Learn for America

CAMBRIDGE, MA —  My new neighbor graduated from Harvard two years ago and has just come back to town to start law school.

She looks, sounds, acts like the 23-year-old she is, apologizing for being “totally rude” for absenting herself during a recent gathering to respond to a text on her phone, and springing with the kind of happy energy that just doesn’t come from even the most optimistic people who have been adults for much longer than she has. Still, she says her view of the world has expanded exponentially in the two years since she left Harvard.

Students work hard there, she says, but adds that they work so hard that they end up thinking they have a right to a six-figure salary upon graduation. They need it, too, to replace a lifestyle that as ascetic as hard work might make it, includes years of on-campus life including linen plan and full meal plan. And they get it, because the job recruiters who by far crowd the campus do not ask for economic sacrifice in the name of a noble cause. Mostly, she said, they offer jobs in finance — the careers of moving money that have caught enough of it in their own right to help plunge this country into an economic implosion.

The one exception, she said, was the Teach For America program — TFA — which caught her attention and that of about 30 of her graduating classmates. It sent her to a southwestern sprawling city that wasn’t her first choice, where as she put it, she drove from one parking lot to another, learned to pay her own bills, find friends and where she taught classes of 35 children at a time. She is glad her two-year stint is over, understandably, and no enticement would have been likely to succeed in getting her to extend her time there.

But she also knows what a “Title One” school is, which most of the people she was talking to at the recent gathering did not. She knows that she could learn to hold the students attention, and generally control a room that is too crowded with restless creative souls. She believes some of them learned something, but does not entertain any delusions that the education system as it stands now is a providing equal opportunities to  children. As she starts law school and goes on to wherever that may take her, she knows things most other people don’t and that she wouldn’t have known, no matter how hard she worked in college and law school if she hadn’t joined TFA first.

She also knows that while there was no holding her there when her two year stint was up, other teachers, who were not part of the program more often leave after just one year. This is interesting because many of those teachers have a supposed advantage that she didn’t have — intensive training. Which might lead one to wonder what that training is good for.

As it is, she left with a positive feeling about what she had done, and with a humbled sense of duty to apply what she had learned to some future opportunity to create change. Perhaps, if policies and budgets were adjusted to pay people who teach children something closer to what people who move money make, and to limit the number of students in a classroom to a number that one person can reasonably be expected to teach, children would learn as much each year of their educations, as she did each year of teaching.


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