This piece was originally posted on the Maryland Hillel Alternative Break blog.
"Which of the following is correct: The right hemisphere of the ___ is responsible for language verbalization,” Isaac* reads confidently. He recites the first choice and then hesitates for an instant before declaring, “Actually, I change my mind. I want to answer number seven instead”.
Sensing a classroom crisis brewing, Mr. Martin, a mathematics teacher at 100 Academy of Excellence, quickly scans the classroom for other extended hands. He is about to call on another student when Ms. Foley, a social studies teacher at the Las Vegas charter school, enters the classroom and intervenes. Seeing this as an opportunity to impart life-lessons to the advanced sixth grade class, Ms. Foley directs Isaac to answer the question because “we can’t be embarrassed to make mistakes”.
The chatter of the students dies down almost instantly as all eyes turn expectantly toward Isaac. As an extremely precocious sixth grader at a ninth grade reading and mathematics level, Isaac is considered infallible by his peers. He doesn’t get answers wrong very often and certainly not in front of the class. This time, however, he chooses the incorrect answer. While I explain what the right answer is and how the wording of the question gives it away, his head sinks in deep humiliation.
For a student like Isaac, getting an answer wrong in front of his classmates is no trivial matter. It destroys his confidence and threatens both how others perceive him and how he perceives himself. The shell of academic perfection in which he shrouds himself is temporarily stripped away, revealing a vulnerable kid with way too much responsibility on his shoulders. The trauma of this incident is only exacerbated by the fact that he comes from a troubled home and his only sense of security in life is that school usually comes easy to him.
Ms. Foley jumps on Isaac’s defeat as another teaching point, and she even provides a humorous personal anecdote about the danger of not allowing your children to make mistakes, but I am too absorbed in my own thoughts to hear what she is saying.
Witnessing this episode with Isaac that was so redolent of my own experiences in lower and middle school, I finally appreciated for the first time on the alternative break trip how eerily similar these kids were to me and my friends. These weren’t just poor, monochromatic, passive victims of troubled, low-income families; they were kids with rich personalities, unique interests and aspirations, and, yes, very real character flaws as well. These were regular kids who enjoyed things like basketball, poetry, video games, and art.
As I thought about it more, I understood what myself, twelve other University of Maryland students, and a Hillel staff member were doing in this bright yellow school 2500 miles away from College Park. I had joined this alternative break trip with a high level of skepticism that I could actually have a significant impact on any of the students I interacted with. Like many others, I had been indoctrinated with a statistical belief that there’s no breaking these poverty cycles, that children who do not grow up in a nurturing home like my own are unlikely to get into college and will probably end up working low-income jobs. Somehow this short episode made something click. If these students are no different from myself, why shouldn’t they be able to get into college? Why shouldn’t Isaac be able to continue to advance academically and one day become more successful than anyone I know? Yes, many of the students came from difficult homes and communities; yes, many of their parents were not very supportive of their schooling; however, that did not mean these kids were fated to any particular future. A world of endless possibilities was still open to them.
The only thing these students were missing, then, was someone to show them those endless possibilities, someone who could help them see their greatness. All these students needed was a mentor who could see that lofty goal somewhere out there on the horizon and could focus a kid’s eyes towards it. For many of the students in my math class who lacked motivation, it was because they didn’t see why things like finding x-intercepts or square roots or means were important; they still couldn’t make out how this accumulation of seemingly arbitrary mathematical operations, historical factoids, and grammatical minutia was their ticket out of downtown Las Vegas. And that is exactly why we college students were here. My job was much more than helping eighth graders remember how to multiply fractions or teaching a sixth grade class the anatomy of a cerebrum. Ultimately my job was to inspire these kids, to show them what lies just a few miles outside of their neighborhoods, and how to get there.
I made the comment at our first pre-trip meeting that one of the good things about cycles is that you can stop them by cutting them anywhere; if we want to end poverty cycles, our access point is the children. It was only after a few days out in the field that I truly understood what this meant.
* All names have been changed for the purposes of this post.
Ariel Isser is from Silver Spring, Maryland, where he has lived his entire life. He attended Berman Hebrew Academy from nursery through high school. He spent a gap year after high school in Israel at Yeshivat Har Etzion, a seminary in Alon Shvut. Ariel is currently a Junior undergraduate student at the University of Maryland, studying Bioengineering and mathematics. He has been involved in biomedical research since high school, and he plans to attend graduate school and pursue a career in Biomaterials research after finishing his undergraduate studies in May of 2016.