6:55 a.m.-I’m awakened by New England accented voices of construction workers piling into the back and side of the house, the obnoxious signaling of a ‘heavy load’ truck in reverse in the street, and the rattling sound of tools as they’re being prepped for the work ahead. I’ll be elated once all of their work is actually done. Our boss and head of school, Mr. Finley, has a school expansion project manifesting a few feet away from the Teaching Fellow’s House, better known as 232 (short for 232 Centre Street). It is here that I and about 16 other teaching fellows live and commune, rent-free. We all work together as teaching fellows at the Epiphany School. The Epiphany School is a chartered middle school with an Episcopalian motto of ‘Seeing God in Everyone.’ It’s a great approach to take in teaching when considering the idea that in order to be an effective educator, leader, companion, mentor, and so forth, one must succeed in seeing the good in any and everyone. Personally, this model keeps me centered as it not only suggests that we respect, love, and communicate with students and colleagues in the manner that we would with not only our God, but in the way we should with ourselves as well.
As a teaching fellow, most of my workdays begin at around 7:45 in the morning and end at around 7:15 in the evening. That means about 12 hours of non-stop interaction with young people about half my age. I feel old just saying that. The day starts with breakfast in homeroom as the students arrive and have their homework checked for completion. The way our system works is that whenever a student does not complete any portion of their homework, they are assigned an “Academic.” This consequence requires that the student unfortunately miss their recess session or afternoon sports program in order to complete the assignment(s) that they initially failed to do. After homeroom I teach my first class of the day, Reading Enrichment. In this course, we are aiming to collectively read about 7 books by the end of the school year. Along with simply reading the material, my lesson plans consist of different interactive, mind-building activities that are geared towards enhancing my students’ ability to read and comprehend, formulate educated opinions, connect the material to their social contexts, and think independently and effectively. I teach this course to both seventh and eighth graders. Along with that, I’m an assistant in a seventh grade reading and writing class, and a music teacher to all grade levels where we are learning how to use live instruments, compose music and lyrics, and prepare for the school’s winter arts showcase. After the school day has finished at 3:00, I’m a sports coach, evening study facilitator, dinner supervisor, and for some students, a ride home. And it is at this point in the day, when the sun has gone and evening traffic has subsided, that I can finally relieve myself of the role of Mr. Mack and simply be Makalani again.
I provided this extensive background of my position as a teaching fellow not to complain, because ultimately I love my students. Instead, I did so to draw on the truth that though this job is a lot of work, it’s work that is necessary. All of my students are black and brown. They are African American, Cape Verdean, Haitian, and Hispanic students living in very low-income households of the Dorchester and Roxbury communities. Some are meshed together in homes that house about 2 or even 3 families at a time. Some come from broken, parentless homes with mediocre support or guidance, and some are raised through foster care programs. They are learning about themselves and the world around them through the perspective of social media, school, and what they experience in their neighborhoods. Many of my students find some of the work to be challenging and in turn they give up on themselves. In my two months of teaching I’ve already witnessed so many cases of a child feeling defeated by an assignment that they are more than capable of completing, and it’s frustrating because the student won’t even try. I’ve heard a few “I hate schools,” “thinking is too hard,” “why do I have to know this;” I hear it all, ladies and gentlemen. I’m even kept in the loop on the sporadic love triangles and puppy dog crushes that are formed amongst the students that I work with the most. I’m also sometimes entertained with stories about their social lives outside of school. I hear it all and I see it all, but what’s most important is that I can see myself in so many of them.
I was a decent student before entering college. I got A’s and B’s and a C here or there; not many, though. I was a timid kid who was accustomed to being the “new kid at school” since I attended about 14 different schools before graduating high school. I wouldn’t talk much until I got better acquainted with my surroundings. I remember not feeling motivated to do my work, or even think for myself. I settled with the belief that math was too hard and not something that I liked, and I used this reason to justify my mediocre effort in learning the subject. I would sometimes blurt out an outrageous answer to a teacher’s question in order to receive a response of laughter from my classmates. I wore a mandatory uniform, just like the students of Epiphany. Though I followed rules, I despised them and believed that all the teachers had nothing better to do than to give us instructions and pointless homework. My favorite periods of the day were lunch and gym. Sound familiar to anyone? When I had a crush on a girl, I would try to be so cool around her and even talk with a deeper voice. But if her friends were to ever ask about my feelings toward her, “What? Naw, I’m not even thinking about her,” was probably my answer. I was definitely a piece of work.
For a long time I was raised by a single mother getting by with the help of family and loved ones. The neighborhoods that I grew up in were very similar to that of Dorchester, but I was raised in Miami, Florida and Atlanta, Georgia; therefore, many of our experiences differentiate based on social and geographical location. But those differences are mostly small cultural ones like food, slang, and how we respond to weather conditions. These outliers don’t necessarily outweigh the things we have in common such as being minorities in America, being students, hailing from low-income families, and simply being a 12 or 13-year-old in middle school. This is where I try to make connections with them; by trying to get them to see themselves in me, as I do in them. I’m always looking for ways to draw connections between my life and theirs in an attempt to show them that all the time and effort they put into school will pay off.
Life goes far beyond the boundaries of Dorchester, Roxbury, and simply Boston for that matter. I want them to be anxious enough to want to explore things that are new and unfamiliar, while also being centered in what’s true and unique about them. I want them to understand themselves not as poor children of immigrants — because some students do understand their positions as such — but simply as people. I understand that it is important to give our students a sense of the world and prepare them for the obstacles that they will face as black and brown bodies in America, but at the same time I do not want them to become accustomed to feeling sorry for themselves and making excuses. It’s an easy thing to do; to feel as though you could justify your lack of effort or will to want to do more for yourself by acknowledging the odds against you and believing that they will inevitably hinder your success. As if there is no way for marginalized people to become successful; as if we haven’t already been so successful. I’m still growing and transitioning into full adulthood, so of course, I’m still learning as well. I sometimes learn more from my students than they do from me. But they can’t fathom that idea. They can’t accept the notion that they may just be important enough to have an effect on someone, to teach someone. Do you feel that? Some of my students already feel as though they don’t matter, so trying to convince them otherwise at times can be the most difficult thing to do.
But I see myself in so many of them, so giving up on them would feel like giving up on myself. So everyday I push through all 12 hours of the day, even that extra 20 minutes when a kid needs a ride home. Everyday I make a commitment to their young lives and try to make sure that no child ‘slips through the seam’ and goes unnoticed. Too many of us have already gone unnoticed and unheard, and have given up. We can’t allow generations of us to do the same.