A Cathedral of Champions

I remember filing into the Alamodome with 40,000 other teenagers who would rather be sightseeing or carousing the Riverwalk.  The dense Texan air weighed heavily over us even in the early morning hour. The short walk from our hotel left a glaze of sweat across most of our faces, and we greeted the arena’s climate-controlled radius as the Israelites had embraced Moses.

The entire thing was my grandparents’ idea.  Four friends and I were attending a national youth conference organized by an expansive network of churches.  Some of us were there for the spiritual resonance, others for the leadership experience.  I had never left New York State and needed some fresh lines on my resume to find a good job that summer.  While the travel experience and excitement of meeting new friends from across the country were certainly appealing, I had egregiously low expectations for the entire affair.  Get in, get out, add to resume.  A mantra repeated by too many, and I was guilty as charged.

So here I found myself dragged out of bed, entirely decaffeinated, geographically discombobulated, jet-lagged, sweating profusely – all before the sun had crossed the sky.  Note To Self: Never again travel south of the Mason-Dixon line.  Like ever.  Except maybe in the winter when its under, say, 115 degrees.  Maybe.

We were all herded inside to our pocket-sized division of floorspace and proceeded to engage in the awkward spectacle of introducing ourselves to other teens, which (in fact) consisted of sitting next to each other with our arms crossed or in our laps as we psychologically wrestled over the use of the arm rest and maintained verbal silence.  We earned bonus points because it was the era before smartphones.  Kids these days have it easy.  No electronic whatchamacallit distractions in my day. Those lucky enough to sit next to friends continued regularly monotonous conversations – rating hotel pillows, critiquing airport security measures, praising the air conditioning, and repeating, “I just can’t believe we’re finally here…in  San Antonio… my god, what a thing.”  I was sitting next to a stranger, gracefully receiving a headlock regarding the armrest.

Needless to say I was less than enthused. As I contemplated bargaining leg room for the arm rest I reminded myself that my community had fundraised for months to pay our expenses in their entirely – I had better get something out of this.  And while the running shuffle of Newsboys had potential to spark an outright total war between my seat-mate and I, I managed to govern my annoyance and made small talk until the opening act – some big shot fancy-pants Christian dude I had never heard of.

Now, I had known for some time that I was going to become a teacher. The summer job I was angling for was a stepping stone and the youth conference itself was supposed to be an insignificant passing moment in my life. For a long time it was.  I sat through 4 or 5 days of speakers, bands, and group exercises before catching our flight home and returning to my beloved Yankeedome diaspora.  My mind quickly dismissed the majority of the message and though I swaggered proudly in my Hard Rock Cafe San Antonio t-shirt for years afterwords, the larger dogma of the conference itself was entirely Greek to me.

But one thing did stand out.  That opening speaker (who it turns out was/is a major celebrity in the Christian community) spoke in depth for some time on service.  After commending us for traveling across the country to meet and encouraging us to continue furthering our education he slammed on the breaks – pulled a full 180 – and began lecturing (in the damn-why-doesn’t-this-dude-just-shut-the-hell-up kind of way) about OUR lives and how WE needed to step up and do something about the world around US.  So at that point I was thinking, “Pleeeease… I’m like 16….stop blaming me for the problems the global generation before me has caused.”

The blowhard continued on to dismiss perfectly honorable people for not doing enough.  And what did stick past that week was the way he stood in front of a crowd of fully-motivated youths and proceeded to critique the plan I was formulating for myself. In a heroically impassioned moment he pleaded, almost yelled, at us that while it was fine and well to be an educator, the most devoted among us went for more.

“If you are going to teach, serve those that are in the most need among us. If you are going to teach, go to the south side of Chicago.  Go to the inner schools of Detroit or Los Angeles. Travel to the poorest, most impoverished schools in cities across the landscape. Camp there for your entire career.”

I just wanted no part whatsoever in that.  And even as I learned more about teaching, learning, and how the American political and education systems cofunction I strayed even further from exploring a career in a high-needs setting.

First of all, I didn’t appreciate having my commitment challenged by some stranger.  I wanted to teach.  Who cares where?  And who is this loud-mouthed guy to somehow weigh or rank the merit or do-gooderness or whatever of one teacher/school/setting over another???  On top of that I knew from growing up in a rural setting that while poverty in less-dense areas may get less attention, it is nonetheless crippling and likewise needs attention of educators and other health and human services providers. And besides, smart wealthy kids need good teachers, too!

So I resolved to reject that path entirely.

Over the next several years I continued the status quo.  I finished high school toward the top of my class, double-majored through college while acing my way through an established teacher-certification program, completed a handful of relevant internships, worked part-time in a ground-level human services role with adults with disabilities, and scored a scholarship to attend an accelerated masters program at a “new Ivy.” By all measures I had the paper experience to land that cushy suburban gig I was looking for – some small school nestled in the wooded hills with a robust menu of after-school clubs, top-tier sports, arts organizations, and parental involvement.

But alas, a good story always has a conflict.

The summer that I finished my graduate degree program I began an internship at a public interest law firm working on some education policy and advocacy projects.  Concurrently, I lunged into an expansive job search, knowing that many districts (for a variety of totally bizarre and archaic reasons) don’t hire teachers until toward the end of summer.

After assembling my application packet online (the schools in our area use sort of a “common application” system) I began to peruse through openings in all of the nicest suburbs.  Searching to match my certification areas to openings was surprisingly easy and at the same time disappointing – there were none.  I did have some contacts in nearby schools and reaching out to them confirmed that no openings were pending in my list of preferred schools.

So, I moved on to plan B and began searching at all of the schools within an hour of my home.  That’s when I started getting nervous.  The search yielded a small handful of opportunities, between 10 and 20 in my area.  But I knew 70 or 80 people who had graduated with me who would also be applying to those jobs, to say nothing of the hundreds of other graduates that I didn’t know.

At the same time, I started doing some financial planning and learned that I would basically be nuts if I didn’t fulfill the requirements of my TEACH Grant and take advantage of some loan forgiveness incentives for teachers.  There were a variety of programs available, each of which would free up thousands of dollars of potential debt.  However the strings attached to these programs also limited which schools I could teach at.

So I applied to the jobs that I was both A) eligible for, and B) would qualify for the programs that lowered my debt.  It was a slim list.

Several weeks went by and I heard no response.  Not a single school was interested. Despite being aware of the hiring context I mentioned above, I was getting extremely nervous.  I started hand-delivering printed applications with a CV and personalized cover letter directly to principals.  I drove around to 10 or 12 specific schools that I had applied to and dropped into the principal’s office to shake hands and chat about the opportunity.  Not a single person bit. Zero phone calls, zero emails, zero interviews.

As the summer was winding down my wife and I began discussing contingency plans.  These were not fun conversations.  We both weighed taking on second jobs. I considered calling former employers to check for openings. Dark days abound, many filled with arguments. I couldn’t understand how, after working so hard, no one was interested in giving me a chance to put my skills into practice.  We’ve all heard stories of college graduates having trouble finding jobs but the trend has a whole new meaning when it becomes applicable to you.

In a fit of anxiety one afternoon I began applying for scores of jobs in districts across the county.  In addition to the positions I had already applied to I started jumping into roles I had almost no interest in filling.  Per diem, substitute, aid, behavioral assistant, and float were all words I embraced that day. And at that point they were all Hail Mary plays.  School was beginning in just a few short weeks.  I had talked to countless friends who had already landed jobs and I watched the openings online disappear.

My summer internship had ended and school began on Wednesday of the following week.  I had no plan whatsoever, which is extremely out of character for me. As the weekend was beginning I could feel myself slipping into a bit of a panic, but just as I was about to resolve to go to bed at 9:00 on Friday night my phone rang.

The voice on the other end was indeed an HR representative of some sort from a school that I had applied to and she was stating that she’d like to offer me an interview.  I said I could be available anytime, and we scheduled a meeting for early the next day, some 11 hours later.

When I arrived, I learned that the position that she had called me for was one that I had applied for in my frantic episode a few weeks earlier.  She acknowledged that I had applied for multiple positions, but the current interview was not for a teaching position, but rather for a spot as a one-to-one aide for a student.  That was a serious blow, considering I had earned a Master’s degree with a 4.0 and the position only required a high school diploma.  But what was I to do?  I would be entirely unemployed otherwise.  I aced the interview and took the job.

In a short period of time I had gone from being a very successful student to working a job that I could have attained without attending college entirely.  I had gone from trying to pick and choose which type of setting I’d work in – from suburban paradises to ones that would fulfill my loan forgiveness documentation – to taking any job I could get.

Notably though, I couldn’t help but notice that the setting I was working in was strikingly similar to the one that the opening speaker in San Antonio had described to me years earlier. And despite all of the grief I had given him for saying it at the time, I would soon come to agree with his statements.

I enjoyed working directly with one student but it wasn’t the job I ultimately aspired to have.  In a wave of opportunity there was a long-term substitute teaching opportunity in my building just a few weeks into the school year, and I was granted permission to transfer from my 1:1 role into the teaching position with the understanding that I may be laid off once the regular teacher was able to return.  It was a risk I was willing to take, as I urgently wanted to teach.

The experience was entirely magical. My long-term assignment was eventually extended to fill the remainder of the school year, I stayed on for the summer, and in September I began as the permanent teacher for the room. I can honestly say that its the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, and I can’t imagine ever teaching in another setting.

The program is housed by a regional educational service agency in our area. Students with severe and multiple disabilities are referred to our program from around a dozen school districts in our area.  We provide a 6:1:1 therapeutic day program in which the curriculum and environment are substantially modified to meet the needs of each student.

The more I think about it, the closer I am to the guest speaker of my youth.  Rochester is one of the top 5 poorest cities in the country, ranking number one in childhood poverty nationwide.

And as any educator will tell you, a job like this is rich with stories.  In my short time here I’ve met kids who have been through more in a decade than most people go through in a lifetime.  Kids who have been forgotten, kids that have been abused.  Kids who come from broken homes, kids who have no homes at all.  Kids who are genuinely trying to better themselves, but lack support from their families to follow through.

I’ve met kids that are hungry.  Kids that steal and hoard food.  You start to learn that the first kid in the door on Monday morning may not have gotten dinner on Sunday night.  And the kid that asks for extra food constantly might be going through a growth spurt, or maybe he’s just hoping to be fed while he can.

I’ve met kids that come from strong, supportive families who – due in part to the nature of their disabilities – have dramatically shifted the functionality of their households.  Kids that take medicine, and sometimes choose not to.  Kids that struggle with substances and addiction. Kids who are wrapped into a life beyond the law. Kids who, like any other teenager, are simply struggling to cope with the intricate workings of adolescence.

I’ve met kids that are ill. Physically, socially, and mentally ill.  Many kids that are ill.  Kids that are dirty.  Kids that can’t hold a conversation with another human.  Kids that have been hurt inside so badly that they just don’t want to talk anymore. Kids that are so hurt that they act out in all sorts of confusing and irrational ways.  Kids that have hurt so bad for so long that sometimes they aren’t sure if they’ll ever feel better again.

I’ve met kids that need champions.

And I have met a building full of champions.

I’ve met both kids who persevere through their obstacles and adults who never give up on them.  I’ve watched kids succeed and other times I’ve seen them persist to try again tomorrow.  I’ve seen adults who, despite facing emotionally taxing scenarios on a daily basis, continually live to fight another day. I’ve seen kids and adults planning their future together, supporting success in every way we can. I’ve seen kids make it out of their toughest times.  This is a place I can camp.

We’re a team. We win together. We lose together. We celebrate and we mourn together. And defeats are softened and victories are sweetened because we do them together. There’s nothing we wouldn’t do for each other. We’ve built a cathedral of champions.

It’s a long way from that cushy job I had first envisioned, but its also more fulfilling than I had ever hoped a career would be. Sometimes you find your path.  Sometimes your path finds you.

  

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Categories: Dif-abilities, Education in the 21st Century, Reform Policies, Writing Samples | Leave a comment

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