Last Friday was picture day, and for a moment I was taken back to my insecure middle school days, when my mother and I fought over the faded black t-shirt, the jeans I drug out of my father’s closet, and the intentional scowl I saved for the exhausted school photographer. My school experience was clouded in sarcasm and shame—it was not “cool” to take pride in anything, be it appearance or academics. Although I was a talented student, I spent much of my school career hiding my abilities, fearing the ridicule that came with any sign that you were special.
At the school where I teach, the students are different. On picture day, the boys wore button up shirts with ties and vests. The girls wore dresses, some of them even sequined. Each student beamed with pride as they stepped up to the canvas backdrop.
The day before had been the Star Assembly, where the administrators recognize student achievement. Many of my ESL students were honored for perfect attendance, citizenship, academic improvement, art, and music awards. On the sideline, their peers, parents, and teachers cheered and clapped as they ran, grins plastered across their faces, to the front of the gymnasium to retrieve their medals. One of my newcomers was honored as the top achieving math student at his grade level. One of my long-term ESL students was honored as the top achieving reading student at his grade level. Please note—he was not the top achieving ESL student; he outperformed the white middle-class native English speakers in reading this quarter. This time, I was the one who was beaming.
My fifth grade students have been reading Katherine Patterson’s Bridge to Terebithia, and I actually had to stop and debrief the portion of chapter 3 when Leslie was embarrassed because the teacher was reading her essay aloud to the class. For once, the vocabulary was not the issue. The issue was school culture. “Why isn’t she proud that her work is so good?” a student asked. It took me a second to realize that these students, most of whom had spent their entire school career in this same community, did not know what it felt like to be embarrassed because of success. They knew what it felt like to learn in an environment that enabled them to take risks. They knew what it felt like to have teachers that held both students and themselves to the highest standard. They knew what it felt like to set and achieve goals, and to be praised sincerely for their effort. I had to explain to them that my personal school experience was completely different, and that they had a lot to be thankful for. A couple noted that they would soon be graduating to another school, where things might not be the same.
There is a lot of uncertainty at this time of year. Several staff members, including the principal, are retiring, and I have to confess there is a part of me that is afraid. The conversation with my students made me realize how lucky I am to be in a community that values success and professionalism. When I hear brilliant teachers at other schools, particularly NWP TC’s, say “I just shut the door and do what I know is best for children,” it makes me cringe with fear. How isolating, how challenging it must be to push on when everyone around you is standing still. I think the reason my current community is so proud is because we are all in this together. We recognize each individual accomplishment as a product of our collective effort. I’m learning the African proverb applies to more than just children: It takes a village to establish pride.