These Words They Are a-Changin'

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 15 2012

“All The Children Are Above Average”

I need to give a quick shout of thanks to Garrison Keillor.

Yesterday was interview day, and while it didn’t produce the results I wanted, it at least gave me a comforting experience with one of the interviewers.

“So,” he said, looking at my resume. “Did Garrison Keillor drive you down here,” (I laughed) “and are you from Lake Woebegon?”

“Where all the children are above average!” I replied.

We both chuckled at the thought of a town with an entire population of children performing better than average, a running line from Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion radio series. This opening moment, however insignificant, cheered me. Yes, a few people in Chicago do have some idea of where I’m coming from: rural Minnesota.

You probably think that I shouldn’t be experiencing such a disconnect, because Chicago isn’t that far away from Minnesota. It really isn’t: According to GoogleMaps, there are only 409 miles of interstate between Minneapolis and the Windy City, which translates into 7.5 hrs in the car (or 1.5 in the airplane). But I’m not from Minneapolis, I’m from a place pretty similar in size to Keillor’s Lake Woebegone. It’s tiny town with a lot of heart and community, which is tough when I’m trying to market myself (such an awkward verb, but I’m being honest) to principals managing urban schools.

I found myself faced this question yesterday: “Why urban education?” It sort of caught me off-guard, even though it shouldn’t have. I’ve been contextualizing these schools as low-income and low-resourced schools rather than urban schools, so I had to think a bit. Why? Good question. Why not return to a rural area, perhaps TFA’s regions in Appalacia, the Delta, the Rio Grande Valley, or South Dakota? I can relate to those schools much more than I can to urban schools.

Then again, my hometown wasn’t a picturesque, stereotypical Minnesotan community like Lake Woebegone. Every student wasn’t above average (which takes literally what Keillor says tongue-in-cheek, but still). Our school failed to make AYP just like the urban MN schools. I lived in a low-income community. Our school population was at least 40% Hmong, making my high school more diverse than my college. Who pushed me to apply to a (more rigorous than expected) college no one from my high school had attended in 10 years? My parents and myself (in other words, not my teachers). So, I think I can relate to the challenges urban education on some level, even if it’s not to the same extent.

I don’t know what to do. Maybe I should stop including my rural high school education in my interview story. I can’t quite decide. It’s an integral part of what inspired me to join TFA in the first place, but if it’s going to get in the way of my hiring opportunities, it might not be worth sharing up front.

Whatever ends up happening, I’m aware that Lake Woebegone is somewhere far away from me, and that it never existed in reality. I know Chicago’s schools are perhaps the antithesis of “all the children are above average.” There’s work to be done, and I want to do it. I just need a school.

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