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photo by mark skovorodko

Stand and Deliver



Rachel Douglas Swanson

Editor’s note: Given that a big slice of our audience are millenials—folks who by age group and by culture are big on changing the world—we try and keep pace with the passion. Teaching in the inner city is a subject that comes up in our circles, we know people who are thinking seriously about it, and we know a few who have actually done it, or are doing it. We thought you’d like to hear from one of the veterans.


I got through my first year of teaching by getting drunk every Saturday and going to church every Sunday. It isn’t a pretty truth, but there it is. It helped that my roommates made sure I wasn’t alone on the weekends in case I had panic attacks. And my best friend Karen kept me hydrated on a nearly daily basis with Starbucks hot chocolate.

On weekends before my sister and brother-in-law moved out of the country, I would ride the train to their home an hour west and play with my nephews and cry for hours on my sister’s bed. Suffice it to say it was the hardest year of my life.

It wasn’t supposed to be hard. I had wanted to be a teacher since I was born. I had done what I was supposed to do: volunteered at schools, lived in the “inner-city,” read the right books, aced student teaching.

Theory is different than practice.

photo by mark skovorodko

photo by mark skovorodko

Early on in my first year of teaching, I got a care package from a dear friend in Minnesota, a teacher himself. When I called to thank him, I asked, “How do you do this? How can you possibly survive being a teacher? I don’t think I can make it through the year.”

He said, “Yeah, but it’s like marriage. You can’t let yourself think about divorce. You don’t give yourself that option.”

There are plenty of really good reasons why people get divorced. But his words have stayed with me because they offered me a different truth. By giving myself the option of leaving, I would be gone long before I walked out of the door.

A few days later while talking (crying) to my dad on the phone, he said the other big truth of that year: “Raye, pretty soon this year will be a distant memory.”

I didn’t leave. That year was impossibly hard. The kind of hard that plumbs the depths and changes you forever. The kind that leaves you sitting in Lake Michigan a month after the end of the school year, so drunk you can only crawl, screaming at God until there aren’t any more tears, there isn’t any more voice. Because it isn’t fair that Rashad got kicked out of his house on the coldest weekend of February. It isn’t fair that Yari’s brother died. Because you can bleed out love for a year, but you can’t control the outcomes of the lives you’ve touched, the lives that have touched you.

I like to imagine that God was sitting next to me in Lake Michigan. That he cried next to me.

I started therapy the following week.

photo by mark skovorodko

photo by mark skovorodko

I don’t get drunk anymore. I still go to church (almost) every Sunday.

It’s been ten years since that first year of teaching. Now I have come full circle, and I coach new teachers. I help them get through their first year of teaching. I observe in their classrooms once a week and talk with them about their practice. And I remember. I remember a lot. I remember how achingly difficult that year was, the year that indeed is now a distant memory.

But I remember other things, too. Like the way it felt to see Layanna read her first chapter book, carrying it around like a favorite teddy bear, pages worn and cover torn. The excitement she felt when we went to the Borders bookstore only ten blocks from the school and she realized she could get there by bus, a bigger world unlocked and opened.

I remember the way Aaron’s mother cried at his report card pickup, causing me concern until she said through tears, “You’re the first teacher who has believed in my son.” I remember his shy smile as we read picture books and his refusal to be ashamed to read “baby books,” determined to read no matter what it took.

Or the time that Diara, who never made my life easy, yelled at some students from another class who made a comment about me. “Don’t you dare talk about MY teacher like that!” How she called to check to see that I was all right when I was out sick for three days, confirming that deep down she really did care.

There were the walks to the Subway around the corner, the Burger King crowns we got on birthdays, my seventh graders not too cool for such simple celebrations. Of course there were the light bulb moments when something suddenly started to make sense. I had most of the light bulb moments during that first year, but I like to believe my students had a few, too.

photo by mark skovorodko

photo by mark skovorodko

And there was the commute. Every day I drove down Lake Shore Drive, the road that carves the boundary between Chicago and Lake Michigan. And every day I made a point to look out over the lake to admire the beauty of the sun coming up, its rays kissing the water, showing off its artistic ability. I thought of it as choosing life each day instead of choosing death. Choosing to live that day instead of just surviving. Choosing not to walk out the door. Choosing to remember that the day would not come again.

The first year of anything is hard. There’s so much that is unknown, and it’s humbling to have to learn.

So we’re faced with the choice of doing the hard, right thing, over and over and over.

People like to ask if these sorts of things are worth it. Did the good outweigh the bad? In the end, can I be sure that I did the right thing, that I did all that I could to make sure my students were successful?

I don’t know.

But I am so glad I didn’t leave. I would have missed so much.