world on fire

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 17 2010

i…honestly can’t think of a title.

D is sometimes like a walking shadow. her home life is the stuff of rocketship legend; the story has it that her father, brimming with machismo, once threatened to “call CPS” on the school, and on another occasion actually attempted to run over faculty members with his truck. to be perfectly honest, i had no idea what to make of her at the beginning of the school year.

bewilderment soon — very soon — morphed into frustration, even irritation. day after day, D made not even an attempt on her homework. she started out the year with excuses, but soon moved her clip down to orange before i even got to her table, and simply sat in silence when i stood by her side, turning blank pages, telling her again and again, “D. you can learn SO much, and that will be wasted unless you practice. you really, really need to do your homework.”

frustration and irritation morphed into anger. after four classes in a row during which D asked to go to the bathroom towards the beginning of homework check — thus ensuring that she wouldn’t be AT her table when i got there to notice she once again hadn’t made an attempt on her homework — i waited for her to return one day, feeling frankly pissed off. as she walked back towards her desk, slightly stooped as usual, i calmly said the following:

“i have two questions for you. one: why do you never even try to do your reading packet, D? two: do you go to the bathroom at the beginning of homework check so that you won’t be here when i come to your desk?”

most students probably would have teared up if confronted like that. some would probably even have gotten defensive. D, however, said nothing. her face said nothing. we stared at each other for minutes, our silence occasionally being punctuated by me softly saying, “D. i need you to answer my question,” or “you can nod or shake your head if you want. i just need you to answer,” and lastly, “i’m not mad at you. i just need to know if this is going on so we can figure out how to fix it.” nothing. nothing. nothing. it was bizarre. and although she never actually answered my question that day, despite my repeated attempts, she DID stop going to the bathroom at the beginning of homework check, which is answer enough.

about a week later, a similar thing happened in her math class. suspicion, confrontation, utter lack of expression. “it was the weirdest thing i’ve ever experienced,” bailey said. “i’m afraid to think of what has happened to that girl.” i was too.

over the next couple of weeks, there were small signs of progress, as anger morphed into anticipation. first she started completing her literacy packet. then she told me that she couldn’t do her reading packet BECAUSE she didn’t have any books at home. (“you can go to the library, D, or even borrow a book from me. that isn’t an excuse.”) several days later, she excitedly showed me her new book — the title, to my recollection, contained the words “exciting!” and “sharks!” — but still hadn’t actually followed through with the corresponding reading exercises.

then one day, she did. “D, your homework is complete!” i said to her with a smile as i put a check mark next to her name on the spreadsheet for the very first time. she smiled back at me, then continued with her Do Now. anger had morphed into genuine excitement.

in a one-on-one meeting, i mentioned this progress to my principal. “really?!” she said. “that’s huge. do you know how many days last year we had complete homework from her?” i shook my head. she held up her fingers in a zero formation. “did you make a really big deal out of it?” she asked me. i thought about it, and said that although i definitely gave her positive feedback, i hadn’t necessarily done anything big. “oh, make a big deal out of it,” she said. “she would love that, and it will help get her even more invested in doing her work.”

yesterday, as i opened up D’s reading packet, i saw before me the most detailed, vigorously completed reading comprehension page i have seen from any of my students all year. it was clear to me that D poured her whole heart into doing that reading homework — and her other literacy homework, too. “D, this is AMAZING,” i said. her smile was radiant. i opened up my arms and softly said “come here!”

she stood, and without saying a word, wrapped her arms around me and looked straight up at me, still with a big smile on her face. several moments passed, with both of us just looking at each other, while i wondered how obvious it was that i was absolutely on the verge of tears. excitement, of course, had morphed into overwhelming love.

i’m honestly having a hard time expressing in words how powerful that moment was for me, and i would say for us, D and me, in our relationship as teacher and student, loving adult and child in desperate need of love in her life. i could sit here for hours and think of the most powerful way to express the significance of the moment, or how it dwarfed the confusing-blank-stare moments that preceded it, but the bottom line is that for the first time ALL YEAR, i saw real hope in her eyes, and maybe even the ganas she really needs to rock it this year. she now knows not only that i love her and believe in her, but that i DO have high expectations for her, will push her to get there when i have to, AND will celebrate her success with her when she does. this. is. big.

realistically speaking, sure, D might still have struggles with homework this year, especially if her parents aren’t necessarily getting on board. but do i think we’ve turned a major corner? absolutely. do i count this as a victory, even as i acknowledge that it’s just the beginning? HELL YES.

do i feel uplifted, and confident that i am beginning to have a profound effect on her achievement and the achievement of her classmates? despite my dark days and mistakes, and despite the fact that october really is a freaking hard month to live through as a first-year teacher…yes. i do.


3 Responses

  1. Mrs. J

    Oh Maria…. welcome to teaching. It is moments like those that keep me coming back year after year.

  2. mscogglesstorytime


    When you called me last year and asked me about TFA, I couldn’t help thinking “where do I begin?” I could have told you about the staring matches, the conferences, the tears and the struggles. I could have told you that you would fall in love with every child, whether or not you liked them, in 3 short months, you would celebrate victories that seemed so minute and yet so monumentous at the same time. October sucks. There is no way around it. What I’ve learned in a short year is that the work is never over but neither are the successes. You bgust your ass because you love them. I didn’t think I would love anyone as much as I love my children. I also didn’t know anyone could frustrate me as much as my children. Welcome to teaching. It’s the most wonderful rollercoaster there is. All my love!


  3. Kaitlyn

    I teared up while reading this blog tonight. :)
    I’m an eager 2011 Phoenix corps member, who needed some inspiration tonight…Thank you! (Those TFA horror stories are really discouraging, and I was starting to panic.) I know I’m doing this for a reason. A great one. :) Thanks for sharing! I can’t wait for these moments with my kids!

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