Thirteen years ago I walked out of a dreamy liberal arts college into a dilapidated building in a forgotten Memphis neighborhood. It was once a high school in a comfortable working class community. But by the late 1990s, the school and the neighborhood were ghastly relics of the past and depressing symbols of the urban American present.
In no particular order:
The first words I heard were, “Damn metal detector won’t work. But they won’t know it. Might wanna move your car around back, Mr. Hood, we can keep a better eye on it.” Orientation consisted largely of “Break up fights between boys, but stay far away from fighting girls unless you want your hair pulled out and fake nails embedded in your skin.”
Instead of air conditioning, we had metal detectors. (After I left the school, a middle school student was beaten to death in a gang ritual in a bathroom.) I had 1oth graders in homeroom, and the majority of my girls were pregnant or had a child. The basketball coach was suspended, then fired for sleeping with a student. Dejection and depression often radiated off my colleagues.
We had no books for about six weeks. Because I taught a required course, I had grades changed by administrators so that students could pass. My time before class was spent manning an entrance with a wand.
(The previous spring, local media sensationally covered a protest by the parents of students who had failed Algebra II and weren’t being allowed to pass…the principal subsequently allowed the students to retake easier exams. Another principal in the school system was recently suspended for doctoring test performances…The stakes for job security are high, and success is rewarded.)
We began renovating to get AC during the second semester, but to save money we did not rent portable buildings. Instead, we squeezed 8 classes into the auditorium and its closets, halls, and stage. I was allotted a closet behind the stage with a door that never fully closed (we could not seal it for security reasons): mice would scurry in from outside, cold breezes paralyzed the room in winter, and pipes would ooze fluid.
As a young white male teacher–just 18 months older than a few of my students–I struggled to get a disciplinary handle in the classroom, yet got in trouble at one point for sending too many students to the office for discipline.
Perhaps the most depressing moment of the year was the dejection I saw one day on one of my colleague’s faces. He had worked for years to get charter schools established in our state, and news had filtered to him that–yet again–teacher’s unions and others had successfully killed a bill to allow charter schools.
I learned a great deal about myself that year, and a little bit about teaching and administrating. I also saw genuinely heroic efforts by unsung heroes, teachers and coaches who cared and were committed and were making almost imperceptible but important differences in students’ lives.
Thankfully, God put me in a better teaching situation for the next three years: still in the ‘hood, but in a Christian school with discipline, volunteers, and support. I got to teach, not just babysit, and I learned that I wanted to teach Bible for the rest of my life. It was incredibly hard and incredibly wonderful. I’d do it again.
That story is my story, or at least some of the more sensational parts of it. What’s yours? Are you looking for a place to serve? Our city (our world) needs passionate Christian educators, but it needs them to be supported and trained and encouraged. My friend David Montague (no seriously, click and watch that) directs an amazing program called the Memphis Teacher Residency. Young college graduates get trained to serve in urban schools while earning a fully-funded Masters in Urban Education from Union University. They agree to plug into a school in urban Memphis and accept a call to serve after graduation.
It’s the sort of program I wish I could have had when I began teaching. If you’re in Memphis over the holidays, I’d recommend attending an information session on Memphis Teacher Residency, December 21, 4:00-5:00 pm at the MTR office- 2181 Union Ave (http://memphistr.org/mtrmap).