Saturday, May 05, 2007

My MTC Experience

Looking back on my experiences in Mississippi, I can honestly say my students in Mississippi treated me in ways that my students in Massachusetts, Vermont, and California never did. Sadly, most of these ways were bad.
In Mississippi my students defied me, ignored me, angered me, enraged me, lied to me, cussed at me, and even sexually harassed me. The things they did to each other were much worse, if you can believe it. I broke up arguments, shoving matches, play-fights, fist fights, food fights, and even a monkey knife-fight (alright, I made that one up).
Let me lay down my favorite defense mechanism, humor, and be frank. The environment of my school could best be described as a perfect storm of animosity, poverty, and apathy. I observed dozens of female students progress through the stages of teen pregnancy while the boys tried to prove their masculinity by fighting, cussing and drawing graffiti. I witnessed far more hate than love during my time in the Mississippi Delta, and I saw too many gifted students waste their talents. When Dr. King said he had been to the mountaintop, he wasn’t talking about Hollandale, MS. There are no mountains in the Delta, and the bright future Dr. King predicted cannot be seen from my desk at Simmons High School.
I leave the Delta knowing that it will only get worse in the years ahead. As I take inventory of my time here, I try to make sense of what I accomplished and what I failed to do. To my knowledge I did not save anyone from drowning or talk anyone off a ledge. I didn’t deliver babies or balance the budget or help a candidate get elected to office. For fifty minutes, six times a day, I did the only thing I was paid to do: I taught to the best of my ability. I coaxed, I encouraged, I threatened, I bribed, I pleaded, I shocked; I tried everything I could to ignite the spark of knowledge in my students and keep that fire lit. In some students I leave with that fire raging like an inferno; in many others though, the fire could be snuffed out the moment they leave school.
This leads me to a question I often ponder: how do we measure the impact of a teacher? I know about a hundred students passed the English II state test because of the lessons they learned in my classroom. Many of them could have passed that test with another teacher though. So what difference did I make? That’s why I came down to Mississippi, to make a difference (and earn a teaching license and Master’s degree). Next month, I’m leaving the Delta with that license and degree: but what legacy do I leave behind?
When I first arrived at Simmons High School, I was often compared to my predecessor, Deslin Chapman. She too had been a MTC teacher, and by the rave reviews students showered upon her, I could tell she had been admired. It used to drive me crazy in my first year how the students would compare the two of us, with me often suffering by comparison. On many days I felt as though Ms. Chapman’s ghost haunted my room. By the end of my first year of teaching, I was glad to leave behind my students, my school, and my specter.
In this, my second year at Simmons, I haven’t heard much about Ms. Chapman. Perhaps they’ve forgotten about her, although I rather doubt it. More likely, to my students I have become Mr. Hebert instead of “that white dude who replaced Ms. Chapman.” I’ve proven I care about them and now I have been accepted among them, like Kevin Costner’s character in Dances With Wolves. Some days when I think about leaving I realize whoever replaces me next year will be bombarded with exaggerated anecdotes about my teaching ability, antics, and wit. It’s funny, but knowing this makes me smile.
In another year the students will find someone else to talk about, and the cycle will continue again and again. Besides conversation fodder, what am I leaving behind for my students? Skills, of course, those necessary abilities to read, write, speak, and think. I’ll leave behind plenty of pithy maxims, like “Some things that are hard are still worth doing, and some things that are easy are a waste of time.” And while I did not literally save anyone from drowning, I hopefully sent enough life jackets adrift through my lessons, my talks, my discipline, and my rewards that some of my students will make their way to a friendlier shore. Until they reach this destination, I only hope their mind receives enough firewood to keep them warm.