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Learning Curves

By Daniel Grear.

Mr. Grear graduated from Hendrix College in May of 2015 with a degree in English Literature & Creative Writing. He currently lives in Seattle, WA, where he works for City Year. In the future, he hopes to become a high school English teacher.

After being accepted into the Shepherd Consortium on Poverty, I interned at Life Pieces to Masterpieces (LPTM), a non-profit that provides tutoring, art education, and mentoring for African American boys from Wards 7 and 8, some of the highest-poverty neighborhoods in Washington, DC. However, the most memorable moment from my time at LPTM, the event that got most inextricably lodged in my psyche, did not take place in the presence of the children I served. In fact, it occurred before our summer program even started.

"The act of emerging from naiveté is a multi-step undertaking, full of twists and turns, deviations and reconciliations," writes Grear, Hendrix 2015 and SHECP alumnus.

“The act of emerging from naiveté is a multi-step undertaking, full of twists and turns, deviations and reconciliations,” writes Grear, Hendrix 2015 and SHECP alumnus.

Two weeks into the job, my coworkers and I were purchasing supplies. Conversation flowed more freely outside of the office, but, as a newbie, I was mostly just listening at this point, trying my best to be as useful and unobtrusive as possible. Inevitably, everyone began talking about which students we could expect to return to the program this year—the sweethearts, the troublemakers, the enigmas. This kind of commiserative gossip felt harmless until a veteran staff member said the following words: “I really hope that James doesn’t apply this year.” Immediately, I looked around, wondering if anyone else had also sensed a sharp shift in her tone. Up until now, there’d been a healthy amount of complaining, but this declaration struck me as vindictively blasé, as if this little boy had, of his own volition, somehow reached the absolute limits of her grace. I had only spent a handful of afternoons getting to know James, and I knew that his behavioral issues were anything but easy to deal with, but I still felt the burning need to defend him. This job is not one of convenience, I wanted to say. Have you seen the shirts that James wears, the fabric stretched thin like the skin of a drum? How dare you wish for his non-existence.

In a matter of minutes, I took in a lot of information about the non-profit world. Like the private sector, it too was capable of self-interest. Operating under the umbrella of altruism did not immunize us against listlessness. While I once believed that our country’s failure to fully eradicate poverty stemmed mostly from the fact that not enough individuals were doing their part, now I knew that just getting together a room full of relatively well-intentioned people isn’t always enough. This ended up being my biggest epiphany of the summer. I left Life Pieces to Masterpieces as a more cynical, yet also more discerning thinker.

I never spoke up about my concerns to the staff member in question; in retrospect, I wish I had. But perhaps not for the reasons one might expect. In August of 2015, I started working for City Year, an Americorps affiliate that positioned me as an aid and interventionist for a 4th grade classroom in Seattle, WA. It didn’t take long for me to start harkening back to my experiences at LPTM, especially when one of my students happened to be a child far more obstinate than James. This boy, sharp as he was, had no filter; 95% of the words coming out of his mouth weren’t school-appropriate and he seemed to relish greatly, almost sadistically, ruffling the feathers of authority. Even with the assistance of instructional aids, my teacher was spending an absurd amount of her time redirecting his misbehavior.

And then it hit me. Somewhere deep inside, in my heart of hearts, I hoped for this child to be gone, just like my fellow employee at LPTM had. Every day, I crossed my fingers for him to be absent. And not because I was a bad person, but because I couldn’t handle the fact that our constant efforts to de-escalate his power struggles were at the expense of every other student in the class. Their education was being compromised, and this was infuriating.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not proposing that we ought to get rid of time-consuming outliers. Frankly, I’ve not a clue what the solution is. More than anything, I just want to make a point about the learning process. The act of emerging from naiveté is a multi-step undertaking, full of twists and turns, deviations and reconciliations. When we find practices and beliefs that differ from our own, especially in a field as mercurial as education, they should not just become mechanisms by which to bolster our own way of doing things. Instead, this knowledge should be stockpiled into the evocative chamber that is our brain, ready to echo when we least expect it to. As I forge on into a career in secondary education, I hope to keep this message in mind, passing it down to a plethora of struggling high-school students who, amidst the muck of disadvantage and hardship, will perhaps find my lessons to be meaningless in the moment, but one day valuable.


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