April 17, 2012

Fall Down Seven Times, Get up Eight.

Recently there was an interesting article in the Philadelphia Inquirer  by Kristen Graham (http://tinyurl.com/d3ecu5d) about a young man who is currently lamenting his participation in a program in which he committed to teach in the Philadelphia Public Schools upon graduation from college.  He is second guessing his participation in this school district because of its mismanagement, so much so that he is quoted as saying “It saddens my heart that I don't want to teach in Philadelphia…”  Many responded both on Graham’s blog/webpage as well as on the Inquirer page.  The comments ranged from support to derision.  The critical take away from this article is why would this young man, young man of color to be exact, want to renege on his promise?

Let me be clear, I can understand and appreciate his sentiment.  However, perhaps because of my upbringing, or my stubbornness, or a combination of both, I’d see the troubles surrounding Philly and other major school districts as a blessing, not a curse.  I’d see it as a challenge rather than an impediment.  I see it as an opportunity to effect change and...Oh wait, I did just that.

Back in 2000 I made a failed attempt at my dream career.  I wanted to be a lawyer.  I had always been told that I would make a good lawyer, and wanted badly to be able to argue for a living.  Not to mention, I had a dream of becoming the next Thurgood Marshall, even all the way to the lifetime appointment in the building which cites “Equal Justice, Under Law” as its premise.

Alas that did not happen.  In 2003, I made the cross country journey in a car I did not own 48 hours before to a city where I did not have a home to “just” became a teacher – the family business.  What I did to become a teacher was all in.  I left my home city, moved to another city without the promise of a job, and had no where to stay.  I did so because of a plethora of selfish reasons (not wanting to be in my family's shadow in Chicago was the main one), but also because I wanted to help the students of South Central - I wanted to teach them they way I was taught in an independent school setting, in their public school environment. 

My journey into the classroom is not what I want to focus on today.  I want to critique a culture and a society in which this young man is increasingly becoming the norm rather than the exception when it comes to giving back through teaching as well those who continue to demean young folks who want to get into this business of education. Psychologically speaking for a long time (and perhaps even now if you ask some) I feel as if I let myself down by becoming an educator, that I missed my life calling.  What makes me forget that feeling are the constant reminders of the influence I have had on a large number (over 1000) young people – from a diverse range of races as well as social classes.  Not just in the classroom, but in the streets volunteering, building homes and communities with young folk from many states.  Contributing to that number of young people in such diverse educational experiences has to have had a profound impact on the leaders of tomorrow - not to mention how I view the world.  However, I strongly believe that I was not THE difference in their lives, but rather A difference in their life.  Marianne Williamson said it best; “I am not the teacher in life, I am the student.”  I have learned so much from my students, mentees and other young people that I would be disingenuous if I said otherwise.

So to the young man who doesn’t want to stay in Philadelphia after his initial teaching contract expires and for those Teach for America teachers who are constantly maligned by naysayers on both sides of the aisle, in the immortal words of two late 20th century poets T.S. Shakur said; “Keep ya head up” and Billy Joel concurred by encouraging at the end of each of his concerts to “Don’t take no s**t from anyone!”

My message is simple.  Youth are the leaders of tomorrow.  Sometimes us “older” folk have selective amnesia when it comes to our own youth.  We look in the rear view mirror and only see our mistakes and what we shouldn’t have done.  Rarely do we see the good, and our reflexive mirror seems bent towards the negative.  Thus either through trying to protect young folk, or because we think they are too "immature," we want younger people to be “seen and not heard” to “learn the lessons from their elders” and other types of sayings that are as old as the typewriter they were written on.  In sum, in order to lead, you have to make mistakes.  If we want “perfection” we will never achieve change.  In other words, you have to fall down seven times, get up eight.  Learn from your mistakes, dust yourself off, and continue the fight.  Otherwise we will forever be mired in slow, methodical change from top down rather than organic, grassroots change from the ground up.

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