“Make Your Spot in Life a Worthy One”
In the fall of 1983 I was a young woman ready to start my first teaching job in the city of Chicago. In the suburbs where I grew up yards were big and green, streets were tree lined, and kids roamed the neighborhood without a care. I had big dreams.
I was 22 years old and had no doubt that I could change the world. I would reach every kid I taught.
One afternoon it was announced that we were not able to dismiss the students at the normal time. Later we were told that a “gang banger” had been on the corner shooting a gun into the air. I remember thinking, “what’s a gang banger?”
After school, the following January, I saw a head peek around the corner. It was one of my seventh graders. As Ali walked into the classroom I could see his bruised face and bleeding lip. He had no shoes or socks on. His feet were red from walking through the freezing snow. I asked where his shoes had gone. Ali told me that his shoes were red and black and the gang’s colors were red and black. They had warned him about walking through their “hood” with those shoes on.
I drove Ali home. As I drove home, I wondered if Ali had another pair of shoes to wear to school the next day. I wondered if he would tell his mom. I wondered if I could change this situation.
For awhile I felt helpless. I loved my students and I wanted to make sure none of them ended up in a gang or hurt by a gang. I wanted to get rid of all the gangs and all the guns and all the badness. I was overwhelmed.
It took me awhile to realize that I could not change the entire gang problem in Chicago. Instead I would make changes in a small, simple, yet powerful way. I would help my students see in themselves what I saw; kindness, humor, intelligence, a future.
Many of my former students still keep in touch with me. One of my former seventh graders, who still lives in Chicago, is coming to dinner tomorrow evening as he travels through North Carolina, where I now live.
Many of my students have gone on to have good lives. Some have died too young or ended up incarcerated. The gang problem still exists in Chicago and I never did end up changing the whole world. I no longer teach. But my life is fuller and richer for having spent time with my students. And I have since learned how I touched many of their hearts and lives.
I keep the following quote at my desk and read it to myself daily; “Whatever we do in life, we occupy a small space and I think we’re meant to make that a worthy spot.”
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.