I have made mistakes. The first year on the job, an African American student was interested in applying to a high school that was nearly all white and very religious – and her faith wasn’t the same as the school’s.
“Think about that,” I advised her. Think about that environment and what it would be like to be there.
I still ask my students questions like this every year: Consider what it might be like to be one of the only racial or ethnic minorities, and if that matters to you or not. I’ve heard a whole array of answers on that topic, all of them valid.
Sometimes I ask them to consider what it would be like to be a Baptist, for example, and attend a Catholic girls’ school. How do you feel about going to Mass, I question. Many girls love it, and they choose to apply to religious high schools. Others choose schools, like Friends, which is Quaker, yet populated by many denominations.
Choosing which high schools to apply to is an exercise in good decision making that can be repeated when a student applies to college or to a job.
But consider how I, as someone new to my school, was asking them right off the bat to get to the heart of who they were and what they stood for. Some white lady they didn’t know wanted to know how they might feel going to a white school.
Yep, that first girl’s mother wrote me a pointed letter. Which the girls passed around at recess and then asked me if I was a racist. If I thought a girl of color – any color besides white – shouldn’t go to a school that had always been white.
Because I made a mistake. I got to the serious stuff too soon and trampled forward without my students and me having much of a shared history.
Now I can ask those questions. Now they trust me.
And I still make mistakes. This is a job where I have learned as I went along. There are only three, maybe four, other people like me in this entire city who do what I do, who help low-income students find good public or private high school placements, and then track them until they graduate. So they graduate.
But I don’t always get it right. I have been too enthusiastic to solve a problem, too excited about learning. (There’s so much to learn!) And I’ve nearly tripped over myself to be helpful or to find a solution. This job is about relationships and listening and diplomacy — which means it so easy to mess up things.
Like a lot of teachers, I’ve falsely assumed sometimes that certain parents didn’t care as much as they really did. Because sometimes it’s hard to tell with parents. They might be abrasive or unresponsive. Or absent. Yet, I can never assume they don’t care. If working with teenagers has taught me one thing it’s that the people who act like they care the least about something often care a great, great deal.
Right before Christmas, I saw a father I hadn’t spoken to since he had hung up on me, and he very much surprised me by thanking me for everything I had done for his children.
It made my day. No scratch that, it made my month. Because teaching, like parenting and writing – um, okay, so actually all the things that I choose to fill my life with — are those sorts of endeavors that we don’t always know if we are getting right.
I thanked this father and then drove off, deciding at that point to treat myself to a latte as I headed back to my school.
The world is a funny place, because that day — of all days — was when the guy in front of me at the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through paid for my drink. “Merry Christmas,” the lady who served me said.
I have made mistakes. But then on some days, some lucky days, everything turns out right.