I Never Wanted to be a Teacher: Pt. II

“All of the preppy people do it and then they join the Junior League,” said my freshman year “mentor” after I asked what TFA meant. Or she said something like that when I was a wide-eyed and fresh-faced freshman trying to find my identity.

Now there are two things you must know immediately:

  1. I wanted nothing more than to be a Lilly-Pulitzer-wearing, preppy sorority girl between my senior year of high school and freshman year of college (I did later become one of those things!). I would do whatever it takes to make it a reality.

  2. My view of Teach for America (TFA) has changed. Significantly.

My applying to this organization was not exactly “random.” That same summer between my junior and senior years of college I was fulfilling an internship as an investigator with the local public defender’s office. Though this was not directly correlated with psychology, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a resume booster. And let’s be honest: analyzing criminal cases all day would never leave me feeling bored.

Before I began a routine interview with a client, I quickly developed two superficial judgements of my black, male, tattooed client:

  1. He’s going to try to get us off topic

  2. He will make sure this is an unnecessarily long interview

I didn’t know that his story would be a part of my answer five years later when people asked me, “Why did you become a teacher?” 

I quickly moved through all of the typical questions and he answered succinctly and politely. As I was wrapping up he began to open up about himself (this is typical of clients in jail during interviews). 

He was in his late 30s or early 40s and since he was a child he had been in and out of juvenile detention centers or jail. His parents, he said, sent him to juvie when he was 12 after finding marijuana in his room. Instead of learning math, science, reading, or writing, he was meeting other drug dealers and finding friendships in not-so-great people. Now he’s an adult. He can’t read. He has no degree. 

“But I’m working on getting my GED here! And I want a job like yours so I can help people.” 

I was simultaneously thrilled and heartbroken. 

This man would never have a job like me. He has a felony record.

I walked out of jail that day confused, encouraged, and hopeless. He could have been lying to impress me or make himself sound better, but that doesn’t matter at this point. What matters is that there are individuals who are incarcerated because of the coordinates that they were birthed upon and the community they did not choose to grow up in. 

The school-to-prison pipeline is real and it takes luck for it to be disrupted in any child’s life.  So how can we fix it? The more I thought of potential solutions, the more I came to deeply understand how entrenched institutionalized and systemic racism is in our society.

But I did know, or hope actually, that one thing was true: maybe all it takes is one teacher or mentor to change the trajectory of that one child’s life. Maybe all it takes is one advocate, one cheerleader to be the reason a child doesn’t walk down a path that leads to one destination: criminal.

I probably cried a bit in my tub that night for that man (bath and shower cries are the best, let's be real). I felt angry for how he had to grow up and where he was now and simultaneously I felt hopeful that maybe I could do something.

I certainly couldn’t stand by, watch, and talk about it.

An idea and an opportunity began to blossom.

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