"Mr. Wilson," time stood still, as I had never seen this painful look on Martin's face before; as a matter of fact, I had rarely seen this kind of look on anyone's face. "My father died, last night." He put his head down on his desk and began to cry into his sleeve. I grabbed his arm, made sure that another teacher was able to stand in, and took him out into the hallway. Outside the room, I held his head, as he cried into my shirt. This young man had gone through the most traumatic experience of his life and, suddenly, fractions, division, and volume, all seemed secondary. I felt that he was looking for someone to answer the question, and I was the person he had to provide the answer. He looked at me, and with his eyes, I felt him asking: Why?
I moved to New York City this past summer to begin my training as a Teach for America Corp member. At training (called Summer Institute), your 5:30 a.m. alarm clock is your roommates banging on your door, you stay up until two in the morning "perfecting" your lesson plans, and you take the daily, incredibly sweaty, bus ride to and from where you teach summer school. During training, you do everything that you can to prepare for the day, fast approaching, where you will teach your own students. It's funny because this seemed intense at the time, but it was just training. A more intense period of time would be coming, I just didn't realize how intense.
After being accepted to Teach for America, we still have to interview at schools in the area in hopes of being hired, and the schools themselves have to accept us. I had the honor of being able to interview at a wonderful school. I was immediately impressed by the school, the people, and the students. Fortunately, the school offered me a position as a fifth grade math teacher at the fifth through eighth grade middle school. This would turn out to be a particularly interesting position, as many students join our school in the fifth grade, having previously attended many different schools throughout New York City. Unfortunately, this would mean that some of my students would enter fifth grade having difficulty subtracting numbers like seven and three. And although I was placed in an area of New York City consistently referenced as having one of the highest crime rates, the parents of our students deeply care and invest in their children to make sure that they have a great education at our school. I was excited to begin the year, deeply caring about children and education, and although there are infinite bright spots everyday, there is one inevitable truth that you discover on Day One.
Teaching is hard -- harder than hard. It is by far the hardest thing that I have ever done. And although you hear that from everyone who has served Teach for America, you don't really understand it, until you experience it. I would be lying to you if I told you that it isn't hard to put your feet on the floor most mornings. And for that first few months, you definitely find yourself wondering how you're going to make it. As much as Institute (Teach for America summer training) does to prepare us for the rewarding yet challenging experience, I don't believe anything can quite prepare you for that first day in your own classroom, that day when you realize that the lives of dozens of small children are completely in your hands. Everything that you've learned, prepared for, and thought of is pushed to the top as adrenaline pumps through your veins, and you realize this is much, much harder than you expected. Then, you begin to wonder, "Why am I doing this?", every... single... day.
Everyone who joins Teach for America has a reason; for some it may be because they want to give back, for others it's for a career change, and for others it is a desire for adventure. Whatever their reason originally was for joining Teach for America, on that first day, when things are not what you expected and that original reason is not enough, you begin to ask yourself, "Why am I doing this?"
For me, that question was answered that morning with Martin. As I held his head, with him crying, I found my answer: we are doing this to let our students know. Not just to let them know the parts of the cell. Not just to let them know how to divide multi-digit numbers. Not just to let them know the functions of Congress. Really, it is to let them know that in the next decade, they will be walking the halls of college. It is to let them know that in the next year, they will dance at their first junior prom. It is to let them know that in the next week, they will get that A on their English test. And, it is to let them know that in the next morning, the loss of their father will seem a little more bearable, because we are here for you: Every. Single. Day.