Private school student learns as he teaches in Baltimore public schools

“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” I remember reading this line In Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” but as profound as it is, I didn’t quite fully grasp it until I put it into practice.

In our final semester, every student at The Park School of Baltimore completes a six-week senior project — an opportunity to experience life beyond our usual high school environment. I chose to work at a Baltimore City public charter school, an experience that was both eye-opening and rewarding.

I approached the project with trepidation because so much of what I’d heard anecdotally about Baltimore City schools was discouraging and seemed to focus on the many challenges facing the system. But I quickly learned that city schools abound with passion and determination, and that every day, teachers and students are harnessing potential to overcome those challenges. I realized I could be a small part of eliminating the biases against Baltimore’s schools simply by bringing empathy and an open mind.

On my first day, I was nervous and second-guessing my teaching abilities, but the students fixed that almost immediately. They were excited to see not only a new teacher but also a young teacher of color, who looked like most of them. I was there to help them learn, and in turn, allow them to teach me a thing or two as well.

Despite our similarities in appearance, I quickly realized that the lives of the students were very different from my own. Some of the students had endured more hardships than any child should. One day, when a colleague was leading a meditation lesson, a student volunteered to share a stressful situation he was hoping to address through the exercise. He went on to tell us how his home was recently raided and his father taken away. Another student asked me about my home life and was shocked to hear that I live with both of my parents.

The challenges these students face at home were clearly taking a toll on their school work. Though they were undeniably smart and capable, many students simply lacked the home environment they needed to succeed — one that encourages them to finish their homework and to supplement classroom work with reading and writing in their free time. Their home environments were so completely unlike my own that I became even more committed to being a stable figure in their lives, even just temporarily.

Like their year-round teachers, I wanted to empower and encourage my students. Not by fixing their problems or struggles, but by making them feel seen, heard and understood. I aimed to help at least one student learn something they might not have cared about otherwise. I strived to do simple things like bring a smile to a student’s face. I’d like to think that I played a small part in helping them realize they are smart, talented and have something to offer.

My experience got me thinking: What if we approached all of Baltimore’s children from a new point of view? What if, for a moment, we ignored the dollar amount it takes to put them through school and focused on their potential to grow and shape the future of our city and country? Our youth are more than numbers — they have big dreams and big promise. It’s time we model what Harper Lee discussed in “To Kill A Mockingbird” and try to see the world from their perspective. We might just learn something.

Toni Elewa-Gidado (tonigidado1@gmail.com) is a recent graduate from The Park School of Baltimore.

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