Teacher, Teacher

Education and injustice

I did some teaching a few years back. As a semi-permanent substitute for a teacher off on maternity leave. When said teacher came back, I walked out of that school and never looked back.

Until now. I got a phone call a few weeks ago asking if I’d have the time to teach English once a week to grade first through seventh. Seven classes back to back. I accepted the challenge for two reasons. First, I’ve never turned a job offer down in my life. I’ve been working since I was eleven, assistant-teaching at a dance school in exchange for ballet classes. Since then I’ve worked at a gallery, a psych research lab, a restaurant (fired after two weeks for eating too much on the job), a couple of fancy magazines, a website, a newspaper, a city guide and innumerable freelance writing gigs.

The second reason I agreed was because my novel is about education. About how poor kids suffer because of the pathetic waste of a school system. And so it made sense that my karma was going to send me back into that classroom. And into a classroom of privileged young people with parents wealthy enough to pay private school tuition. And guess what I discovered?

A lot of these kids are as fucked up as the kids I grew up with. And not because there aren’t enough desks, pens or textbooks – but because they don’t get enough from their parents. Teachers do what they can within the confines of a wealthier system (with isn’t without its own constraints) but they have to deal with the behavioral issues of kids whose parents are often too busy at work, on their laptops or their cell phones to give them the emotional education which is the foundation of all other learning.

Without that bond, it’s tough to build empathy. And without empathy, it’s tough to be sensitive to all that there is to discover about the world around us. That first day at school taught me a great deal. Particularly when a seventh-grader shared with me her truth about being excused from participating in the assigned reading this month: Thirteen Reasons Why. That hit me hard. Nearly as hard as much of the hopelessness I saw as a teen at a failing school in Queens, NY.

Ever since I’ve seen more of the world as an adult, I’m struck by the contrast between rich and poor. Mostly in the sense that while the poor lack material wealth, the rich often tend to lack heart or culture. I met a millionaire several years back who shared with me how miserable he was. The source of his misery? The fact that he could have anything in the world he could ever want. So there was nothing he could yearn for. He had no dreams. Only the same overloaded excess of the millionaire lifestyle. And even that gets old after a bit.

It’s no picnic being poor and I’m not suggesting we pity the rich. But perhaps the soulful, immaterial wealth we hold inside is indeed more precious than any goods.

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