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.

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