When I think about why I decided to join Teach For America, lots of cliches come to mind: I wanted to make a difference; I wanted to be the kind of teacher I had growing up; I wanted to pay it forward after being given so much by my adopted country and its education system. These general themes are reminders of why I am here, but teaching is not important in that it fulfills my wants – or any teacher’s wants – but rather in that it is able to fulfill the wants of my students.
Recently, a student of mine, A., wrote the following, in response to a prompt about his career and/or college goals:
I want to go to Texas or Duke. [My] brother had a football scholarship to go to Texas and he also had a… scholarship to go to Duke… You may have [seen] him on the news or read about his death in the paper. He just graduated… He was only seventeen years old but… he was shot [in a drive-by]… and he died. That really [hurt] me because [he] was my favorite brother… I was [going to] be at all of his college [games]… shouting his name and supporting him. But I can’t do that anymore. His death really opened my eyes to the real world. I’m not [going to] live forever so I need to do everything I can, be the best person I can be. I want to be a doctor because I love helping people.
It’s hard to stomach this, that a kid who did the right things, made the most of his education, and had such a bright future ahead of him could have his life cut short so senselessly. It’s hard to stomach that my students live among such violence. And yet, A. has used this tragedy to motivate himself even more toward his goals. My responsibility is to make sure he stays this driven and doesn’t succumb to channeling his pain in negative ways.
Teachers alone can’t save the world, and we can’t even save every student, clearly, from the dangers of circumstance. But we can try our damndest to give our students the best education and as much opportunity as possible so that they may change the course of their own lives. Not only do I hope that one day, A. will, through education and determination, be able to live in a neighborhood where he and his future family don’t have to worry about drive-by shootings, but I also hope that one day, would-be shooters, through education and determination, never feel like their only option to get forward in life is to use a gun. Our collective responsibility is to make sure our students all drive toward their dreams and never succumb to the negativity that too often influences their lives.