Eight months after resolving to move back home to Chicago after college, I’m standing with one of my community members in front of a fourteen-foot plastic alligator at an official Florida Welcome Center rest stop. Over the past day and a half, we’ve driven through three states I’ve never seen before, cycled through the soundtracks of half a dozen musicals, and survived our first dinner at Waffle House. And yet, the most intimidating encounter is still a week away: our first First Day of School, when I’ll meet the 140 sophomores and juniors listed on my rosters.
I try to picture my students, but I can’t.
In ACE, we are asked to accept this idea of displacement: that by sending ourselves to places we do not choose to serve students we can only imagine, we then grow more open to others’ experiences and needs. We leave one home so that we can learn to build another, in which we hope to love our students and community members more fully as they become all that we have.
Staring down the alligator, I wonder what business I have schlepping down to Tampa with the tourists to take first-year teaching for a whirl, with nothing to give my students but my try-my-best-and-hope-it’s-good-enough outlook.
One September afternoon, the juniors in my American literature class try to make sense of my move to Tampa. “If you went to Yale, then why are you here?” one girl asks me in the middle of class. I cringe. “Because I want to be,” I tell her, and I move on, because I know my response isn’t nearly enough. She isn’t wondering how she got stuck with me, a first-year teacher who struggles to quiet the class, keep up with her lesson planning, and make grammar fun. Instead, my student has somehow gotten it into her head that teaching a student like her isn’t something an adult should want to do, especially not one who has spent the last four years bubbled up in the ivory tower. She can’t see what a privilege it is to watch her gain confidence in her writing, challenge her peers in discussions, and push herself each day to do the best that she can. She can’t see that I’m learning so much more from her and her classmates than they will probably ever learn from me.
I am here because I chose to teach, and because I chose to let ACE send me somewhere so that I could learn to call it home. But I wish that I could tell my students: “I am here because I chose you.” I wish I could say: “I came here because I wanted to see you bolt for the whiteboard to show the class why Santiago was a Christ-figure. I’m here because I wanted to read the first chapter of your novel after school, and then the second, and because I was ready to lend an ear when home was tense. I’m here because I knew how hard you would make me laugh in the middle of prayer intentions with that story about your dog, because I wanted you to teach me how to do the Mannequin Challenge when we took class to the river, and because I wanted to watch your big play at the football game (even if my housemate would have to explain which direction you needed to go to score). And even though you threw the ham and cheese sandwich and yelled “cockroach!” to watch your classmates jump, even though we stayed at school late to re-write your paragraph sentence by sentence, and even though you caught me tearing up that day in the middle of class, you are so full of joy, and I’d still choose you.”
It is humbling to know that I will never be able to say these things to my students — to know that as my housemate and I pulled into Tampa on that humid Wednesday afternoon, I could not possibly have understood how special my students would be. In just two years, I never really will. I sacrificed one home for the idea of my students, expecting loss when instead I could not know how much love I would find. I am here because I am blessed and because I am lucky, and if I can let my students see this each day, I hope it will be enough.