Sunday, June 26, 2011

Home in Mississippi

Dear Friends,

There’s been a vast improvement in my life since I last wrote. I am no longer sick, and I will be teaching English. The latter occurred because it turned out TFA slotted a Social Studies Education major to teach English in my same district. The timing of placement and superintendent preferences created the mishap, but due to a talking to the right people it’s been resolved. Needless to say, I’m relieved.

For the past week I’ve been teaching summer school at Gentry High School. I have eleven students who will be juniors in the fall. In the short span of five days I’ve already come to know them a great deal. One student told me, “Mr. Stevens I wish you were staying here in the fall. If you were my teacher I’d come to school everyday.” The novelty of being the new young teacher has its perks. Another student I have, recorded on his goal sheet, that he wants to enter the music industry. He expresses little emotion and is quiet. When I placed information about free music editing software on a post-it and gave it to him, he held it with a huge grin like it was a check for a million dollars. These small moments make the long days of planning worth it.
***
My days start at 4:45am. I shower (the door to the bathroom revolving as my roommate suite mate and I get ready for the day), run through my checklist to make sure that everything I need is packed up and head off to breakfast by 5:30. Since two Mondays ago they’ve really smoothed the system out, but for awhile getting breakfast was the day’s greatest challenge. Some 800 Corps Members (CMs) surge outside the cafeteria. They flick off mosquitoes and move from foot to foot as if a hop-scotch game were starting at any moment. We all stink of bugs spray and nostalgically think back to the bliss of having one’s eyes closed. Once inside a breakfast of eggs, biscuits, potatoes and fruit were assembled. The mass of people splitting off with plates, coffee cops, backpacks, and sacks full of supplies precariously balanced in hand. We all bus our dishes and rush around the corner to fill up our Delta State lunch boxes. Some take more than the recommended number of items from each table. They snatch quickly and glance around careful not to make eye contact with other CMs, out of shame or anxiety about the implications of conspiracy one could not say. From there we flood out to the lot full of school buses. A staff member stands in front of a huge stereo with an iPod plugged into it. Music blasts us as were handed a news brief, and the sun begins to sneak into the world making the sky glow gun metal gray. Piled on the buses we head out one by one to our school sites. Crammed into the gray seats tattooed by student graffiti (usually a students name followed by profanity).Some sleep, some type frantically on their laptops and others listen to music and watch the fields roll by. The forty five minute bus ride is nothing. Distance no longer has the impact it did up north because there’s so little traffic. The scenery outside the windows is gorgeous and expansive. You can see ten miles (as the crow flies) in each direction, and that is quite relaxing. The fields are primarily populated with corn, cotton and soy beans. The green so bright it’s startling.




We roll into Gentry at 7:00am if not earlier and all march to our classrooms after signing in. Everyone – and I really mean everyone – is excited to be there. The enthusiasm of some forty type A high achieving people is contagious. At 7:30 we start school duty, running the cafeteria for breakfast, ushering students off their bus and holding them until the 7:55 bell. At 12:15 students break for lunch and we resume our responsibilities until 1pm, when we escort the last student through the smoldering parking lot and onto their bus. The school is almost entirely run by TFA staff, and the logistics behind it give me a headache, but we have an amazing school organizer. After that we’re in development sessions until 4:30, we take the bus home eat dinner and lesson plan, submit data and have meetings back on campus or additional sessions until 9:30. 4:45am comes pretty fast after that.
***
Gentry High School is a humbling place. There are no overhead projectors. The school looks like it got in a bad fight twenty years ago and never sought medical assistance, but it has charm and the people working there add to it. In the cafeteria there are numerous posters warning against pregnancy. One (photo to come soon) features an African-American girl from 1983 dressed in a plaid shirt with her hair done up. The top says it only takes once. She’s pictured weight shifted on one foot, hands on hips, eight times. Her expression shifts slightly in each one. Emblazoned above each pose is the word “NO” seven times. On the eighth it changes to “YES” and she’s pregnant.

Upon entering the school you encounter the trophy case and graduating class photos and Mississippi humidity. Thankfully the classrooms are well air conditioned. Our classroom (room 18) works great though. We have a huge white board and no broken windows. We have a college scholars and Shout-out board to encourage our students. In five short days the room feels like our room.
***
There’s more to tell. I’ll write soon. Mississippi is growing on me, and TFA is really giving me the growth I sought when I started the drive down here on June 6th. I hope life is going well for you all where ever this letter finds you. Your support and kinds words have been much appreciated.

Much love,

Andrew

Sunday, June 19, 2011

First Day of Summer School

Dear Ypsilanti,


Tomorrow is the first day of school. There’s much to be done between then and now.I’ve got an upper repertory infection yet again, which means all I want to do is sleep. In Mississippi you can’t get products with Sudafed without a prescription, so that makes medicating more complicated. This information became apparent at the Wal-Mart.
Me: Do you have Advil Cold and Sinus?
Wal-Mart: You have to have a prescription
Me: Isn’t it an over the counter medicine?
Wal-Mart: Mississippi passed a law that says.. (past a laawwww sayze)…

Though that encounter itself is not too traumatic, it was the last inline on a string of events –combined with being exhausted all the time – that left me a little frustrated. It seems that I’m slotted to teach Social Studies in the fall instead of English, and there’s no one to really appeal on that. I may still try. The days are going from 4:30am to 10pm, and writing sentences is proving challenging. Every thought is interrupted with the bold letters B-E-D.

All in all Institute (the training period I’m in right now) is proving to be everything and more I was warned about.

A second year Corps member I went to high school with anticipated this. She gave me a package made up of five smaller boxes, one for each week of Institute. Each one contains an opening letter, a motivational note (to be opened on Wednesdays), some supplies for that week and sometimes animal crackers. Yeah, she’s pretty great.
I spent yesterday asleep, and I will spend today making sure all my ducks are in a row for tomorrow. This means a really long to do list.

I’ll be teaching High School Combo with Biology. That means two 135 minute blocks (One Bio One ELA). I trade off days with another English Language Arts (ELA) Corps member and our students are in the same room from 8am until 12:10pm. The highs school is in rough shape. No technology and a new Principal starting Monday. We’re thinking the service project we might do for them will be a cleaning day. The school for the summer is entirely TFA Corps Members. That’s both inspiring and insane at the same time. The bottom line: start your engines because here we go.

Live from the Mississippi Delta,

Andrew



Image taken from: http://xkcd.com/911/

PS

There’s much more to discuss and I hope to write again soon.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Meeting the Mayor

Dear Ypsilanti,




Allow me some Self Indulgent emotional navel gazing:
Growth sieges the body. It is an unsympathetic pursuer of a new you and much will have to fall away for it to ripen. One manifestation, for me, is that in seeing the opportunities in the Delta I feel like I’m betraying those I have left at home. Intellectually I can understand the false logic of this statement, but emotionally it is a letting go of one place for another. The relationships, memories and experiences tied to a place become cemented in the past. They are no longer evoked in the interaction with a space, but only in long distance communication and mental recall. Transitioning from the stimulating environment of Ypsilanti to the new and invisible (though temporarily so) of the Delta is challenging. Challenging is an inadequate word if one ever existed, but it will do -enough emotional navel gazing.

I can say that my mood has severely improved since I wrote that first paragraph. I had dinner at the Mayor of Cleveland, Mississippi’s house.

(The Mayor is the one in red)


He and some local celebrities created a meal of fried catfish, chicken, squash casserole, cheesy grits, banana pudding, black eyed peas, black eyed peas with rice and collard greens -plus, all the free fine scotch, bourbon, gin, vodka, wine and beer one could want. They do know how to throw a party down here. The community members were extremely welcoming and appreciative. They emphasized how wonderful they thought it was that we all came to the Delta.

When pouring my second scotch someone said, “Oh, Andrew’s Episcopalian.” The man looked over and said, “Well, I can see that he’s the only one who made it straight for the scotch.” The man looked surprisingly like Ted Kennedy. He informed me about the entire goings on of the church and the Delta. He introduced me to his friend who said, “We don’t have coffee hour after church, we have happy hour – the priest doesn’t call it that.” She laughed and touched me arm in the Mayor mansion’s backyard. A 6’5” river tug boat tycoon ran the bar and kept replenishing my glass.

After that I sat with a man who told me this, “We’re one of the few cities that have mosquito control. You see those trucks driving around shooting that smoke in the air? That’s not marijuana, so don’t drive behind it. Every once and awhile you’ll see a plane fly over too. Keeps those skeeters at bay.”
“What’s in the spray?”
“Mosquito killer.”
(He did solve a mystery. Those trucks drive around late at night hitting all the side streets jetting brown smoke into the air. The device in the truck bed looks like something from a Steam Punk novel.)

***
Somewhere in that evening I realized that I could love this place. The Delta is complicated though.

Mississippi State Flag:






Two Mississippi newspapers documented the evening. When that article posts I’ll let y’all know.
***
Once back at the Dorm I heard about the other cohorts’ community dinners (we’re divided into fifteen cohorts, and each group was invited to separate house). My roommate had dinner with a Senator and concert pianist. Others ate with the Chamber of Commerce and something called Ottomans, which we’ve inferred is neither the ancient empire nor the furniture you put your feet on. If I had to guess it’s something close to the Elks club.

Post dinner the resident party people rounded up the troops and tromped their way over to Hey Joe’s and the Warehouse. As in our first year of college hook up culture thrives. Give high achieving people access to alcohol and semi private rooms and they lay your ear to the ground for gossip. The peacocks fan their feathers and caw on the sidewalks. I took it easy this time.
***
Today (Saturday) is the day of the fish fry in Greenville, plus B.B. King is playing close by as well. I got the chance to sleep in today while everyone else went to take their Praxis test (the teacher certification test) – I guess student teaching did have some more concrete perks after all.

Sincerely,

Andrew (Staying Iron Tough)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Need for Speed IV: Tractor Showdown

Dear Ypsilanti,

I’m about sleep for the second night in the state of Mississippi. There are 317 new people here with me, plus second year Corps members, and staff. We are Legion. Last night I went with three guys to watch the NBA Finals. One was from Miami, the other Dallas and the other Sacramento. We had a good time and the Dallas Miami connection made the game more engaging. When do you get that level of emotional involvement?



Hey Joe's is a little Indie bar near a Delta State University. The servers were friendly and accommodating to the Corps members that swarmed that bar. Old Rolling Stone Magazines were cut up and stuck under plastic at each table. The table cloths, combined with the record store at the front, gave the whole place a comforting aura. While we drank a rusted suit of armor hung suspended from the ceiling and oversaw our attempt to get acclaimed with Cleveland, Mississippi.
***
It’s crazy to meet people who have never been to Michigan, let alone Ypsilanti. I feel small. The network I established is way up there and now I’m way down here in a dorm room with suitemates and a roommate from Idaho. I’m typing this while sprawled out on my dorm mattress and all its glory. In many ways this feels like step back. Five weeks of dorm food and dorm life, but there is air conditioning. I look past these five weeks and see the challenges of first year teaching, but also my own place. There’s a vision of hanging up all the pictures I had framed before I left and filling my bookshelves…all those nest building activities.
***
I’m extremely grateful to be here. Each moment I spend with Teach for America I realize what an amazing opportunity I’ve stumbled into. Everyone around me has accomplished so much, and the diversity is incredible.
***




When I first drove into the Delta I merged off the main freeway onto the small side road that took me all the way to Delta State. I drove past an hour of cotton and wheat fields. I’ve never sweat so much in my life. On the way I passed a police car. The sirens flashed and wailed, all in the effort to intimidate the tractor driver in his cab fifteen feet above the ground. At the moment, drenched in salt water under the oppressive dominance of the sun, the difference of the Delta began to show itself.
***
Tomorrow I have the hiring fair, which will allegedly secure me a placement (which is the term TFA uses for teaching position). From 9am to 1pm I’ll be at Delta State’s Coliseum meeting with many of the Delta’s Administrators (No doubt I am a gladiator). On Saturday we’re being welcomed to Greenville for the annual Catfish Fry. TFA’s paying for all our beer and fish (all we can and eat and drink). I know I’ll have some good stories to regard that.

***

I’ll have more to report soon that’s exciting and intellectual. For now you’re getting my diary style letters.

Oh one last thing. Delta State's Mascott is the Fighting Okra



Need I say more?

Love,

Andrew

PS leave a comment.It can be a hip-hop track or a picture of you giving me the thumbs up, whatever you'd like.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Dear Ypsilanti

Dear Ypsilanti,

My adventure has begun. I’m Oak Ridge Tennessee for the night and tomorrow, in the wee hours of the morn, I will start out toward Cleveland Mississippi. Once I’m there I hit the ground running. The 9th is a mass interview day during which I will hopefully secure a placement at a school. It’d be nice to have one less thing to worry about.

Midway through the drive yesterday I stopped to get two large iced coffees and a Five Hour Energy. I called a friend a told him about the drive and how hilarious it felt to be holding so much legal speed in my hands. When I hung up I realized that all the people I could normally walk to see would soon be a thousand miles away…literally. With all the goodbyes I’ve had the past month it never felt like I was actually leaving. The brain cannot process that fact that the person standing right in front of you will soon be that far. Even being in Oak Ridge it doesn’t feel like I’m that far, until you look at a map, and even then what does that prove? When you drive for that long you enter a kind of trance, especially if there’s good music on. Hurtling down through Ohio and into the foothills of the Smokey Mountains you know you’re going far, but at the same time you can’t believe it.

Place is always a complicated matter. And it is further complicated by the speed at which we can travel.

Forgive the sloppiness of this post, but I simply wanted to get the correspondence started before things really got hectic. I’m going to end with the letter that I sent to Teach for America that started this whole adventure (forgive the comma errors, but commas and I have always had a complicated relationship):

To Whom It May Concern:

Working with young adults is the most important work there is. They reward, energize, challenge, and question in a way that few adults do. But, youth, even without the constraints of poverty and inequitable access to educational resources, is an intensely developmental phase. It is a time of over stimulation, when life choices are arguably more abundant than any other time. Students need a giving and compassionate adult to help them through that time. Often that adult is a teacher.
A handful of teachers and school staff had enough compassion to encourage me to pursue post-secondary education instead of military service. As a result, I am a first generation college student; without those few teachers I would not be the person I am today.

I believe teaching is worthwhile work because people are changed by it. Lives are transformed. I have not only experienced this first hand, but, embrace it as my calling. To teach means to invest great energy into assisting others in making these gainful intellectual and social transformations.

I went through my K-12 education in survival mode brought on by fatigue, dwindling resources and distraction. When I student taught I saw this same struggle in the at-risk students I worked with. When in this mind set students are not as fully cognizant of the transformations they are undergoing. The school day is glimpsed through a fog where whatever is happening on the board, in a textbook, or the lab does not connect. As a student teacher I was able to make that connection with students, and strive to do the same as a corps member. With connection, school becomes relevant, a place for growth, a place to be heard and a place of empowerment.

Once a connection has been made I strive to make literature and writing useful and a part of students’ lives. Writing has been a constant in my life. I believe everyone can, and should, write because it is in reflection that students can create their own narrative. They can break from who they are told they are and become who they want to be.

My success in TFA would be gauged in the rapport I develop with students and their families and students abilities to express and articulate their thoughts and understanding in writing. Teaching students to write, argue, to have a say prepares them not only to participate (e.g., vote intelligently) but also to effect change. Once my students gain the spark of curiosity that sets them on a path to being a life long learners, then they are no longer are dependent on me and can change their world.

Sincerely,

Andrew P. Stevens