2016 Week Three: Education
Last summer, I struggled to find thirty-five hours of work to do around the office where I worked. This summer, for the second week in a row, Andrew and I have each worked well over fifty. I share this not to play into the pity-demanding, abhorrent boasting of work so common of the library-dwelling, all-nighter-pulling Hopkins students, but rather to shed some light on what some non-profit work can require.
Emails from volunteers, home from their work, pour in after 6PM filled with questions about how their Thread student is going to be able to get to work the following day and explanations about how their student’s cousin’s getting shot kept them from work the previous day. The sheer volume of communication and paper surrounding some 90 students and their roughly 45 worksites is staggering.
Andrew and my work constitutes of 30% crisis management, 30% running around Baltimore finding students and speaking with employers, 30% navigating the bureaucratic and disorganized system devised for paying our students and 10% sending communications. I find myself using many of the skills I have cultivated both at Hopkins and at Milton, yet the stakes have changed radically.
All of the sudden, what I consider “work” has begun to have an impact on people, not tests, scores or grades. ‘Calling for it for the day’ is not counter-weighted by the prospect of losing a few points on an exam, but by a Baltimore City youth student not being able to work their job. Hanging up the proverbial coat for the night means leaving real people waiting and wondering, sometimes in crisis.
The long hours and demanding work have started to get to me, and I find myself turning away from activities I love (gardening, exercising, exploring new places) and obligations I have (studying the MCAT, phoning home, and feeding my fish…joking about the fish part, he still gets fed) because I am so tired at the end of the day. In the spare moments, I think about how to optimize this position and wonder if there is a possible world with slight tweaks where the CIIP interns at Thread could possibly have everything under control.
As someone who is headed into medicine, I know that staying at a job that you simply cannot leave because otherwise the work will not get done awaits me in the road ahead. The same counterweight exists for so many types of jobs where real lives are in play. It is not guilt, duty, or obligation, but rather a belief that the work or product is worthwhile and meaningful. Part of me wonders whether certain programs are too ambitious and try to do too many things at once, expanding too fast without the proper infrastructure. I think about how much better I could serve twenty students at the medical campus, rather than forty at 50% capacity. It is tough to know which path is better, the age old quality vs. quantity dispute. I think in my organization’s perspective for summer jobs, quantity takes the cake in terms of priority. If getting more teens jobs gnaws into effort spent making sure that all jobs are amazing experiences, that is a bullet I am willing to bite.
Nevertheless, I am reluctant to resign to choosing the lesser of two evils. A big realization for me—which Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million contribution to NYC schools producing no significant improvement in outcomes helped hammer home—is that simply adding money to the equation does not work. When I think to what has me and Andrew working around the clock at Thread, a large majority of it can be attributed to lack of proper infrastructure, difficulties in actually getting in touch with individuals, and bureaucratic inefficiencies designed to “protect” government money.
Organization has proven to be the key determinant in much of our successes with institutional disorganization attributable to most of our shortcomings. While our main focus now is the students, we are lucky to have a week after their internship ends to reflect and restructure. Currently writing down every source of frustration and every problem as it comes up, we hope to be able to reform how the summer internship program is run with our team from the ground up, establishing protocols and timelines for next year which we hope will ameliorate some of the potential issues we have encountered first hand. If we do our job well, not only might Thread only need one CIIP intern next summer, but that intern will be able to prioritize both the quantity and the quality of student jobs.
You sure do meet some interesting characters on the Charm City Circulator. People from all walks of life take it: construction workers, nurses, tourists, interns, nearly anyone you can think of. I mean, what’s not to like about the Circulator? It’s free, convenient, and fairly timely (I actually have a bone to pick with whoever made that darn NextApp because sometimes it’ll say a bus is scheduled to come, but it turns out it’s “Out of Service”. And just like that, you’re stuck waiting for another twenty minutes for a bus that’ll be twice as crowded. I digress.).
Besides this past week, I don’t think I’ve ever taken the Circulator, or rather, and form of public transportation for five consecutive days (including the JHMI, which I don’t count as public transportation). And it was pretty amusing to say the least.
On Tuesday, I had a rather interesting experience on the Circulator. It was around 7:30 in the morning and what seemed like the normal crowd of commuters and community members was boarding the bus around Station North. However, two of the last people to board were women who may have been high on some sort of drug. I assumed as much when one of them muttered that it felt almost as if she was on ecstasy. They both stumbled to the back of the bus and the bus took off. In the middle of the ride, one of the women began to sing very loudly “The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round…”
Her friend interrupted her, “Stop singing. You’re making a scene.”
“ROUND AND ROUND”
“ROUND AND ROUND”
I couldn’t really see them, but I could see the reactions of everyone around that area of the bus. Most people stared awkwardly to the side and a couple of folks gave off a cold stare directed at the ladies. Less than five minutes later, the two women got off the bus; the same lady who said she felt like she was on ecstasy, sort of stumbled or fell onto a random guy sitting in his seat. Immediately, the woman’s friend grabbed her as she quickly apologized and departed the bus.
Looking back, the scene seemed like something that came out of a sitcom. However, it wasn’t. It was real life and may or may not be the reality that Baltimoreans have to face when they take public transportation every day. When I went to work shortly afterwards, I realized that nearly all of the students in the MERIT internship relied upon public transportation. It made me think about possible difficulties that the students might be facing by relying on public transport like bus problems, inaccurate schedules, or even loud passengers. Taking the Charm City Circulator also exposed me to more of the communities around Baltimore. As we pass through various neighborhoods every day, I find it interesting to see the population that get on and off at each stop and think about where they may be going. All in all, it’s something I’m looking forward to learning about more and experiencing in the next few weeks.
“Damn, you’re the most scared but confident person I’ve ever met, Sandtown.”
Laughing along, I return Davon’s fist bump and together, we exit the computer lab – I have just finished teaching my first computer class.
Backpedal exactly an hour and a half – it’s 30 minutes before my class is supposed to start, and Davon is one of the earliest students to arrive. At this point, the fear and nervousness I am feeling is palpable in my expression, and my usual chattiness is replaced by a shaky “hey.”
He seems confused this sudden 180 in my demeanor. I explain to him that this is my first time ever teaching a class, that I am terrified I will fail and flounder and every one of the students – people I’ve been getting to know better and better over the course of two weeks – will be there to watch it happen. These panicked thoughts run rampant in my mind – I feel sick to my stomach and consider calling the whole thing off. Why did I think I could ever do this?
And then it’s 11:30 and class begins. I launch into my rehearsed introduction – I can actually hear my voice wavering with every word. Davon shoots me a thumbs up from the back row. I smile back a little. As the hour progresses, my words come a little more easily. I become way more relaxed. I start to feel comfortable – and then I start to enjoy myself. The class must notice my change – they laugh at my (pretty lame) jokes and answer and ask questions.
Before I know it, class has ended, and as the students file out, Davon’s words ring loudly in my mind. For someone who has known me just short of two weeks, he’s figured me out pretty well.
People experience fear each and every day – fear of doing the wrong thing, of being perceived poorly by others, of failing. But for me, the fear I experience extends past a typical emotional response, and is a deeply internalized state of being.
As a child of hard-working and well-intentioned Indian immigrants, I was raised with the strict belief that there is only one definition of success. I was told by my community that reading books was a waste of my time, that the stories I dreamt up and wrote were useless. That if I did not grow up to be a doctor, my life was meaningless. I don’t mean to sound like I’m criticizing or admonishing the culture that raised me – I just want to make it clear that my fear has its roots in the insecurity that my passions and dreams will be deemed invalid.
And yet, despite my fear of being told that the things I care about are dumb and my interests unworthy of attention, my confidence in doing what I love grows every day. At HEBCAC YO, I’ve discovered a newfound sense of comfort. I find myself being able to say out loud, “Yes, I love teaching. Yes, I want to teach and I care about education and I want to work in education after I graduate.”
This may not sound like a big deal – after all, I’m a senior in college, so shouldn’t I already be comfortable talking about my future plans out loud? But for me, this ability to openly discuss my love for teaching – without fear of retribution or condescension – is completely newfound.
For the first time, I am not afraid to say that I love teaching. I am confident when I teach – I love breaking concepts down in a way that people and I love the euphoric glow of understanding that lights up a student’s face.
My fear has kept me guarded, closed-off from expressing how I really feel and what I really think. My fear is what’s kept me from telling my mom, until very recently, that I’m not pre-med (and haven’t been for two years now). My fear of exposing my innermost self inhabits my daily life still – I couldn’t even bring myself to share my blog posts from the first two weeks of this program. But I like to think I’m getting better – I am still afraid of expressing myself truthfully, but I’m pushing myself to do what makes me uncomfortable.At least I can now be described as “scared but confident” instead of just scared.
This week I conquered a fear of mine. I ate alone in public for the first time ever. Does this seem silly to you? It is. But being lonely scares me.
I also think that the best way to conquer a fear is to just do the thing that scares you. So on Wednesday I excuse myself for lunch and walk a block and a half into Red Emma’s. Alone.
I am fully prepared for this tip-toeing out of my comfort zone. I arrive with a stocked bag. I have my phone so I can text people and look busy. I have my notebook in case I feel the need to pretend to be jotting ideas or lists down. And I have No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy on my tablet so I can finish reading it for a book club the next day. I’m 44 pages into the 320 page book so this seems like the call.
It turns out I need none of these things. I order my falafel (the closest thing to meat I can get in this vegetarian/vegan establishment) and sit down and I. Can’t. Stop. Watching.
I can’t stop watching everything happening at once here. There’s the two former college roommates grabbing lunch in front of me, one with her husband and young daughter, the other with her (I think) affected British accent. There’s the skinny man with long dreads and a top hat chasing after his curly haired son. The woman in the bandana reading intently, alone at a long table. Everyone different but somehow giving off the same vibe, except me in my J Crew shirt and J Crew shorts. I zone out and consider my week as I stare blankly at the orange “Spend Your Summer at Oriole Park” sign in the distance. Good week. Sat in on some more meetings. Made some contacts at tech companies by accident. Ate a lot of Laffy Taffys in the office. Charlotte took me out to lunch with her friends – all less than ten years older than me but I felt young, so young. I return to looking around the café and realize I am the only one watching everything here. Everyone else is busy with something.
People keep peering in through the windows, their cupped hands adding vignette shadows to the edges of their view but perhaps the middle is quite clear. No one inside is paying attention to the outsiders but they are paying attention to us. Some pace from one side of the corner to the other and peer. They pace. They peer. What are they seeing when they look in? I keep track of a woman with fuschia hair and a piercing in each cheek. She peers 7 times before she is whisked off by a bus.
North Avenue is becoming gentrified, they say.
My bosses call Station North a “reverse city”. It’s a hipster haven at night, with crowd favorites like The Wind Up Space and The Crown, and attracts MICA students and Hopkins students and all who fall in between. In the daylight it seems scary, they say, because there is a Methadone clinic nearby. But they say if you don’t have meth, you will not have a problem, you are of no use to the North Ave characters.
Who will the North Ave characters peer in on without us? Who would we forget about as we eat our vegan food and read our radical books and escape from the world in an entirely different way from that of these outsiders who are not quite so lucky?
Amidst the vibrant works of student art that decorate the school, there are signs that hang above the water fountains saying “Do not drink.” Although I know that the problem of lead poisoning seriously affects Baltimore, and although I see students line up to receive cups of water from Deer Park dispensers instead of drinking from the fountains, this week I found myself taking time to seriously think about the ways schools need to grapple with these types of a realities on a daily basis. After asking my boss, the principal of Liberty Elementary, about the water fountain signs, he responded that yes, it was due to lead in the pipes. At this point, the presence of lead has been so persistent and so unlikely to be addressed that it has almost become a mere description that one could use for the school. The school’s walls are yellow, the the library is on the second floor, the pipes have lead. He continued by saying the shittiest part about the situation was that, for the longest time, the administration knew about the lead pipes and did not tell the schools.
At this week’s Bites session, we learned about the school-to-prison pipeline. One topic we addressed was how schools should be concerned with the trauma that young children experience, often due to poverty and turbulent home lives. We also discussed how schools can become a place of trauma, especially for black and Latinx students. Many schools now have police who carry guns roaming the hallways. Rather than creating a sense of safety, the presence of police transform school into a dangerous space. As an elementary school, no police patrol the hallways. Even so, it has been important to consider the ways that the system has underserved and harmed so many of Baltimore’s poor, black students. From overcrowded classrooms, to leaks in the ceiling, to poisoning drinking water, it’s unacceptable that students are the ones who suffer. Liberty Elementary is a wonderful place, there is no denying. The young students may not even register the implications of these “Do not drink” signs. Even so, it is still a daily reality they face. The system is culpable in failing to protect poor, minority students and contributing to unsafe and, at times, traumatizing learning conditions.
The principal typically drives me home after the day is done. A couple of days ago, he received a call and allowed me to listen in as he spoke with this woman on speaker. She was a fellow principal from another Baltimore public school. She asked him for advice regarding a letter she was about to send to the school’s families and neighborhood. Just that day, gunshots had been heard right outside the school. Just a few days prior, also in the school’s neighborhood, three people had been shot. Thankfully, neither of these incidents involved children getting hurt. This principal was mainly concerned with ensuring that students and families were both informed and equipped to move forward in these types of situations. Throughout the course of this conversation, it became increasingly clear that a school’s response to events like this are crucial. Both principals knew that simply sending out a letter saying “We’re trying our best, we’re hoping more police will be around the neighborhood” does not sooth any fear or anxieties. These are clearly empty words. My boss suggested that the other principal reach out to local churches and homeowners associations to potentially organize a group of community members who will coordinate shifts and stand watch in these areas in the future. This allows the school to demonstrate a level of proactivity and, hopefully, provide families with more peace of mind. After the phone call ended, my boss explained that schools often feel “at the mercy of their neighborhood and at the mercy of violence.” As a result, schools assume an inactive role in the community. Instead of remaining resigned students’ trauma, though, schools can participate in the healing of a community. This requires the school to critically engage the community and let families know that the school is invested in working with the community to not only educate, but also promote the emotional and psychological wellbeing of its children.
I had a hard time writing this week’s post, and I apologize that it’s so disjointed. Ultimately, being at Liberty and learning about how schools operate, I better understand the importance of schools being involved in the healing and recovery process for students, even when external forces or institutional failures seem to make this task impossible.Tags: 2016, CIIP, CIIP 2016, Code in the Schools, Hebac Yo! Baltimore, Liberty Elementary and Rec, MERIT, THREAD, Week Three