My dad taught in Metro Public Schools for 26 years. From Kindergartners to the pre-pubescents of 6th grade, my dad impacted the lives of countless students in the worst neighborhoods of Nashville. He facilitated the lockdowns in East Nashville before it was a haven for baristas, when tattoo parlour seats were devoid of nostalgic hipsters, rather occupied by gangbangers getting yet another teardrop inked under their left eye. On top of his daily grind with phonics and numerals, he was fighting behind enemy lines to save young kids faced with the slim chance of opportunity or the more well-traveled road of a life collecting teardrops. The world will never know how many children he saved nor can it measure his impact. Rest assured, as is the case for all of us, there are many young adults now leading productive lives that think back to their days with Mr. Taft and remember a teacher who changed them forever.
Teaching is a hard line of work, and much of it is spent convincing yourself that you’ve made a difference. It is often analogized to the work of planting seeds, whereas others will have the privilege to see if your work grows and bears fruit. I was present many of the nights that my dad came home tired, frustrated, and wondering if any of it was worth it. Those memories give me strength on the days that I do the same. To clarify, I have not spent a day at Monte Cristo working a fraction of the amount that my father ever did, and my stories of frustration will never come close to the epic tales catalogued in his career. What I mean is that I get discouraged watching the teachers at Monte Cristo work with such sacrifice and dedication, only to be met with a very familiar bad attitude or general apathy of the students. I understand that it may just be the middle school curse- to be cool means to be cynical and defy authority. I guess I had romanticized our new home as to believe that ungrateful children were a phenomenon unique to the US, and any young person here in Guatemala, when faced with opportunity and benevolence, would meet it with enthusiasm and hard work. I now understand that 14-year-olds just don’t work like that.
Our fight is the same as that of the classrooms I grew up in- getting students to complete their homework, put their phones away during class, and somehow convince teenage boys to stop hitting each other (that one might be hopeless). Despite the fact that the students are receiving first-class education, inaccessible by any generation before them and most of the country still today, much of our work is just convincing them that education and learning have value, and to take advantage of this incredible opportunity many kids would sell their lives to have. These are the things that frustrate me from day to day, the things that motivate Hilary and I to watch TED Talks on revolutionizing the education system and dream of the Utopia where all kids pass their exams and say thank you. However, we know that’s not reality, but our current situation isn’t so simple either.
At a recent dinner-table conversation, pretty much my favorite time of the week, Alejandra told us a story that helped us to see the fruit of Monte Cristo, not just the planting of seeds. One morning, she was driving a student to school. School starts at 7:30am, so it was probably a little before 7 when this conversation took place. The student asked if he could return home at 8, as in 8am, as in 30 minutes after school started. Of course, Alejandra said no and explained that to go home early he would need a note from his parents excusing him for part of the day. The boy accepted his rejection, and in Ale’s backseat, began to cry. Confused and a little guilty, Ale stopped the car and asked the student why he was crying. The boy explained that his father had died the night before and he would have stayed home, but he didn’t want to ruin his perfect attendance- his parents had been so proud of his record. Ale promptly turned the car around and took the boy home to be with his family, attendance in tact. When she arrived at his house, a place she had not actually seen before, her heart seized up and she began to cry as well. This Monte Cristo student, his mother and his 9 siblings, lived under a roof of plastic; no walls, no rooms, just a makeshift tarp complete with less than that of a basic family camping tent. The father was laid on a sheet on the ground, without a casket, in the clothes he had died in. The family and a few community members were gathered around. In complete shock, Ale called the school and arranged for them to bring chairs and food. She asked the school carpenters to make a casket for the father and to assist the family with the burial. The Monte Cristo community came together to conduct a funeral and lay the student’s father to rest with respect and dignity. To continue their support of the family, once the funeral had passed, the school gathered some wood and helped to construct a new house, more suitable for this family of eleven. I cannot imagine the eternal impact this gesture must have made.
To be fair, there are many students in Monte Cristo that are attentive, respectful, and some who are genuinely brilliant. I am thankful for that group. As for the whole of students, I admit that I have no idea what they go home to every night and what they leave each morning. Monte Cristo is a safe place for them, a place they wish they could never leave. At Monte Cristo, they don’t have to work the fields, they don’t have to sleep among the animals, they don’t have to prepare dinner over the suffocating smoke of an open fire, and they know they are safe. Even after their apathy, even after their muttered insults of disrespect, some day each student will look back at their teachers, their classrooms, and their experiences here, and they will remember a place that changed them forever. I know there is hope for them because I believe there is hope for me, with all my shortcomings and all my ungratefulness. Some day I will join them to look back at Monte Cristo as a place that transformed my life. Knowing this, and having seen the glimpse of a beautiful and abundant harvest, I keep planting.