“I wanted to show the world to the less privileged.”
Karina Reyes is an English teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School. She attended the Spring 2014 Talk Story, Write Story workshop in Juneau.
WHY I TEACH
Why I (still) teach…
I thought I could change the world, make it a better place…. Yeah, you know the song. Heal the world, make it a better place, for you and for me, and the entire human race… Go ahead. Sing it. But nothing about teaching as easy as the jingle makes it seem.
I knew my content well. I was, afterall, a double major: English and Political Science. But one year of the MAT program does not prepare you for a classroom full of 7th graders three named Alex (M*****, F********, B********), one freckled-face Bobby who loved to annoy everyone, a giant Justin who hid in cupboards, a hoody-wearing Michael who introduced me to spit darts, a troubled Jennifer who started smoking, an angry Alicia who despised everything I was and vandalized my classroom windows, and two Jessicas who adored everything I did.
During my MAT year, I was assigned to a High School English class with a mentor teacher who was considering retirement and knew her job very well. She shared everything she knew, every lesson she created. I loved the freedom she gave me to teach the class and all the structure, direction, and lessons she gave me. I wasn’t too fond of inadvertently becoming her foil. I was young and green to her mature and strict ways.
Now I find that I am very much like her. I like structure in my class; I like students who are driven, and I continually encourage my fledgling with varying degrees of success. I started a writing seminar class where every kid, every week, would share a story for us to critique. I would share my logophilia and shove ten new SAT words every week and use them in my vernacular so they knew that diction is powerful and words can be wielded for change and used by normal people. They didn’t think I was normal. One called me the Lilliputian Leftist. I smiled because he was using one of our vocab words. I would create projects requiring them to write for social change. And they would roll their eyes and call me Earth Muffin. I told them we will chase windmills and mix our metaphors if we must but they had to do my bidding. They, too, were driven. And they didn’t get a grade unless they made even a slight ripple in their assignment: writing for social change and getting a response in return. No response, no grade. No one failed.
I enjoyed my high level kids but it was almost too easy. The most difficult part was distinguishing what made this A student different from another A student. And after ten years of spending the first week of every Christmas holiday writing over fifty scholarship and college recommendation letters, I wanted a different challenge.
I applied for the Stanford University Continuing Education course in teaching ELL students. I wanted to teach students who struggled with the English language. I was curious about the science behind learning a second, third, fourth language and how one picks them up. Although English is my first language, I can empathize with learning another language and failing in the language of the dominant culture. But empathizing and teaching are not mutually exclusive. I lasted three years before the bureaucracy and constant testing turned me off.
I wanted to show the world to the less privileged. It was always easy taking kids to Europe when their parents could afford to pay for their travel. The most stressful part for me was making sure I brought back their children safe and sound and with a taste for world travel. Taking that same need to share the world with my underprivileged students was a bit trickier and more financially challenging. But I was determined to do it at least once. And one of those kids whom I took to Paris and whom I allowed to run up and down the stairs of the Eiffel Tower so she could stay in shape for track, is the one I knew had not only potential but perseverance. She is now a Gates Millenium Scholar.
Now I’m six years into coordinating and teaching in a program that helps Alaska Native and Native American students excel in high school. I give direct instruction on college application and college essay writing. I walk them through their FAFSA form, their college app and essays, and their sometimes dysfunctional lives. They have shared horrific stories that we craft into palatable papers. I cajole my students to join the Academic Decathlon team or the Model United Nations group; I insist that they each have one extra-curricular activity or an after school job or volunteer gig. The ones who ignore me, frustrate me; and, they suffer in the end. They are not ready to write about their lives; they have nothing to include that’s outside their dysfunctional families; they’re not ready to talk about their experiences; they sometimes give up.
And I have to let that go. But I always come back. Because someday I’ll have another kid who’ll ask me if it’s okay if she took the stairs up to the top of the Eiffel Tower.