Editor’s note: This letter to the editor contains racially sensitive language.
The interlaced metal covering the windows rattled as Desiree banged on it to grab my attention. She peered through the frosted glass of my flimsy trailer door and beckoned me. Usually students were fighting to exit the prison-like atmosphere of my trailer classroom, but she was fighting to get in. “Mr. Hill, I need your help. I’m not passing my classes.”
This scene started a special relationship that had a definitive impact on my first semester as a Teach For America teacher. Despite teaching 40 hours a week, prepping 30 hours a week and completing my master’s program, I decided to help Desiree. I saw myself in her. Just like me, neither of Desiree’s parents graduated high school, and her father was incarcerated. I knew she needed extra support to cope with both the academic and emotional challenges she faced.
I spent the weekend planning a strategy to help Desiree succeed. I enlisted the help of her mother, the principal and the rest of the 10th grade team. Together with Desiree, we worked to get her back on track, and our combined efforts paid off. Desiree passed all of her classes that semester.
I wish Desiree was an anomaly, but there are kids just like her in communities all across the country. Low-income kids of color full of wit, creativity and potential who, unless they get intense support and resources, will not overcome the barriers they face.
This has been true for decades in America. And it’s not a reflection on our kids. It’s a reflection on an education system that was not designed to empower people who look like Desiree and me. I learned that firsthand when I came to Ohio State. Most of my black friends here were the first people from their families to attend college, and many were still supporting their families while in school. Many of our white peers came from the suburbs or from more rural areas, where their contact with black people was minimal and fueled their dehumanizing misconceptions.
In my time on campus, I saw students called niggers. I saw black students have mud thrown at them. I saw black friends receive letters at their dorms telling them they didn’t belong there. The hostility and isolation really took a toll. Luckily, the Frank W. Hale, Jr. Black Cultural Center gave students of color a home and a supportive community.
But students of color shouldn’t need a special building to feel supported and welcomed at school. Education is the great equalizer in this country, opening up doors of opportunity to bright futures. But far too many people don’t have access to a quality education that can get them there.
Changing this reality will take time and hard work from a slew of people of all backgrounds and working in all sectors. Complex systems of oppression take decades to break down, and no single person can do it alone. But as a teacher, you can make an immediate impact on the kids you work with. You can turn your classroom into an incubator of support, hope and optimism. You can’t change the systems of the entire country, but you can change what your kids believe is possible for their futures.
Two and a half years after Desiree finished my class, I bumped into her in school. Now a senior, she told me she was studying for the ACT and prepping for college applications. The strategies I and her other teachers put in place for her two and a half years ago worked. She is on her way to greatness, and I can’t wait to cheer her on.
Jerrod Hill is a 2009 OSU alumnus. He taught high school science at Therrell High School and Mays High School in Atlanta.