Dear Esperanza

education, photography

Dear Esperanza,

It feels like just yesterday when I was standing before your class on the first day of school, reading my favorite passage from The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.

“While we read, I want you all to think about how a story about bees in a glass jar relates to being a 6th grade student in South Oak Cliff,” I announced and began reading:

“At night, I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making the propeller sound, a high pitched zzzzz that hummed along my skin. I watched their wings shining like bits of chrome in the dark and felt the longing build in my chest. The way those bees flew, not even looking for a flower, just flying for the feel of the wind, split my heart down its seem.

One morning a bee landed on the state map I kept tacked on the wall. I watched it walk along the coast of South Carolina on scenic Highway 17. I clamped the mouth of a clear glass jar against the wall, trapping it between Charleston and Georgetown. When I slid on the lid, it went into a tailspin, throwing itself against the glass over and over again with pops and clicks, reminding me of the hail that landed sometimes on the windows.”

“Did the bee belong in the glass jar? What did it love to do?”

“I’d made the jar as nice as I could with felty petals, fat with pollen, and more than enough nail holes in the lid to keep the bees from perishing. But the bee could see out of the glass, and it knew that it was trapped inside the jar.

I brought the jar level with my nose. ‘Look at this thing fight,’ I thought.

I spent the rest of the morning capturing bees.

That night I looked at the jar of bees on my dresser. The poor creatures perched on the bottom barely moving, obviously pining away for flight. I remembered then the way they’d slipped from the cracks in my walls and flown for the sheer joy of it.”

 “Why are the bees barely moving? Can you relate to this story yet? If so, how?”

 “I unscrewed the lid and set it aside.

‘You can go,’ I said.

But the bees remained there, like planes on a runway not knowing they’d been cleared for takeoff. They crawled on their stalk legs around the curved perimeters of the glass as if the world had shrunk to that jar. I tapped the glass, even laid the jar on its side, but those crazy bees stayed put.”

“Why do you think the bees stayed put, even after they were free?”

A quivering hand from the middle of the room: “Maybe they didn’t want to fly anymore,” you whispered. “Maybe the bees just gave up on doing what they loved.”

The story resonated deeply with you. Over the past ten months, at lunch and during P.E., on my planning period and after school, we have talked about how you can relate to those exhausted bees. You told me that you often feel trapped in a glass jar of poverty.

“Why try to fight for a better life someday? This is all there is for me,” you said at lunch one day in October with a fire burning in your eyes and fists clenched.

You were believing the lie that poverty is destiny, because you sensed that you were trapped, just like the bees in the jar were prevented from doing what they loved to do, because they were held back by a lid that limited their world to perimeters of the glass.

What’s worse is that your jar is glass, meaning you can see out of it. The opportunities for improving your life trajectory – to finish school, attend and graduate from college and get a well-paying job – are visible from behind the glass, but seemingly unattainable.

I chose to teach in South Oak Cliff to help you and your classmates recognize and overcome limitations like poverty, so that you could discover your limitless potential.

All year, I’ve been twisting and turning the tightly sealed lid on your jar. Why do we read 20 minutes a night? Why do I drill grammar and spelling? What is the point of being asked to think and articulate and communicate your ideas in a way that other people will find compelling?

There is a lid on your jar, and the work that we have been accomplishing in my classroom is clearing a path for you to fly freely.

In August, I promised I would be your advocate. I told you that I would get to know you personally so that I could provide the help and support that you need to be successful in school and beyond. I told you I would stand up for you, take responsibility for helping you in every way possible, seek out opportunities that will help you reach your personal goals, answer your questions and find the resources you need to be successful.

But you and I both know that my hard work to muscle the lid off your jar will never be enough.

In The Secret Life of Bees, even after the little girl removes the barriers that prevent the bees from being free to do what they love, “the bees remained there, like planes on a runway not knowing they’d been cleared for takeoff.”

Your reading level has improved by two years in the span of just one school year. Your writing and critical thinking now set the standard for your peers. That pesky lid is loosening, and now the rest of the story is in your hands. If you continue to believe the lie that you are not able to achieve your dreams, your world will stay small, confined to the limits others have placed on you.

Don’t forget that you are a bumblebee. Scientists used to think that your body was too heavy to fly. That your wings couldn’t possibly support your weight.

So how does a young woman growing up in the “wrong” neighborhood without proper documentation or fluent English language skills spread her wings and fly?

She beats her flimsy, overlooked wings 11,000 times per second. She works harder to do the things she loves to prove the statistics wrong.

Just like the bumblebee, you cannot afford to let other people’s ideas about what you are capable of limit your potential. You must work hard to reach your goals and advocate for yourself if you want to be free.

Poverty is not destiny.

Even bumblebees can fly.

Your jar is open.

All my love,

Ms. Jackson

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Dear Soledad

education, photography

Dear Soledad,

How does it feel to walk around a college campus? I noticed that you lingered a little longer than your classmates at the library, and I saw the way you ran your fingers over the desktop in the auditorium. It made me wonder, can you picture yourself here? You’d be the first in your entire family to attend a college or university.

Have we prepared you to persevere through all four years or more? The statistics for college readiness and persistence aren’t exactly encouraging for a young woman of your ethnicity and zip code. Some studies say only 15-17% of Latinas who enroll in a college or university graduate in five years or less. And just the other day, I overheard a discussion between education reform leaders where they said that 2 – not 2%, but literally 2 students – who graduated from our neighborhood high school last year met the qualifications to be considered college-ready.

I want to tell you that the world is yours to take, that a college education is a real possibility for you some day, because I truly believe that it is. But you’ve started this race on uneven ground in hand-me-down tennis shoes.

Will you have a strong enough academic foundation, the broad life skills that will be required of you, a dedicated support network, sufficient money and financial aid, adequate test-taking savvy and cultural competence to make it all the way to and through college?

Let me be clear: I believe in you. But the system? The education system is failing its promises, because it has not set you up to be successful. You’ll have to work harder than just about everyone else. You might need more resources on your collegiate journey, and you shouldn’t be ashamed to ask for them.

I believe that you are more than a statistic.

All my love,

Ms. Jackson

Dear Raul

education, photographyDear Raul,

Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete?

Proving nature’s law is wrong, it learned how to walk without having feet.

Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,

It learned to breathe fresh air.

Long live the rose that grew from concrete

When no one else even cared.

Three days until the STAAR test.

Two extra tutoring sessions after school this week.

One last chance to demonstrate that you are academically prepared for the 7th grade.

You see you wouldn’t ask why the rose that grew from the concrete

Had damaged petals.

On the contrary, we would all celebrate its

Tenacity.

We would all love its will to reach the sun.

You are the rose. This is the concrete. I have no doubt that you will show our school, your family and this community that you are smart and capable.

I would say “good luck,” but you don’t need it. Just be your brilliant, focused self.

All my love,

Ms. Jackson

(quotes from Tupac Shakur’s The Rose that Grew from Concrete)

Dear Karah

education, photography

Dear Karah,

Overwhelmed by the nine short days until the STAAR test, I was crying in the hallway this morning. Inside my head, I heard the all-too-familiar chorus of accusatory voices.

“You haven’t done enough to prepare your students for this test.”

“They won’t pass, and it’s all your fault.”

“You can’t even get them to stay in their seats and stop shouting out in the middle of a lesson; how could you have imagined that they would be reading on grade level by April 22?”

Unexpectedly, I heard your voice cut through the clutter in my mind.

“Ms. Jackson, you ok? Why are you crying?”

I couldn’t begin to explain what I had hoped to accomplish in nine short months. How I repeatedly failed you and your classmates every time I delivered lessons that weren’t rigorous enough or relevant or interesting or even properly copied because I was too tired to make sure the pages stapled in the right order.

“Just allergies, Karah. My eyes are watering a little, but I’m fine.”

“Oh, ok… Are you allergic to bad behavior, Miss? Cuz I’m pretty done with the way they been treating you in 3rd period.”

In that moment, the angry mob in my head stopped to listen to you. I had to ask myself what I originally set out to do when I signed up to teach.

I wanted to foster genuine, transformative relationships with students who have so often been overlooked. I wanted my students to learn how to read, for goodness’ sake, and we still have a long way to go there, yes, but the STAAR test is just one measure. This exam is only a sliver of what a you and your classmates have learned in a year.

What about empathy, respect, and compassion? What about a true love of reading? The grit and tenacity that unfurls as you put your pencil to the scantron one more time, even if we both know your score is likely going to be lower than average.

I smiled and looked down at you, wiping away the last stubborn tear.

“Yes, the doctor says I’m allergic to bad behavior, and the STAAR test.”

Your eyes widened as you shook your head and giggled.

“You funny, Ms. Jackson. I hope you move up and teach us in 7th grade next year.”

The truth is, you deserve more than a teacher who is funny and fun. With the STAAR test looming, I have to confront the brutal facts that I was not a strong enough teacher to lead you, academically, to the place you deserve to be at this point in the year.

We didn’t make up the years of reading growth that needed to happen, but you did improve, academically and as a woman of character and integrity. Perhaps there is hope yet for the remaining weeks. I’m not giving up on teaching the TEKS you need to know for 7th grade or modeling character qualities that will carry you through your adolescent years, like kindness and courage.

We have much to learn and very little time. You with me?

All my love,

Ms. Jackson

Dear Omar

Dear Omar,

Can I let you in on a secret? I hate standardized testing almost as much as you do.

For teachers, MAP testing is a logistical and emotional nightmare. Shouldering the stress of 102 preteens who want to prove that they are smarter than an often-ambiguous test is nerve-wracking. Battling 34 computers in various states of reliability with chargers and extension cords everywhere is enough to drive a teacher mad.

“What’s this word?”

I can’t tell you that. It’s a reading test.

“The “M” key is missing. I can’t type my answer.”

It’s right here. Press this divot in the keyboard.

“My internet isn’t working.”

Have you tried hitting the refresh button?

“My computer just crashed.”

Why isn’t the charger plugged in?

“I’m distracted. Nelson is breathing real loud.”

Despite all the frustrations and the grueling three-hour testing blocks, today was an incredible day. You had the second highest growth in the entire 6th grade: 22 points in 5 months. Elisa grew 19, Angelique 21, and Keenan grew 39 points.

I am ridiculously proud of you. In fact, I am especially proud of you. Keenan exhibited more growth, yes, but he told me that he didn’t put forth his best effort on the fall assessment, so his amount of growth is a little inflated. I have watched you pour your energy into these exams and into class every day without fail. Your growth is impressive, but not astonishing. Your growth is an accurate reflection of your hard work and effort.

Hard work pays off, and you should be very proud of yourself. Keep up the good work!

All my love,

-Ms. Jackson

Dear Julian

education, photography

Dear Julian,

I am holding you to a high standard.

Yes, you could say I’m being picky. Writing your first and last name on every paper you turn in is required in this classroom. You are not a rock star, yet. Once upon a time, even Oprah, Bono and Rihanna had to write their full names in English class. Someday, when the world knows you as “Julian, just Julian,” you are welcome to perfect your autograph. Until then, I expect to be able to read a legible version of your first and last name at the top of every paper I receive from you.

The rumors are true. I’m cracking down on spelling and punctuation as well. By this point in the year, we should all know the difference between “their, they’re and there.” Words that are included in the reading passage must be spelled correctly in your answer. And for goodness’ sake, you must have a period, exclamation point or question mark at the end of every sentence and a capital letter at the beginning of the next one! By the way, abbreviations are not suitable for academic writing. LOL. #smh

Why does this matter?

I’m not trying to torture you with nit-picky details. I’m training you for excellence.

Think about playing soccer. Imagine that Coach Maddox shows up to practice today and instructs you all to run a warm-up lap around the field.

Let’s say that instead of running your lap, you decide to walk, and Coach doesn’t stop you. What happens next week? You’ll probably walk again and again until maybe you even stop taking a warm-up lap at all.

Before long, you’ll be sitting in the grass, staring at your cleats, while your teammates become faster and stronger with each lap they run. All you’ll become is smug and stagnant. While it probably seems like you got an easy break, the small habit of choosing not to run will negatively affect you when it matters most.

If Coach did not hold you responsible for showing up to practice and putting in your best effort every time, you would not develop the discipline and skills you need to be excellent.

Do you think Messi sits out his warm-up lap? Or is he the one leading his team in both the daily disciplines at practice and the number of goals scored on an international stage?

Excellence is in the small details. Academically and athletically, you have the potential to be great. Start by taking pride in your work. I’ll know you’re proud of what you turn into me when I see your full name, best handwriting and spelling.

As small and significant as a warm-up lap, these habits will serve you well if you invest in them.

All my love,

-Ms. Jackson

Dear Keandra

education, photography

Dear Keandra,

They are wrong.

Ugly is not your reflection in the mirror but a reflection of their character.

Ugly is on the inside, festering under their skin.

They are wrong, and they are bullying you.

“Horse Face,” Mark Milligan smirked as he slid into the seat next to me on the first day of seventh grade. “We’ll call the new girl Horse Face!”

Everyone got a good laugh except for the apparently long-nosed, big teethed girl sitting in my desk. His words, foolish and mean-spirited, drew enormous, hot tears from my equine eyes.

More than a decade has passed since that traumatic first day of seventh grade, and yet I’m still a little insecure about whether my face actually does favor, of all creatures, a horse.

Ugly, ugly, ugly. It’s time for a realignment of the way we talk about what counts as ugly. Faces and braces, frizzy hairs and gawking stares, vicious lies and teary eyes. We have to stop tearing each other down and confront our own insecurities deep within.

That’s why those girls are saying mean things about you. You know that, right? They’re insecure, so they say something ugly before someone else can call them the very words they’re using to put you down.

It will get better. I have already met with the girls and their parents. Insecure or not, there is no excuse for the way they are treating you, and it has been made clear exactly what their consequences will be if they continue to bully you.

They are wrong about you. You are full of beauty and strength. Keep your chin up. They don’t deserve to get you down.

All my love,

-Ms. Jackson