Education Opinion

Will work for... Jeremy

By Jessica Shyu — April 06, 2008 3 min read
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Anyone who’s taught at an under-resourced school has heard at some point, from someone (quite possibly a colleague) that these kids can’t learn. Sigh. Why should we spend our time even trying. Sigh.

This is why: The New York Times annual scholarship list came out and it sketched some of backgrounds of its recipients from this and previous years. The purpose of the scholarship is “to recognize New York City high school seniors who have created opportunities for themselves where few existed, and to reward them with money and other less tangible forms of aid.”

Not only do these college-bound students receive $30,000 to go toward their schooling, a laptop, summer jobs at The Times, they also get the most invaluable piece of support of all: “counseling to help them navigate the often rocky transition from gritty urban high school to college.”

I almost cried reading about these gritty, determined, focused and just simply amazing young people. According to The Times’ article, these seniors have overcome more than what most face in a lifetime. “Ten years ago, Denise de las Nueces was a nerdy high school student from a poor Manhattan neighborhood, poring over astronomy books her father had picked out of the trash at the building where he worked as a doorman. Eight years ago, Letica Fox-Thomas was finishing up a childhood spent partly in the city’s homeless shelters while cramming for her Regents exams. Five years ago, Mansour Ourasanah was a new teenage immigrant from Togo, where he had learned firsthand about poverty and physical abuse but not how to speak or read English.”

Yet I teared up because every teacher I know in these under-resourced schools has at least one superstar like those honored above. And each one of these teachers has at least a handful who need a bit of prodding and support, but has the potential to be a rock star as well. And for the rest of those kiddos, they deserve all the help and support from everywhere possible to be the best they can be. This is why we wake up each morning for work, right?

But as inspiring as it all is, not everyone who tries really hard gets to be a Times scholar. It’s 12:01 AM right now and I’m crying as I write this at my kitchen table because my superstar, Jeremy, who is the most absolutely brilliant student I ever came across on the Navajo Nation, should be one of those students profiled one day by The Times. By the time we parted last spring, his reading comprehension was beyond the 12th grade level. The poverty and physical disability he faced in his short 14 years is enough to stump most folks, yet he was borrowing my dad’s old books on C++ to figure out how to do programming on his own. I gave him what I could as his teacher for two years, but for the most part, the rest is up to him.

I haven’t heard from him in a long time, and I’m rather worried. I’m worried he’s going to get back in touch with me like some of my other former students who moved on to high school and tell me that they don’t understand what they’re learning, that their teachers weren’t helping them, that they’re trying to drop out. I can’t help but feel disheartened when I hear this, because these were the kids who used to love coming to math class, who bragged about doing pre-algebra and who would sneak ahead in our reading. What could I have done? What were their current teachers doing? It’s way too easy to get fired up, kick a table, and yell around the house about what the incompetent high school teachers are NOT doing for all my “Jeremies” out there. It’s more productive to remember that is why I’m doing my job of improving teacher performance, even if it’s far away from where Jeremy is right now. I’m also going to email Jeremy this article as well as a list of scholarship opportunities for him to remind him that he’s still my superstar.

The opinions expressed in New Terrain 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.