What is it like to work at an inner-city school with a population that is completely black when you’re white?
What is it like to work with every grade level between Kindergarten and 8th grade?
Since starting at this work site in September, I’ve been met with challenge after challenge and learning opportunity after learning opportunity as the days, weeks, and months have worn on. It’s tough working with kids who come from a violent, stressful, and emotional background. But, you learn to love them, one action and word at a time. When I first started work, I found it easier to spend my time with the younger kids, often mingling in the Kindergarten and 1st grade classrooms. I thought that the impact I could have in those rooms was greater than that which I would have in rooms with kids who had already started to “come into their own” and would likely view me as another unstable outsider, visiting for just a few weeks and eventually moving on. But, as time went by, kids from all different grade levels began to open up…
As the school year comes to a close this week, I find myself feeling nothing but grateful for the life changing experience that occurred over the past year. In a way, it feels like the experience should just be starting, and yet, here I am, ready to say goodbye to all of the important students who walked into my life in September. The year was a journey. I ventured from kindergarten and first grade to the fourth and fifth grades, before eventually tackling the challenges of the seventh and eighth grades later on in the year. Now, for the last few months, I’ve found myself in a position where the majority of the students in the school are comfortable with me, and I’ve been given the chance to form all sorts of different relationships. To different students I am a friend, a mentor, an authority figure, a role-model, a teacher, and, in some cases, maybe even a janitor. But I love it all.
When you arrive in a place that is dubbed “The Most Dangerous City in America”, your initial thought is to have your guard up, to be on the lookout for danger, but that quickly goes away. In September, I was well aware of the fact that I was one of a handful of Caucasian people in the building–not that this particularly bothered me, but I was aware of it. Now, it’s something I don’t even think about when I walk into the building in the morning. Oddly enough, the whole idea of the color of skin has completely melted away, even if there are consistent reminders that I’m in a whole different culture. Which, incidentally, brings me to my main point. How can one make a difference when they are viewed as an outsider? I had this problem when I lived in Alaska, Kenya and Hawaii, too. Sadly, when people look at you and take note of the physical differences between you and them, they automatically size you up, box you up, and make assumptions about you. How I was perceived in Alaska, Kenya and Hawaii is another story for another time, but how I’m viewed by the students of this school in East Saint Louis is important to me. I like to try to put myself in their shoes. If I was a black fifth grader, and I came to school in August to find that my teacher was going to be a white woman from across the river in Missouri, I’d probably make a few assumptions myself.
So, I knew I was an outsider for much of my time at this job, especially in the fall. And who knows, maybe I’m still an outsider, but I don’t feel that way anymore. What’s interesting to note, is how the kids react to black authority figures over white authority figures. I get it, I really do, but I can’t help but be a little envious of the people who instantly capture the kids’ attention just because they are also black. One little guy, a first grader who I spent more time with than any other student back in the fall, liked to spend time with me in our after school program, and we took an instant liking to each other. But, one day, there was a small group of volunteers visiting from a college in Ohio, and one of them was a twenty-year-old black man. All of the little kids were instantly captivated by him. And the older kids, they opened up to him much more easily over the course of a few days than they had to me over the period of months. While I understand the reasons for this, it doesn’t make it any easier to witness and to know that despite how much effort I put into loving and teaching these kids, I’m never going to be black, so I’ll always be one degree removed.
I like to think of all of this, ya know, this whole “life” thing, as one big human experiment. An experiment where we’re all connected and we just happen to be placed in different bodies that happen to be different genders, colors, orientations, sizes, etc. So, while it’s a bummer to see that the impact I can have on some students is limited based on their limiting beliefs in how I look, I’m comforted knowing that despite this road block, I do a good job putting on a brave face and doing the best I can with what I’ve been given to work with.
In the end, I think what I’ve taken away from this experience is nothing but positive energy. For the most part, each event I experienced throughout my days at this school were outright positive. And for the few that were negative, they’ve somehow woven their way into positive experiences too, whether it be because they turned into life lessons or I was far enough removed from them to actually see that they weren’t such tough situations after all.
Four more days of school…here’s to living in the moment, as always.