I’m sitting at a table in a chair designed for bodies much smaller than mine, going through the motions of giving a diagnostic reading assessment to a boy whose face is still wet from tears of homesickness. I point to a list of ten words and say, “Can you try reading these for me?” These are basic sight words–“see,” “play,” “me”–that students are expected to know coming into kindergarten. The boy looks hard at the paper I’ve placed in front of him. “Do you not know the first word?” I ask him. He looks up at me, and as if he’s telling me something I should already know, he says: “I can’t read!”
I’d spent the last six months reading about the achievement gap, and taking any opportunity I got to inform friends, family members, or strangers about the “reality” of educational inequity in America. I would drop statistics left and right, and occasionally I would get defensive about the efficacy of Teach for America as an organization. But at that point, the achievement gap was about as real to me as a documentary about whaling or global warming; I knew all the talking points, I could easily get myself all fired up about the issue, but forgetting it was as easy as thinking about what I was having for dinner that night.
Not so anymore. Now that I’m actually here, two weeks into Teach for America’s summer training institute in the Mississippi Delta, educational inequity is no longer something I can simply choose not to think about. Even this past weekend as I’ve endeavored to take my mind off of my classroom, I’ve found my thoughts returning to the face of a boy who is about to enter first grade not knowing his letter sounds. The achievement gap finally has a face, and it’s a sweet face–an eager and excited face–but it’s a face that may never see the opportunities it deserves. It’s a face at risk. And it’s a face in a sea of other faces, all equally bright and full of potential, yet in serious danger of never realizing that potential.
I could list a thousand statistics that would convince you that educational inequity is the most serious problem plaguing our nation today. They certainly convinced me. But it wasn’t until I sat with that child that I realized that this isn’t just our nation’s problem, but that it’s MY problem. To fix that problem is my responsibility. To provide that student with the opportunity to achieve an excellent education is my charge. And it’s a charge I’ll carry with me from Greenville, Mississippi back to Nashville, Tennessee, when I begin teaching elementary ESL this fall.