Today, as I begin the second year of my seventh decade—with kind and generous missives filling my microscopic corner of Cyberspace—I struggle to understand the clash of gratitude and sadness with which I sit.
A few hours ago, Judi and I left “Charm City”, the place our daughter has taken up residence for two years following her tenure at Illinois Wesleyan University. If you are unaware, as I was until three days ago, CharmCity is a moniker pinned upon the city of Baltimore, Maryland as an unintended consequence of marketing promotion in the early 1970s.
As I sit in the lobby of the hotel that marks the half-way point of our journey home, the clash of emotions I struggle to understand emanate from a few brief moments gifted to me by Kathryn and her fellow Teach For America corps members. This is an amazing group with whom she will share uncountable moments of laughter and joy, spawned by days marked by success; and perhaps just as many tinged by and tears and heartbreak as a result of best efforts that fall just short of their extraordinary dreams.
Just 23 years ago, Wendy Kopp proposed the idea for Teach For America in her Princeton University undergraduate thesis. Since then, nearly 33,000 participants have reached more than 3 million children nationwide with a simple but ennobling vision for America: “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.”
To meet members of the 2012 corps, you cannot help but recognize them as cohorts in education. But in meeting them, you would expect them to be headed for the halls of America’s best graduate schools—not the hallways and classrooms of the nation’s most lost and neglected elementary and high schools. These amazing young adults are bright, articulate and determined. But what truly sets them apart is their incredible passion for what they are about to undertake. As we sat at breakfast yesterday morning, Andrew, who is headed for an underprivileged middle school science classroom, explained that while science is his medium, his goal is nothing less than “to break the cycle of poverty in America.” This was not the sentiment of one isolated member of this corps; it is shared by more than 5000 of his cohorts stationed across the United States, waiting for their moment to begin.
In order to have this opportunity to change the lives of those so often lost, these newly minted graduates have been through extraordinary preparation: a difficult selection process, challenging praxis exams and a grueling 5-week program to draw out their natural ability to help those around them discover the intricacies and importance of the subjects they have chosen.
Just after I woke this morning, my phone buzzed, indicating another birthday wish had fallen from Cyberspace; this one from a new friend on Facebook. Ironically, this message was from a former student, from the days in the late 1970s when I taught high school math, coincidently not too many hours from Charm City.
It is from this message, and my three days with Kathryn and her friends, that the tangle of emotions arises. I know intimately those moments of extraordinary joy when you look into—and through—the eyes of a young protégé and suddenly understand the wonders and intricacies of the Universe in a nuanced new way. While the word was not used this past weekend, it is in those moments we truly understand what it means to love.
What I cannot know, what I may never know, is the sadness they will experience…sadness seeded by the depth of their dreams, and their hopes for their students and the world. When I began teaching, I did not even know such dreams were possible.
When what we want for this world is informed by the depth of our greatest passions and animated by our uninhibited generosity, the inevitable setbacks, no matter how small, tear deeply into our very being. It is that deep pain that is the price we pay for love.