This is the first installment of a three-part series reflecting on my experience as a first-year teacher in an inner-city public school. I accepted this position in hopes of educating the minds of future leaders. As it turns out, I am the one receiving an education.
On February 4, I relocated to my hometown of St. Louis, MO. On February 24, I was hired as an elementary teacher for St. Louis Public Schools. The context is important so let me indulge in a bit of background information. I teach first grade in an inner-city school located in a neighborhood with high levels of crime, poverty and gang activity. The student population at my school is 100% African-American. I am one of four full-time teachers/staff in the school that are white. I share this information with you because in St. Louis race, neighborhoods and schools matter. A lot. I will share more about that in my future posts. I digress so let’s move on with today’s segment: Discovering God’s Reality.
When I was in college I read a book called Real Hope in Chicago by Wayne Gordon. This book ignited a fire in my heart for cities that has never ceased to burn. I was immediately drawn into the complexities and hope present in many forgotten and neglected urban communities and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was called to spend my life engaging and investing in cities and the people who live in them.
I also spent my life dreaming of becoming a teacher, well, actually an administrator but all administrators begin as teachers. I am not really sure if teaching was my dream or the dream given to me but, nonetheless, it was the path I pursued in college. Upon completion of my student teaching experience I arrived at the conclusion that teaching – at least in the traditional public school classroom – was not the path for me. I moved out-of-state to attend seminary and for the last ten years have worked primarily in ministries and non-profits. However, the question always remained in the back of my mind as to whether or not I made the right choice when I decided not to enter the field of education. As I prepared to return to St. Louis I knew I needed to pursue this path. I needed to have my question answered once and for all.
I have spent all of my adult life living and working in an urban environment so I am not unaware of the plight of many urban communities in America. However, none of my prior experiences prepared me for the world I was about to enter. I don’t know how to adequately describe my daily experience outside of saying that a good day is chaotic [at best] and a bad day resembles nothing short of a riot. I will share one real life scenario in order to give you a snap shot of my new “normal.”
At the end of a long day that had consisted of 12 of my 24 students getting into fights, a parent walked into my classroom unannounced to pick up his daughter. His daughter immediately rushed up to him to tell him that a boy had hit her. She left out the part about how she had instigated fights all day and had initiated multiple physical confrontations with both boys and girls. Upon hearing the news, her father walked up to the accused six-year old boy and said to him ““Keep your hands off my daughter you little nigger. If you touch her again I will beat your ass.” Then, he turned to my entire class and said to the rest of the boys, “All you other little niggers better keep your hands off my daughter or I will beat the shit out of all of you.”
I stood in a state of shock, unable to speak or move for several moments. This scenario encapsulates everything I experience on a daily basis. Violent children raised in violent families in violent neighborhoods where any indiscretion is logically met with more violence. In this community survival of the fittest permeates every aspect of life.
Like many of you, I have watched movies like Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers. Watching a movie and dialoguing about what needs to change in urban schools is absolutely nothing like working in one day in and day out. I have only been teaching for 9 weeks and I am already weary. What is even more difficult than working in chaos everyday is experiencing the collision between the world I created in my mind and the world I engage everyday.
Despite all attempts to guard myself from believing that I would be the next great white savior I still entertained those thoughts. I thought that if my students felt my care and love for them, if they were provided with engaging lessons, and were given clear boundaries they would respond positively. They haven’t. I consider myself to be a generally competent person and have found that in most situations I am able to achieve some measure of success. While this may be a worldly advantage, it is not necessarily a spiritual one. Walking into a job everyday that, by all outward signs, I am failing at doesn’t do much for my self-esteem but it does accomplish incredible things on an identity level. I have never been so dependent upon God’s grace to sustain me moment by moment and I am forced to live in the full knowledge that anything good or commendable in this situation can only be attributed to the work of the Trinity. The only thing I have to offer at this point is showing up everyday and that certainly doesn’t feel noteworthy.
Every morning I ask God to give me His perspective. I have frequently been reminded of Paul’s comments to the church in Corinth (see 2 Corinthians 10). Paul would call my ideals vain imaginations. Similar to the Tower of Babel, I built large towers in my mind of the great work I could do (while giving God all of the glory, of course). In the past, I may have been able to legitimately give most of the credit to God but was there was always a remnant I could cling to for some measure of worth or validation. This teaching job has stripped me of all of that.
The destruction of my vanity is good and necessary. The circumstances I engage everyday are crushing and disheartening. In the midst of personal idealism and earthly reality what I am truly seeking to see, hear and discover is God’s reality. In Ephesians, Paul tells us that at some point all things will be fulfilled and there will be a uniting of heaven and earth under Christ. Some days this feels as real to me my own skin. Other days it feels as elusive as trying to stop a tornado. In the end it is His reality that matters and the reality that I need to continue to seek to live in regardless of the chaos surrounding me.
As I sought for a picture of God’s reality I was continually drawn to Matthew 5:
Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
God operates in a kingdom that turns this world upside down. I am learning this through my classroom. Perhaps you are learning this through your own circumstances. While excruciatingly difficult at times, this is the work that a good and loving Father does in our lives. When I spend most of my days dodging chairs, confiscating weapons, and trying to lead disobedient children I struggle to see how God’s reality intersects my daily experience. But one thing I do know is that it is impossible to enter into God’s reality if I continue to live in an illusion.
Each day I walk into my classroom the illusions I have surrounded myself with are being torn down. I’m pretty sure no one is going to want to write a screenplay about my classroom management and I certainly don’t have anything to boast about except for God’s sustaining grace. In the end, I might fail as a teacher but I will not fail at being God’s beloved child. Perhaps my personal failure is the truest picture of God’s reality at work in my life. There is still much for me to learn and receive but through all of this I rest in the hope that as each tower I have built tumbles space is created for the buildings of God’s Kingdom to be erected.