I am sitting in front of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The political leader of the United Kingdom has just finished speaking to the Learning and Technology World Forum at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre and soon it would be my turn to address the over 1000 education ministers and high-ranking education officials in attendance. I am tired,very tired. I had spent the last three days at JFK Airport, trying desperately to get a flight from NYC to London. Bad weather had closed Heathrow Airport and crippled London’s transportation network, and hoards of people are fighting each other for passage to the UK. The effects of sleep deprivation and jet lag are making the words on my prepared speech seem blurry. I’m not sure if I may be hallucinating but the prime minister’s head seems to be inflating.
The Learning and Technology World Forum is an internationally recognized leadership forum for exchanging best practices in education and sharing ideas and experiences on strategies and policies that can be used to support and improve the quality of education and learning skills globally. It is one of the largest gatherings of education ministers in the world and is organized by Becta (the British government’s lead agency on supportive technology in education and skills), and this year over 80% of the world’s population was represented by ministers of education from more than 100 countries. Representatives from the United States are notably absent among the world’s education ministers. Thank goodness a few dedicated educators from the Council of Chief State School Officers are here to appear on behalf of my country.
A confusion of voices floods my ears. I see exotic faces and smell roasted coffee. The heat inside the conference centre makes me feel sleepy and I think about lying on the white linen covered table in front of the prime minister.
The education minister from Morocco taps my left shoulder.
“You are the teacher from the United States?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered.
“We are all interested to hear from the United States,” she adds politely. “Many people will speak at this conference, but very few are teachers.”
The minister is wearing a Western business suit. She is a medium sized woman but the solid azure suit makes her appear longer and leaner. I wondered why she was not wearing a colorful and beautifully embroidered takshita, the type of dress I remember from Rick’s Café in Casablanca. My ignorance of other cultures is a product of spending too many Saturday mornings watching television as a child.
“We do not have a teacher from Morocco who speaks on behalf of teachers and children,” the minister said. “It is a good thing to listen to teachers-they speak from the heart and know what is best for children.”
“Who speaks on behalf of children and teachers in Morocco?” I asked.
“Government officials,” she said with a frown.
An education minister from East Africa joins the conversation. “We, too, do not have a teacher who speaks for teachers and children,” he said. “This would be a good thing for my country.”
I imagine a world in which teachers are the primary spokespeople for children and the teaching profession. A global league of teachers dedicated to promoting the teaching profession and advocating for the right of every child to receive a quality education. I am drifting into sleep as I watch the British prime minister fold a white cloth napkin and place it on the linen covered table. Why does he tempt me with such a pillow?
“You will speak about technology in the classroom?” a minister from the Middle East asked.
The Learning and Technology World Forum is, after all, a conference about how to best use technology in the classroom. It is also the only forum that brings together the collective wisdom and experience of the world’s national education and technology leaders. My trip to London was sponsored by Smart Technologies, the creators of the SMART Board interactive white board, but the company’s founders, Nancy Knowlton and Dave Martin, do not want me to use my lecture time to promote their product. These two humble and philanthropic people would prefer that I talk about the value of teachers. I was planning to speak about how the SMART Board has radically transformed my classroom and engaged my emotionally disabled students, but Nancy and Dave would much prefer that I put a face on the children we teach.
I close my eyes for a moment and slip into a memory.
Spanish Harlem is full of life on summer nights, but this young lady wanted to die. The crowd of onlookers pointed fingers at a teenage girl standing atop a fire escape rail, dangling her body over the rusty rail and throwing pieces of jewelry to the street below.
An elderly man told me that she was loco and would probably jump. He shrugged his shoulders and walked away. I raced up the wooden stairs of the old tenement building, hoping to quickly locate the window leading to the distraught teenager. I found the open window on the fifth floor.
I poked my head outside the window and pleaded with the girl not to jump. A mouthful of clichés was all I could offer. “You’re too young to die. You’re too beautiful. You have family and friends that love you.”
My words only contributed to her death wish -- she released one hand from the railing. I did not want to be the last face she saw before jumping off the fire escape. And I did not want to see the look on her face as she went free-falling to a dirty New York City street.
“I’m sick of all this shit and just want to fuckin’ die!” she screamed at me. She tore away a pair of earrings and threw them at the growing crowd of spectators.
I was tired and unsure. My morning was spent in a college classroom, far removed from this urban drama. I was studying to become a teacher and learning about Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Now I was dressed in the uniform of an NYC police sergeant trying to persuade a teenager that her life was worth living. My powers of persuasion were having the same effect as Superman wearing a suit of kryptonite.
I squeezed through the small window and stood within a few feet of the jumper. “Don’t get any closer,” she said. Suddenly my clichés did not sound like trite words.
“I’m not going to get any closer to you....”
Call it luck or fate or divine intervention but I managed to grab hold of one of her arms as she leapt from her wrought iron perch. Her weight quickly pulled the top half of my body over the railing and I could feel my feet lifting off the grated floor. Lord, give me strength echoed through my mind. My partner reached out from inside the room and he grabbed the back of my belt. I could feel her arm slipping away from my hold and told him to run downstairs; he needed to be on the fire escape directly below us. Soon he was staring up at us, trying to grab hold of a pair of swinging legs.
I was attending college because I wanted to become a teacher and work with troubled teenagers, the types of young people roaming our streets like so many broken toys. I wanted to save souls and was now losing a life.
Lord, please give me strength; I need only a few more minutes of strength.
My partner managed to take hold of the girl’s legs, relieving some of the stress on my back and arms. I quickly tucked my hands under her armpits and pulled her up. We each sat huffing and puffing on the old fire escape.
A few stories have fairy tale endings, but most just end. The suicidal teenager was taken to a local hospital and I returned to patrol the streets of Spanish Harlem. A few weeks later I saw her hanging out on a street corner, laughing and listening to music with friends .I did not stop to say hello because she was having too much fun laughing and listening to music. But I realized that we both had given each other a precious gift. I had given her the gift of life and a second chance to smile and laugh and sing. And she had given me the motivation to pursue my dream to become a teacher.
I sometimes see her face in the faces of the students that I teach today. I got my wish to teach and mentor troubled teenagers. My students suffer from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and psychosis. Some are lonely, some are sad, some are angry, and some are frightened. But all risk falling down unless we are there to catch them.
I awaken to find myself at the podium staring at the large audience. Bright lights hurt my eyes and I turn to face the prime minister. His head is no longer inflating and the babbling voices no longer flood my ears. All is serene. I talk about the teenage girl who wanted to end her life. And I tell the crowd that I became a teacher to be involved in the lives of troubled teenagers before they foolishly decide to leap to their deaths. I remind the education ministers that teachers do much more than teach content knowledge-we save lives in our own unique ways.
The opinions expressed in Road Diaries: 2009 Teacher of the Year are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.