I stood at the dusty old chalkboard scratching out numbers, struggling through my third week of trying to teach fractions. I was enveloped in a half-circle of students in desks, but these weren’t ordinary students. They were almost all older than me, a scrappy midwesterner trying to deal with an unprecedented batch of allergies. The flora was so different in DC. Something had been making me stuffy for weeks. I sounded so goofy with every word that came out of my mouth. My students seemed to be immune to the plant life in town, as well as the oppressive heat. Southeast DC is surprisingly scenic for an urban area. In some ways, nature seems to be reclaiming ground from the residents, an almost exclusively black population. It’s a place where white folks are so rare that I was called “Snowflake” on more than one occasion.
I itched my nose after inspecting the unequal fractions that I had just written. “Which one of these is bigger?” I asked.
“Huh?” murmured somebody in the front.
“Which one is bigger?”
“What did you just say?” another asked with a look of shock.
I was so confused for a moment, and then realized it: my stuffy nose had just betrayed me. My students were convinced that I had just dropped an n-bomb out of nowhere.
I panicked. Accidentally stepping in a pile of racial dog shit had been a fear of mine since the moment I started teaching. “NO! That’s not–I didn’t–that’s not what I said!”
But then something clicked in my head. I decided to just tell it like it is. “Do you really think that a scrawny-ass white girl is gonna come down to this neighborhood and start droppin’ that kind of language?”
Then the whole place erupted. People were falling out of their desks laughing. “Miss Chris, you so funny, girl!” I had tears in my eyes from hilarity and relief. I had managed to head it off. I had managed to weather that little surprise storm.
Let’s be honest. I used humor to hide that I was terrified.
* * *
I didn’t want to teach. I flirted with the idea in college but eventually realized that it wasn’t kids that I liked so much. It was teachers. At the time, I had no idea what to do about that. So I graduated with a history degree and zero prospects. That’s a tough time for young people these days. You take advantage of all of the opportunities that swim your way, pull all those all-nighters, do all the things you’re told you’re supposed to, but by the time you’ve earned that slip of paper, nobody thinks you’re anything special. I spent a lot of time floundering.
But then I was sitting in church one Sunday that summer and the Holy Spirit clonked me over the head with a frying pan and told me to go help some people. I’ve never told anyone that because to this day I still don’t understand it (and the thought of it still weirds me out). I do believe, however, that things have a way of coming together eventually. But that’s a hell of a thing to happen to you when you’re 22 and don’t know a damn thing about anything.
After weeks of research (one of the few things I was confident I knew how to do well after college), I decided to join AmeriCorps. Washington, DC was at the top of my list, and I found an organization that helped adult students transition into postsecondary education and training. This was the perfect scenario for me. I wouldn’t have to spend my days trying to keep 10-year-olds in their desks, I could satisfy my call to do-goodering (and brag about living like a pauper and not owning a TV), and I could spend my weekends in the best museums and hippest bars in the country. I was earnest and naive and not smart enough to be properly scared of what I was getting myself into. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I was heading into a year of voluntourism at its finest.
So I packed up my trinkets and paltry professional wardrobe and had my folks drive me to our nation’s capital. I crashed on couches and in a hostel for weeks before finding a place to settle down, a house with eight residents and one bathroom. This was not the postcard DC that I had been dreaming about. And neither were the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River in which I eventually worked every single day.
I spent six grueling months bouncing all over town, tutoring students in algebra in one neighborhood, helping people fill out college applications in another, trying to teach crack addicts how to read a map in yet another. And a slew of other vastly diverse pursuits. Work was crazy, home was crazy, but somehow I often found myself loving it. Then things came to a screeching halt. My organization’s funding dried up. They had to close for good. That’s a tumultuous story that I’ll save for another day, but the long and short of it was that I got transferred to another adult ed organization, a GED program this time. I was going to have to teach.
* * *
My fellow AmeriCorps member Sarah and I arrived at the house-turned-school for our very first meeting with our new supervisors. There were awkward pleasantries, but these two women couldn’t have been more delighted to have us. It was hard to find any takers for these teaching positions east of the river. I had to take two trains and a bus to get there, a commute of over an hour. And the neighborhood had a rough reputation. Times are hard in Southeast and probably always have been. That reputation didn’t worry me, though. I had spent time there and had only ever run into friendly faces. What worried me was my impending doom of standing in front of a class and being responsible for other people’s learning.
After a bit of deliberation, it was pretty much slap-dash decided that I would teach math and social studies, while Sarah would teach writing and science. That’s the bizarre world of adult education. That previously unimportant college degree was the only qualification I officially needed to desperately try to impart knowledge upon others. Of course, I didn’t know a thing about teaching, but it quickly became clear that the folks running this joint were happy to have anyone at the chalkboard. When I asked my supervisor where their math instructors usually started with the material at the beginning of the semester, she enthusiastically informed me, “Oh, you can start wherever you want!” Not so helpful.
I immediately learned that I needed to begin. . . at the beginning. Plenty of my students didn’t know their times tables. Some couldn’t add or subtract. Good luck getting them ready for the algebra questions on the GED. The situation wasn’t much rosier in social studies. While explaining a timeline assignment and referring to the worksheet’s example of American wars throughout history, I said to the class, “Can anybody tell me who we fought in the Revolutionary War?” No one knew the answer. Someone earnestly guessed China. Clearly, I was dealing with my students’ Ghosts of Teachers Past.
So we took things slow. Painfully slow, sometimes. I discovered that I had the patience of a saint and the loyalty of a golden retriever. Whatever my students needed, I did it. These poor people had been told for years by so many educators that they were dumb or lazy or that their fate was inevitable. I knew it would take a lot for me to help them unlearn all that garbage. I knew I had to help them believe in themselves.
Every day was exhausting. I was always so relieved when the last student walked out my door. But occasionally I had a sneaking suspicion that I was actually making a difference. That somebody had learned a thing or two from me, in all of my fumbling desperation.
One day late in the semester, I got the most wonderful shock. One of my students walked into my room and sat down in the front row like he always did and said, “Miss Chris, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I think I’ve decided that I want to go to college.” I was so flabbergasted. That was a big dream for someone like him, someone who had the deck stacked against him from the start. I told him that was a wonderful idea and that he would do very well in college and that I would be happy to help him apply. I truly meant all of that. I had to blink away tears over that one.
* * *
Sometimes I would leave work feeling so strange about my life in relation to that place and my students. I always knew that I could hop on the metro and within minutes be a world away from their troubles. I could hop right into the frame of that postcard, no problem. But to most of my students, the National Mall was a foreign land. The Capitol Dome may as well have been the Taj Mahal or Big Ben or the Sydney Opera House. It was that far away for them. These people lived in one of greatest bastions of democracy on Earth, the center of the land of the free and the home of the brave. And they couldn’t buy a tomato in their own neighborhood.
But I tried my damnedest to help them learn and even dream a little bit. I tried to help them think about the world beyond the neighborhood they so rarely left. They deserved to know that they were smart. They deserved to know that more was possible.