April 4, 2009, 8:55 pm
Filed under: Ian | Tags:

i-am-a-manNine years ago, I was a Teach For America teacher in the still-segregated black schools of the Mississippi Delta.  My job was difficult.  I was 22 years-old, untrained in pedagogy, and unexperienced in working with children who carry the justifyable rage of knowing that the world pretends that they do not exist.  On one day, a student who had been expelled to an alternative school program showed up to campus with a pistol and began walking alongside the schoolhouse, pointing his gun towards the windows of classrooms.  On other, a young lady who was outraged that I was not paying attention to her protested by standing up and taking off her pants.

I was punched by a student; took orders from a racist, mentally ill principal (who was eventually relieved of her duties after it became clear that her disorder prevented her from maintaining basic safety); and I grew so sick from stress that I lost 25 pounds from my very slight frame.  Years ago, my mother showed me a picture she took of me during that time.  I looked like a nosferatu.

Yet, as difficult as my time in the Delta was, I left work every day knowing that I would make it home safely.  I feared my own inexperience.  I feared what deranged orders my principal would hand down the next day, but I knew that I had nothing to fear from the KKK.  The days when young outside agitators like myself found their bodies dumped in a swamp were long past.

I also know that I have people like Martin Luther King, Jr., who died 41 years ago today, to thank for this safety.  Our nation has not yet slain the twin dragons of racism and poverty, but would-be Saint Georges are no longer cut down by vigilantes.

And lest I seem too pessimistic, let me make clear that this is not the only thing we have to thank them for.  On the first day of my second year in the classroom, I’d delivered a long speech to my students about how I saw great potential in them, and how I intended to work them hard to draw out that potential.  The speech drew to a crescendo where I announced “I see the future leaders of our nation in this room.  I see a future President sitting in the desks before me,”  and when I delivered this speech to my sixth period, a student named Detrick screamed out “C’mon, there ain’t never gonna be a black President!”

On this sad aniversary, I’m deeply grateful that Detrick was wrong.


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