Response to “In Search of Symbols”

by on November 29, 2011

Responses Takes

Teach for America gets criticized sometimes for its inability to create “true” teachers. Its critics claim that TFA churns out graduates interested solely in adorning their experience with a small helping of “reality” before heading to the “real world” of law or finance. The frequent lament is that instead of hiring committed, career teachers, schools hire starry-eyed, under-prepared barely-adults, moonlighting as educators before unceremoniously abandoning the communities into which they are escorted with such fanfare.

I strongly disagree with these critics, but even if their wildly off-base claims were true, I would argue that perhaps there is still something valuable to the TFA experience; even if its graduates never cross the threshold of a classroom after their two-year tenure, what they bring out of their experience can have tremendous significance for the world. Even if April (full disclosure: she is my friend) had not continued her commitment to education (she is currently teaching in Bulgaria and conducting education policy research there), her time in Arkansas would be invaluable, for the simple reason that it produced these writings. In choosing to share her narrative of her time in the Delta, she is taking on a crucial role, that of the witness, whose prose aims at the heart of the truth—both the ugly and the beautiful—of Helena, Arkansas in the early 21st century.

The power of the witness to truth is her ability to communicate the essence of her truth to others. I grew up in the deep South; I have had experience with kids similar to those April taught; if I were to be honest with myself and with you, I would have to tell you that if I met them, I would have a difficult time empathizing with April’s students, their way of life, speech patterns, and behavior. I can be told that their lives are hard, that their institutions fail them across the board. These things are true. And yet, my empathetic imagination falls short of grasping that truth in a vital form. That’s where April comes in.

April’s narrative style shows these kids as they are, damaged by their surroundings but full of curiosity, passion, and a desire to understand and be understood. When she discusses their attempts to use vocabulary in their everyday speech while eschewing grammar, her narrative balances comedy and tragedy, those janus faces of reality, building a bridge towards understanding. I was much more fortunate than these kids when I was their age, but I did struggle to express myself, to fit my words into the words around me, to be understood by those I so badly wanted to recognize me. I would like to think that this bit of truth is the first step towards coming to an empathetic understanding, to what April defines as generosity, “looking for and finding merit in everything and everyone.”

What is truly tragic about any life, whether an individual or a community, is that it might be forgotten. Caring for anything means communicating the idea that it will not be forgotten, sowing the seed of the promise of permanence. This kind of permanence lives in writing, in that physical act of bearing witness. TFA not only brings some great teachers to areas that need them, but it can also supply witnesses for these worlds—and witnesses are always needed wherever there is sickness, poverty, and despair. The only way to truly change anything is to first make it present and real for people, to not allow it to go on in the shadows.