I'm not a mother, but I have approximately 160 kids.
After I graduated college, I was placed in York, Alabama teaching middle school social studies. Despite living in Alabama my whole life, I'd never heard of York as long as I lived. But that's where I taught some of the greatest people I'll ever have the pleasure of knowing.
I don't talk a lot about my experience with Teach For America - not in any depth, I mean. It's one of those things that's hard to sum up in a little pearl over dinner, or explain in depth to someone who hasn't lived it. I even have trouble articulating it well to my husband, who I met near the end of my two-year commitment.
This Friday, my 8th graders from the 2011-2012 school year will graduate high school. It's so hard to believe that four years have passed, and that those 13 and 14 year olds are now 17 and 18 year olds. I'll be in South Carolina that week on a trip with Jordan, so in lieu of making it to their graduation, I drove to York this past weekend and hugged their necks.
It is really easily to get self-congratulatory when talking about Teach For America. On its face, the program looks prestigious on a resume and is something recognizable to say that you're doing after college. It is hard, hard work - likely the hardest work a person will ever do - to teach in a failing school district. People consider it an "accomplishment" to have done so.
But the truth is, there are career teachers who show up to work every day in classrooms like the ones I taught in - not for two years, but for thirty. And the students who fill those classrooms and defy statistics by graduating high school and going on to college - THAT is an accomplishment. THAT is something a person deserves congratulations for - yes, indeed, they do.
When I went to York on Saturday, every single kid I saw is graduating high school and attending college. And many of the ones I didn't get to see are, too. They worked so very hard, made great grades, and will graduate with every bit of prestige and honor they deserve. The odds were against them, and it didn't matter. They crushed it. My heart is bursting.
There are, of course, students who chose to drop out for one reason or another, and it is those students who have been truly failed by education in this country. Those students will now move through the world without a high school degree, when a four-year college or technical degree is not just an asset, but a requirement, to find gainful employment -- those are the students for whom we should all be in prayer, as we should be in prayer for our governments and systems that see them slip through the cracks each year, unnoticed, unmourned, and underserved. It's not in me to place the blame for something like that on the shoulders of my kids. Can't really do that.
If you're reading this post, you probably don't know my kids. You most likely never will. So let me introduce them to you: they are hysterical, they are sharp as tacks, with wittiness and genuine comedy chops that would bowl you over. They are resilient - some came to school hungry, or with devastating family issues, or worse - and fought through it to get an education. They are kind and supportive of one another and of me, when I was their teacher. Their dreams span across becoming legislators to Army police officer, welders, forensic analysts, attorneys, doctors, nurses, athletes and musicians. They will knock you dead with their fabulousness.
There are few that I love more fervently and intensely than I love my students. I could never be more proud of anyone, until I have children of my own, than these wonderful people.
Below is a picture of my precious kids at their 8th grade graduation from York West End Junior High School. I can't WAIT to see their photos from their "real" graduation this Friday. Their grades, their plans, their hopes, their triumphs - they are spectacular. I was just glad to be their backup dancer.
Congratulations to the class of 2016 - there's nothing I wouldn't do for you. Love y'all so, so much.