Can teachers overcome poverty? A volunteer's view from the trenches

Tim Gihring
Tim Gihring is senior editor of Minnesota Monthly.
Submitted photo

Because it was evening, and the students were gone for the day, the school was disarmed. The doors were unlocked and flung open. The security staff was dismissed. The walkie-talkies carried by teachers in case they need backup were put away.

It was Open House a few years ago at a high school in one of Minneapolis's most impoverished neighborhoods. As darkness fell, the teachers lined the hallway leading in, like a parade route. They were tired but excited, practically rubbing their hands together in anticipation of the parents who would, any minute now, stream through the doors.

I began volunteering in Minneapolis public schools when I was freelancing and had the time and interest, as well as some nagging career questions. Who knows, I thought; if teaching proved as fulfilling as it seemed, perhaps a change was in order. I went to training sessions, signed my name to a call sheet, and the first school that rang was this one, on the near North Side of Minneapolis.

I was asked to help students start a school newsletter. The reading teacher who would be my supervisor had assembled a handful of students to be the staff. And on our first day together, after they enjoyed a few laughs at my unbelievable whiteness, I gave them titles: editor, art director, reporters. I assigned their first stories and eagerly awaited their work.

The school didn't resemble the stereotype of a failing urban institution. It was relatively new, clean and stocked with decent Apple computers. It could have passed for a cut-rate consulting firm. The teachers were more diverse but otherwise little different from those I grew up with in a middle-class suburb. Draped in lanyards, their sleeves rolled up, they worked closely with students in groups of five to eight.

The principal was new, a sharp, skinny guy with the enthusiasm and honest smile of a young Arsenio Hall. He knew his flock well and his optimism rarely flagged, even when the school would go into lockdown mode because someone had brought a weapon to school.

The first newsletter deadline came and went. My editor had been attacked with a hairbrush that a classmate had modified with a long nail. One of my reporters had spent the weekend visiting her father in jail. My art director kept falling out of his chair, making machine-gun noises. After two weeks, all I had was a meager sports report and a page of memorials -- farewells to fallen students would become a regular feature.

By then, I'd noticed the walkie-talkies clipped to the teacher's belts. I'd learned that the classroom doors were always locked from the inside. And I'd wondered why the classroom helpers, who the students seemed to respect, all seemed unusually large and streetwise.

As the weeks passed, my news staff dwindled -- students would move, they would be suspended or transferred, their guardians would kick them out, they would become homeless and difficult to track down. In the end, I wrote most of the stories myself, interviewing my students when they dropped in and typing up their thoughts. I laid out the newsletter, too, my art director having declared himself uninterested. I was doing this when he assaulted a teacher in the hall and was wrestled to the ground just outside the computer-room door by one of the large classroom helpers. "Don't open it!" the guy warned me.

With the newsletter project slowing down, I began helping as a reading and writing tutor, working one-on-one with students who showed exceptional promise. My first was a soft-spoken 15-year-old I'll call Eduardo, a romantic who would write love poems to Mariah Carey and carry them around in his shoe where no one would find them. Programs like Teach for America and movies like Waiting for Superman, having cherry-picked their success stories, would have us believe that impoverished students in failing schools are all like this: bright, motivated, lacking nothing but better teachers. That poverty isn't causing the achievement gap but is merely an outcome.

On my first day with Eduardo, I grabbed a book that I figured a high-schooler would be reading. My teacher quickly corrected me: "Try this," she said, and handed me a book shaped like a fire hydrant. It had maybe 15 words on a page, and Eduardo struggled to get through it. Sometimes he would put his head down and nearly fall asleep. Though the school supplied students with breakfast and lunch, I quickly realized that Eduardo wasn't getting food anywhere else. I snuck him granola bars from then on. He also wasn't getting much sleep at home -- he didn't have a home. He'd been through at least two sets of foster parents and now the latest had kicked him out. He was living, when I met him, at a shelter.

He could be moody: sweet one week and impossibly distant the next. Concentration seemed difficult, as it was for most of the students I worked with; many had fetal-alcohol syndrome or some other setback. But I was hopeful about Eduardo. He deftly avoided gang trouble. He ignored the rampages of his peers, who we could hear battling with my supervisor in the next room over. "I don't give a f*** about no grade," they would shout at her. They would throw chairs and storm out of the room.

Eduardo made his literary debut at a school assembly after spending months working on a poem with me. He thanked me from the stage. It was one of the last times I saw him. By then he was staying at a shelter far from school. He was depressed, and he was embarrassed, he said, to show his face at school. My supervisor often worked long into the night, trying to reach kids like him, talking to social workers. But after a while, Eduardo disappeared.

I had other students like him -- boys who wrote poems to fathers who had died of bullets or drugs. They would often want me to write out their work for them, as they recited, since they were terrible at spelling. If I refused, they'd refuse to talk, as though I was being petty. They had nothing; couldn't I, who had everything, do them this one thing?

When I asked them about their future, many would say they wanted to be millionaires, as if that was a career. One asked how much money I made as a journalist and laughed when I told him; he never took me seriously again.

In a sense, the reformers are right: Teachers are often the most important people in these kids' lives -- no one else is helping. But I felt these kids slipping from my grasp one by one, even when they were sitting right in front of me. Stronger forces were pulling us apart: homelessness, depression, in utero setbacks, lack of parents or computers or transportation. Everything that had nothing to do with school had everything to do with school. When we did make progress, when our eyes would meet and we would acknowledge a moment of achievement, it always felt ephemeral, in passing, as though we were glimpsing each other across a great and growing chasm.

At that fall Open House, I waited with the teachers by the door. After 30 minutes, the first parent arrived and looked astounded by the reception line. The other guardians did, too, when they arrived -- all three of them. They were rare birds, and we followed them around the school like ducklings.

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Tim Gihring is a senior editor of Minnesota Monthly. He is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.

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