No matter where I go or who I am speaking with, my career as a teacher is inevitably brought up. "You're a teacher?" people ask me. "Where?" I always answer proudly, "Vashon High School." It's funny. Many times people mistake Vashon for Duchesne. They think Vashon is an all girls' school, or a small private school. When I further enunciate Va-shon, their eyes twinkle knowingly. Some people tiptoe around things. Others come right out and say it: "That's the school on the news. All African-American, right?"
It's not that they are explicitly racist. Their biases are often a result of the crass sensationalism in the newspapers and the vivid negative images drummed up by the local television news. On the nights when Vashon makes the television news, folks in the apartment building come down to see if I am alright. The media feeds a stereotype of wild, uncontrollable kids.
As a graduate of Indiana University, I applied and was one of 1,200 corps members nationally to be accepted into Teach For America. This organization takes the best college graduates, rigorously trains us, and places us in the most challenging school districts in urban and rural areas. Our main purpose is to close the achievement gap that is so wide among rich and poor people, which often coincides with race.
When I arrived in St. Louis three years ago, I was bombarded by perceptions and stereotypes about Vashon. I heard great things about the basketball team, and conversely how horribly behaved the students were. On one hand, as an Indiana Hoosier I was excited for the basketball, and hoped the negative things I heard were not true.
My first year of teaching was tough. I worked hard to establish classroom discipline, culture and academic achievement. One day would be exhilarating as I found a lesson that worked, while the next day might be depressing because of a confrontation with a student. People would ask me if teaching at Vashon was hard, or if I "feared for your safety." I certainly didn't feel unsafe, and I am adamant in my belief that teaching is hard no matter where you teach, and the first year will always be the pinnacle of the challenge.
One of the things I remember most fondly was founding the Vashon Poetry Jam. We examined poetry from Tupac Shakur to Ezra Pound. My kids wrote their own poetry daily as we worked through the different tools and techniques. It was capped off with a public performance in a "jam setting" complete with candles, incense and soft music. Students expressed themselves with mighty fervor, parents came in droves to watch, and other students begged teachers to let them come see "the Jam." Now in its third year, we have expanded to the auditorium. My kids' poetry gets better each year, as I get better. And we even got covered on an AM television broadcast this year.
The Vashon Poetry Jam taught me many lessons about myself and more importantly, my students. I was finally able to cut through the mess of what people were telling me about Vashon, and see the reality: my students have eyes, ears, mouths, hope and dreams just like any other children their age. When you give them the opportunity to succeed, they step up and succeed.
Is it tougher for my students than these "other kids?" Maybe. Many of my kids lead lives that would put most adults I know into convulsions. It's tough being young. It's tough being young without any access to opportunity. My job is to give them that opportunity and my salary is augmented by the joy I get from being able to be the one that gives them that opportunity.
This year my third at Vashon I set a goal to start an AP English program at Vashon. AP stands for Advanced Placement. Most high schools have at least one or two AP classes from which students can choose. Vashon has none. When I asked my students only two out of 180 had even heard of the test. That's not sad. That's not upsetting. That borders on criminal. AP courses and exams are seen as marks of critical thinkers by college admissions counselors. Good AP exam scores can earn college credit and placement almost $3,000 at some universities. It is one of the keys that unlock the door to higher education and we are denying a whole segment of the population access to these keys. This response really vivified the criminal inequities in our education system for me while inspiring me to plan longer, work harder and expect even more of my students.
I'm now five months into my third year. My students are working hard. They are thinking critically. They are eager to come to class, read our books, and write their assignments. Are things perfect? Absolutely not. Textbook, novel and other supply shortages abound. Discipline flare-ups occur. TV cameras and district chaos trickle down. But when I shut the door in room F241, I get to see almost 200 students transform daily from the stereotypes, biases and low expectations we as a society hold for them into scholars and persistent thinkers, looking to a bright future.
I invite anyone who would like to come visit with my students to please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at school at 314-533-9487. Ask for Mr. Gubitz. Come mentor, teach, donate a copy of your favorite novel, or just observe to combat your own biases. I'm sure you will feel what I feel and walk away thinking about how you can help give every child, no matter where they live, access to opportunity.
Ronald Gubitz teaches English at Vashon High School.