National Writing Project

Why I Became a Teacher

By: Rachel Bronwyn
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 6, No. 3
Date: May-June 2001

Summary: Rachel Bronwyn describes her pull toward teaching--despite expectations by friends and family to pursue something more lucrative--as a way to take personal responsibility for educational inequalities.


Quick. She's coming. Down the other stairs, feet silent on the carpet. Maybe someone will call on the phone, and she won't be so mad.

Someone left the freezer door open. Mom is certain that the meat is ruined. She is on her stomach in front of the house pounding her hands and head on the driveway.

I turn down the covers of her bed and lay out her nightgown on the coverlet. I could not find any chocolate wrapped in foil, so I leave a stick of gum instead.

Put the dishes in the dishwasher before she gets home. She likes the kitchen tidy.

Someone spilled his milk during dinner. Hours of effort are instantaneously erased.

The world seemed brutally unpredictable until I finally learned to read in the third grade. Letters began to form patterns; words followed each other in straight lines to construct paragraphs; ideas emerge; narratives were shaped with certainty. Even the pages were numbered. I retreated into the world of books. In the most difficult books there are discernible geometries. Disasters are caused yet can be avoided. A single insight unravels mysteries. People are predictable--seemingly effortless design governs the structure of their lives. Books became more real than my life.

By the sixth grade, I was reading almost a book a day. Huddled in the forgotten places of our old farmhouse, I would read guiltily, believing that my pleasure was unearned. I don't remember many of the books that I read that year. The stories did not matter much; what mattered was the book's ability to absorb me whole, to let me drown in its characters and setting.

My English teacher, Mrs. Harris, had us keep a record of the books we read that year. I read one hundred and thirty?seven books. The record sheets taped to my folder were battered and curled--sloppy with disinterested handwriting. Though I won a prize for reading the most books, I did not particularly care. I was not competing with anyone; I was escaping. Books fulfilled my desire to create order out of the loneliness of chaos.

But my earnest investment in reading excited the interest of my teachers. They began to notice me, and they naturally began to treat me in the way that teachers seem to treat students whom they believe to be exceptionally bright. Though I was determined to pass unnoticed at home, I was soon singled out at school. And just as books had emerged with a narrative certainty, school became a passage that I could navigate with assurance. I started to type my homework on an old typewriter that my father had used to write his college thesis. I read ahead in my history book. I plodded silently through the dull text of the science book. I began to write stories that were pages and pages longer than anyone else's. I would go to any length to convince my teachers of my serious, scholarly intent.

I have always believed that teachers saved my life. They were able to push back the violence of existence that threatened to unravel my belief in possibility.

In the seventh grade, I began commuting an hour into the city to attend a prep school. My parents' money was not wasted. I was accepted at Princeton University and spent four years working feverishly to satisfy my own outrageous expectations. I graduated with honors, a scholarship to pursue a master's in art history at Williams College, and the shameful desire to become a teacher. When a person goes to Princeton, he is not expected to become a teacher, much less a teacher at a public school. My parents wanted me to become a lawyer. My friends were all searching for consultant jobs in which they could spend two years gaining experience before they went back to graduate school to collect MBAs or JDs. Teaching was regarded as a sacrifice, not a profession. People became teachers instead of joining the Peace Corps. Yet my intentions were as embarrassingly sincere as the naked plea of my typed homework.

I might have let the force of practical considerations and the weight of my parent's disapprobation persuade me to distrust my intentions. I could have quietly relinquished my desires and learned to forget them. But I had read a book that convinced me that my private desires had some public worth; moreover the book also seemed to offer a way that I could covertly re-enact the justice that I had longed for as a child.

I found Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities while I was doing research for my senior thesis. I took the time to read his book, because it was obliquely related to my topic, the politics of documentary representation. His book was also easier to read than the other more theoretical texts through which I had been plodding. I consumed the book in one sitting. When I finally looked up from the long table in the library, I felt unsettled and confused. Though easy to read, Savage Inequalities was enormously difficult to take; it was an unabashedly biased accusation. Again and again, Kozol angrily asked the reader why children in poor neighborhoods should be forced to settle for less--for fewer books, for barely maintained facilities, for inexperienced or uncredentialed teachers, for limited opportunities. How could these children ever expect to compete with the students in other districts where the local government is willing and able to lavishly fund their schools? How could these children ever catch up?

The unvarnished truth is this--children in impoverished neighborhoods who attend substandard schools don't usually catch up. When they do, they are ruthlessly used as symbols of the rightness of our society's investment in Emersonian notions of self?reliance. We use these miraculous children--the ones who make it--to reassure ourselves that our social policies are just. The success of a few individuals is used to obfuscate the reality of what they survived and the number of children who did not make it. My ability to survive my mother's mental illness does not mean that my house was a safe place to grow up. My A.B. from Princeton, my M.A. from Williams, my recent acceptance into a Ph.D. program mean only that I was a cautious child who instinctively knew how to work within the system of school. Even now, as my mother uses my academic accomplishments as proof of her own success as a mother, I know they point only to my resilience.

Kozol's book is particularly compelling, because he takes this strategy that our society uses to exonerate itself from charges of social injustice and turns it inside out. Instead of using stories of individual successes as proofs of possibility, he uses the stories of individuals in order to argue for the justice they deserve. Kozol carefully focuses the documentary intentions of his book on individual children and uses their situations to reflect the effects of thoughtless educational and social policies. Though their youthful innocence and enthusiasm seemingly predict a limitless potential, the reader must acknowledge that eventually it will become impossible for most to keep pace with their wealthier peers. The reader gets to "know" individual children only to have to face the reality that these same children are being mistreated by our society. Kozol's book makes it impossible not to feel responsible.

Becoming a teacher allowed me to take some measure of responsibility for my students' stories. Though often incoherent or fragmentary, they are powerful. They demand an audience, and more importantly, they demand the type of teaching that will allow the tellers to emerge with powerful narratives. My students need to be able to make sense of their lives. If they are not able to construct their own narratives, they will not be able to imagine a multitude of possible endings.

Rocio M. described how when she was 10 years old, she told her father that he could not hit or bite her mother anymore. The youngest in the family, she managed to end years of abuse that no one had had the courage to confront. Gabriela T. explained how her mother ran away when she was 15 with a man who promised her a job but instead locked her inside a room until she agreed to have sex with him. Gabriela was born as a result; she lived with her grandparents until she was 11. Paty M.'s older brother is in prison; he is her favorite person in the world. He tries to let her know that he made mistakes; he wants her to be different. Carmelo M. was repeatedly shot at on the way to school this year because his brothers are in gangs and rivals recognize the family's car.

Each day, more stories are added, and narratives that have only begun are enriched with detail created by the maturity of new understanding. Their stories become a silent chorus that accompanies all the lessons that I teach. And because of this, I cannot help but believe that bad teaching is not only thievery; it is like murder, because it does violence to possibility.

About the Author RACHEL BRONWYN teaches English at Orange Glen High School in Escondido, California. She is a member of the San Diego Area Writing Project.

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