I teach at an elementary school right outside the city limits of Atlanta. The demographic is probably about 90% Black with the rest being a mix of Hispanic, and Asian. It is surrounded by very modest homes which are probably mostly rental properties. Well over 90% of the children qualify for free lunch. In many ways it is your typical urban school-children parented by the working poor, largely single-female headed households (although not completely…last year every child in my class had an active father in the home or close by).
Anywho, now you can picture the school. Well every teacher knows that every year there are certain children that really take an interest in you and you in them. They don’t even have to be in your classroom. Children speak to me all the time, and I have no idea who they are-this is the nature a small community school.
There is a 5th grade girl named Jessica whose little brother I teach. She always stops by my room to say hello and asks me how her brother is doing (their parents work late hours, so she is responsible for taking care of him after school). Yesterday I was in the lunch room heating my lunch and Jessica came up to talk to me. She said that she was hoping she would get a mentor (our school pairs teachers with at risk children as mentors). I immediately knew that this was her 11 year old way of suggesting that I be it (I have already been officially assigned a mentor, but of course I will mentor her anyhow). She then spotted a boy her age and began spitting out all manor of vile things about him- “I can’t stand him with his big ole head”, “He gets on my nerves”, etc. I asked her why she had such mean feelings toward him. Of course, there was no real reason except that he was always “messing” with her. She had a few choice words for a girl in her class as well. Jessica went on to explain that she doesn’t get along well with very many people. Again I asked why. The conversation went something like this:
Jessica: A lot of the girls in my class say that I’m “ghetto.”
Me: What does that mean? (not that I didn’t know of course). I just wanted to hear her thoughts about the label.
Jessica: It means that you come from a bad neighborhood and that you act a certain way.
Me: Why do you act this “certain way.”
Jessica: I don’t know. It’s just who I am. I can’t help it. “I’m just ghetto.”
I looked at her and understood her right away. I felt really sad for this baby because I know what it’s like to be defined by your circumstances.
I looked at her for a minute and asked her what she would say if I told her I came from a bad neighborhood too. She looked shocked. My family didn’t grow up in the projects, she hasn’t either…and actually she’s a little better off than I was…she has a father in her life, I didn’t. But still she’s poor and is in many ways raising herself. I told her I grew up a lot like her. There before her stood a sharply dressed, grown, well spoken woman with a career and a wedding ring on her finger. I asked her if she felt I was ghetto. Of course her reply was absolutely not! In her eyes I am the epitome of classy (you can make your own judgements about that 🙂
I could tell by the look in her eyes that for the first time I was giving her an option. She didn’t think she had any. She thought she had to be that “certain” way just because of where she was from. I told her that it doesn’t matter where you’re from. What matters is who YOU decide you want to be, and where YOU decide you want to go. One’s past is just for perspective. It doesn’t define you, and it doesn’t have to limit you.
Our conversation lasted all of ten minutes. My food finished heating, and her teacher came to get the class from the lunchroom. The encounter stuck with me though, and I hope it sticks with her. It reminded me that the reason most of these kids grow up to make such poor decisions is because they think they’re supposed to. They think it’s who they are, and they truly don’t know how to be any other way. It’s important for all of us to share our stories and serve as role models whenever we get the opportunity. It’s essential to show a child (even if it’s just one child) the “way that they should go.” This is why I teach…for opportunities to allow God to use me like this. It’s good to be reminded of that sometimes!