that I used to think that I knew what service was, but I had no idea what it meant to become so invested and inundated with something that it began to blur the lines between my self and my cause.
I’ve begun to grow curious as to the long-term effects that Teach For America will have on my life. How long will it take for me to feel like myself after this year of teaching? Will I ever feel the same about myself and this country again? When I’m far away from this school and these students, how much will they stick with me? Will I ever forgive myself for the ways that I have and do fail them every day?