The Reason Why

Nine years ago, many people wondered why I chose Lakeview Middle School for my practicum and student teaching. Some of my cohort members had not even heard of the school. A little over a year ago, when I first got the job that I currently have, many of the same questions arose. AT a summer training, someone said that they had seen the job opening but did not bother applying. “You’re welcome,” she said. Even before I started working at Lakeview, I knew well how everyone viewed this place.

Why did I choose Lakeview?

Originally, I chose Lakeview because I identified with the school. When I lived on East Decatur, Lakeview was the precinct location for my mom when she voted. Additionally, if I had attended public school in middle school, I would have attended Lakeview. Once I started my practicum, my heart knit to those students in a way I could never have imagined. I saw the immense needs each child brought with them, needs both physical and emotional. Though other circumstances prevented me from starting my teaching career at Lakeview, when I returned to teaching, I jumped at the chance to return to the school.

One week ago today, I returned from a trip with 24 of my students that proved exactly why I chose Lakeview and also grew me in a way I could not possibly imagine. This trip exemplified the reason why I teach and why I teach at Lakeview.

This process started back in late September when we held our first Youth in Government meeting. When my colleague asked if I would join her on this adventure, I said yes, having absolutely no idea what lay ahead. I left that meeting which had been chockfull of eager, prospective delegates, many of whom we specifically selected for this opportunity, riding high.

Each week the students gathered and we moved closer to completing bills and perfecting speeches. My colleague and I sacrificed precious brain power to edit and format bills to submit them before the deadline. My colleague sacrificed even more as she worked tirelessly to arrange all the details from arranging the donation of professional clothing to writing the placards with their name and delegation.

We got a small taste of just how amazing the trip would be when the YMCA brought over rack after rack of donated clothes for our students to try on. Two at a time the students selected from the clothes and tried them on. They walked back looking so sharp in their new Oxford shirts, pants, jackets and ties. I witnessed first hand the enormous effect clothing has on how we are perceived and how we perceive others. They looked as amazing as I knew they were.

Finally the day arrived. Chills went down my spine as I watched each student step out of their vehicles, dressed to the nines pulling a suitcase behind them, many accompanied by parents who looked more nervous than their kids. I waited nervously for the last four stragglers and sighed with relief when the last came inside to practice their speeches.

Things did not become real until we entered the Marriott, checked in and got all of our official materials. I felt almost as overwhelmed as the students. I did not want them to miss out on anything simply because I did not direct them correctly. From that point on we hit the ground running.

Our students were so nervous. We entered an already packed conference auditorium. Immediately our students noticed how rich and white everyone was. They looked at the tables already set for lunch and wondered if all they would get for lunch was salad. “Are we going to get any meat?” Several of them asked, severely concerned. They had no concept of an entrée or a multi-course meal.

They relaxed a little at lunch, providing us with plenty of laughs as we responded to their many questions. “Why are there two glasses on the table?” “These napkins are cloth. Are they the same thing that I use to wipe my mouth?” “Why did they put the dessert out if we can’t eat it yet?” “We have to wait until everyone gets their food before we can eat?” Adorable.

All levity vanished the moment that they heard that it was time for committees. All of our students nervously fumbled around, making sure that they had their placards, their folder with paper and their speech, and their pen. With thirteen different committees, we could not go with them all. Many of them went into committees where they were the only Lakeview delegates. As I watched them head out, I hoped that the brief advisor meeting would pass quickly so that we could get into those committee rooms to watch them present their bills. I thought that might be the only time we got to watch most of them at work.

Five hours never passed so quickly. My colleagues and I slipped in and out of committee rooms, watched our students at work, watched them nervously step forward and watched them succeed. We had no time to prep them to ask questions of other bill presenters or to formulate arguments in support or opposition of other bills. We had only briefly prepped them to sum up their own argument in their closing speech. Our students did not let that stop the,. They watched, learned, and executed. By the end of the night, ten out of our twelve bills passed out of committee. The joy on their faces when they posed for a “We passed!” picture? Indescribable. Most of them exceeded their own expectations.

These kids ended the day with completely different expectations. They entered the conference intimidated, believing in their inferiority to the other more experienced, more privileged delegates. They went to bed determined to succeed. They showed up the other delegates at their own game and knew it. Several of our students expressed their disbelief at the lack of good behavior they saw in many of the other delegates. A couple of them commented on the racism directed towards them in committee. Little did we know that was just a preview.

Monday we headed up to the Statehouse itself. My face could barely contain my smile as I took the picture of them standing together on the Statehouse steps. I knew that what we were doing was already making a difference when, as we passed the statue of Ben Tillman, their first response was, “we should write a bill next year to make them remove that statue!”

Things moved into high gear and started to get heated when our first bill pair stood up to present their bill. Their bill would extend eligibility for instate tuition to all South Carolina residents, regardless of documentation status. Lakeview certainly hit the ground running. The first delegate to stand in opposition to the bill started down the track of racism both covert and overt that directed itself against our students repeatedly throughout the day. She consistently referred to undocumented immigrants as “illegals,” claimed that this bill would give them something for free and spouted off that if they wanted to go to college they should have come here the right way or pursue citizenship because that’s supposedly such an easy thing to obtain. (Keep in mind that South Carolina residents affected by this bill would have immigrated as children, brought by their parents.) Our students rose to the occasion. The first, an eighth grader, stood and quite elegantly and passionately defended the bill, remembering several of the talking points we covered with them in the debrief session the day before. Then, in the second affirmative speech, one of the two white students on our delegation stood up in support. That was the moment our entire delegation united as a team. I felt so proud of all of them. The cherry on top came when the bill passed!

I could talk for hours, and already have, about the many highs and lows of this trip in intricate detail. I could talk about the concerted efforts of entire delegations against our students for no other discernable reason other than racism. I could talk about the enormous smiles on those two students’ faces when their bill passed in the Senate. I could talk about the heartbreak four of our girls faced when their bills failed in the House, when the cards felt stacked against them. I could talk about my own frustration upon learning that our first bill had fallen victim to the Youth Governor’s veto, how as I encouraged those young men to continue the fight like those who fought for civil rights, I learned how many of them must have felt when doors kept slamming in their face for over a century. I could talk about how I made a giddy fool out of myself in the hall with the other advisors when another one of their bills passed out of the House. This happened even with other delegates telling their friends not to vote for the bill because “they’re Hispanic”

This day transformed our students. They became victors. Youth in Government is a learning process but just like in life, sometimes you learn how to lose with dignity and win with grace. How can you not love those who go through fire and emerge with love?

This day transformed me. I liked all of these students before the trip. After that trip, I loved them. I learned what maternal love feels like. I learned how difficult it is to battle injustice with dignity when I saw it directed at those I love. My heart nearly burst with joy when I watched them succeed. How could this day get any better?

The bonding continued through the evening. I took many of them on a CVS run and made a distinct impression as the teacher with the (cold-induced) croaky voice who should have brought her whistle. Also, I am that teacher that let them buy candy and Monster; I must have temporarily lost my mind. After supper I lead a small group back to the hotel, skipping the dance, and also became known as the teacher who let them stop at Starbucks. When we returned to school the next day, one of those girls hugged me tight and thanked me again; she’d never been able to go to Starbucks before. Once we got back to the hotel, I saw first hand the devastation that broken promises leave in their wake and experienced the sheer joy that comes from being able to keep a promise for that girl who had lost faith.

Despite all the ugliness, all the “polite racism” as one student termed it, our students exceeded our wildest dreams and their own. Several won awards. We did not expect that. Lakeview won premier delegation; people noticed their hard work. We returned home exhausted but exuberant and then my heart nearly exploded with joy. The entire school stood outside their classrooms to cheer and clap for their classmates.

This trip epitomized why I teach and why I chose Lakeview.

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