Friday, May 29, 2009

Reaching My Limits

I just found out that one of the students I taught in sixth grade is pregnant. She's in eighth grade now and the whole thing leaves me terribly depressed.

I taught for two years in a Bronx middle school through the Teach for America program. I had ups and downs during the two years and consider myself to have been thoroughly mediocre during my time in the classroom. I did some things really well. Other things I did much less well. In the end, it became clear to me that while I have many talents, teaching social studies in a low-income middle school is not one of them. So I left.

Even knowing that it was the right decision, I still feel a fair amount of guilt over it - both the leaving and my time in the classroom. I entered TFA (as do many) with grand visions of changing the world. Maybe not the whole world, but at least my little corner of it. At least for the kids I was teaching. Those dreams ran headfirst into an immovable wall that was the reality of teaching. I fought and worked and struggled and hard as I possibly could for two years. It was a draining, emotionally racking experience. And on good days it was all worth it and more. But on the bad days (which far outnumbered the good ones) I was literally embarassed by my lack of ability to accomplish anything. I can't say with certainty that my kids learned or retained any significant amount of social studies after their year with me.

Still, there was the hope that maybe my relentless (and sometimes unfounded) optimism might make a difference. Maybe the presence of another adult who cared about them and wanted to help them succeed would make a difference. They might not have learned social studies, but couldn't I have made a difference anyway? That was kind of the saving grace to which I clung as the possible redeemer for my (and their) lost years in the classrooms.

And then I find out that Priscilla is pregnant.

Priscilla was never a great student. She was several years below grade level in reading and had lots of difficulty processing and summarizing information. Still, she was in my homeroom and we had a pretty good relationship. Apparently that wasn't nearly enough.

As a pregnant teenager (a young teenager at that), the odds are now stacked against Priscilla's success more than ever. The odds for her kids (she's apparently having twins) aren't much better. The bottom line is that I was powerless to do anything.

Maybe other teachers would have done better. I have to hope that's true. And maybe other kids really were positively influenced by me. But I couldn't help Priscilla. There are no do-overs and there are no second chances. And it's really depressing.

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