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Harbor School Assignment: A Time That Changed You

Posted: 2004-03-02

This feature is part of an ongoing series in the Wall Street Journal.


March 1, 2002

A friend of mine recently began working in a day care with a homelessness advocacy organization in Toronto. She claims to have come down with no less than four nefarious colds in three months. She tells me she's taking more Vitamin C than a human being should legitimately ingest, and drinking Echinacea drops like water, but she can't fight the pervasive germs that are invading her body on a daily basis. I told her to quit fighting. Sickness follows educators and childcare workers like a shadow.

Why? First there's the biological explanation. When you get a roomful of kids together, each teeming with their own set of individual dirt and germs, the new teacher, whose immune system has not yet become accustomed to doing battle against these microscopic invaders, is practically guaranteed to come down with something. But I'm convinced there's also an emotional connection. Teaching and working with children is one of the most stressful and emotionally taxing jobs there is. How can you expect to have the strength to fight off a cold when you barely have the emotional strength to face your day?


After reading memoirs and autobiographies in literature circles, I asked my students to write a reflective, personal narrative about a time in their lives that changed them. In my own life, nothing has changed me more than working with the children of New York City. I came to the South Bronx in 2000 an idealistic, na?ve, and innocent 22 year old. Four years later, I've seen and learned so much about myself, and the world, that I am such a markedly different person that my friends and family barely recognize me.

I expected to change, but the metamorphosis I underwent was surprising in its evolution. For example, I expected to be confronted with challenges from difficult students and parents, and I was.

But my first few years of teaching were marked so much more by administrative and structural failures and disappointments that I had never anticipated. It was so much more difficult to deal with lack of support and unfair accusations from administrators than it was to be cursed at and threatened by emotionally disturbed children. I had to learn to subvert and manipulate the system to work for me instead of against me. I had to give up the idea that anyone would help or support me. I had to learn independence.

Another surprising change was completely cultural. I thought, before coming to New York, that as an English teacher, I would bring a love for language and new vocabulary to the students of the city. Instead, the students have taught me so much more than I've taught them. I've picked up an entirely new dialect, a way of speaking that is decidedly Barrio. You have no idea the strange looks I get when I go home to Michigan and ask my moms to pass me the mashed potatoes, yo, or tell my brother that he be beasting for some dessert. I don't do it on purpose. But the language and culture and passion of the neighborhoods where I've taught have permeated my skin like the cold bugs that even now are swimming in my blood stream.

Many of the changes I've undergone have been positive, but not all. In many ways, I've changed in order to survive my job with a minimum of personal and emotional damage. When I first began teaching, I had so much love and passion for my students. I would have stepped in front of a bus for any of them. Well, except maybe the one who addressed me only as Goldilocks. I might not have done much to save him. But the horrible situations these kids had to deal with were heartbreaking: There was the student being raised by a grandmother after her mom went to prison for selling crack; the one who was sexually molested by a family member; the one who was silent in class and beaten at home each night. The list of tragedy and atrocity goes on and on. My first year of teaching I would come home and cry in frustration, because even though I only had 20 souls under my care, I couldn't do anything to help any of their situations.

I got sick. Very sick. Pneumonia. Strep throat. Bronchitis. Illness after illness. The stress, long hours, and futility of my efforts kept me on a steady diet of Tylenol and antibiotics that first year. I had to learn to stop taking everything to heart. I had to learn to care less, to remember that my life was not just those kids, but also the life of a young woman who used to have friends, ambitions, and passions outside of her job. I had to take a step back, emotionally, so I did.

It was only a tiny step. The next few years I still fought hard for my kids. I still made an effort to find out about their lives and do what I could to make their educational experience, and their outside lives, more tolerable and comfortable. I still create strong and lasting bonds with the kids I teach, loving and caring for each of them in different ways. But what I stopped doing was feeling responsible for the horrible things that my kids go through. I sought balance between my commitment to my kids and my mental health. I'm still seeking that balance, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so successfully.

When I read the stories of the kids at the New York Harbor School, my guarded heart remembers that these kids have seen and experienced, at a young age, so much more than I have. They come to school everyday with backpacks and a pencil or two, as well as enough tragedy to write a thousand Greek dramas. They require so much, have giant holes in their lives that can't be filled by a bright-eyed staff of young people with outsized hopes and dreams. But everyday my colleagues and I attempt to fill in the holes with learning and compassion. I keep a big bottle of hand sanitizer on my desk to ward off any germs, and my heart open, just a little, to their needs.

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