By Zachary Miller, Corps Member, AT&T Team at Jefferson High School
This year, I am serving on the AT&T team at Jefferson High School, supporting 9th grade classrooms to ensure that students reach 10th grade on time, making them four times more likely to graduate than students who fall behind.
We were prepped in Basic Training Academy: To some students, I’d be their City Year, their mentor; but to others, I’d be just another unfamiliar face in a blurry, haphazard scattering of do-gooder adults who talk a big game but may or may not still be around tomorrow morning. Kids like that sell their trust at a steep price, and they’re rightfully wary of anyone who expects to be handed out a freebie.
I’ve got this one student, Sarah*. Sarah gets into a lot of trouble. She likes to talk in class, but doesn’t respond particularly well to being told to quiet down. So she yells and swears and more often than not ends up storming out of the classroom. I chase after her, of course, but she’s quick to point out that I might as well not waste my time on her because she’s too stupid, anyway. Then she casually walks off to who knows where.
But despite all that, there are these moments – rare, but frequent enough – when Sarah tunes out the rest of the class and focuses intently on her work. And it’s like I can see the gears turning in her head; shes tries so hard, but when she gets stuck, the frustration starts to build. I want to go over and help her, but I know how this scene plays out. Best case scenario, she tells me through her gritted teeth to Leave. Her. Alone.
But we start fresh every day, so every day I head on over, smile, ask how her day is going and if she needs anything. And then one day, instead of telling me how annoying City Year is, she says “I got it, mister, you got me on check. Why you always only bother me?”
I didn’t really know what to say. I feel like I bother everyone equally. So I told her the truth: “Cause I like you.”
The next day, Sarah asked to go with me to the conference room to catch up on some of the math homework. She was brilliant with concepts but struggled with the basics: single digit addition required fingers and negative numbers were totally nonsensical. Still, she understood the idea of fractions well enough and was able to apply what she did know to work out some answers.
As we worked, Sarah started to tell me about how she had just been really bad in elementary and middle school. She had joined gangs, and spent all her time fighting – really fighting – instead of going to school. That was why she didn’t know how to add very well.
That kind of life is totally foreign to me. It’s not something I can relate to. So I just sat there and listened, coaching her through fractions as best I could, and when it was time to go back to class she told me she didn’t want to fail anymore. I told her not to worry, and that she wouldn’t, as long as she kept working hard.
The next day after class, Sarah pulled the teacher aside and told him that she knew she had problems with her attitude, but didn’t want to be written off as a bad kid. She wants to succeed.
As of now, she’s one of the best behaved students in the class. Every day is still a struggle, because she’s still the same person and kids don’t just change overnight. But she’s turned in almost all of her work these past few weeks, and hasn’t been kicked out of class or even yelled at once. Her grade is steadily rising – from just above a 0 to almost passing. Now, it’s just a matter of time before she gets to where she needs to be.
I’ll get told by at least one student every day that I need to get out of their face. And I do, but because of Sarah, I think I’ll be able to keep on trying again the next day.
*Student’s name has been changed.