I smiled and replied, “Of course not.”
“Well what about the other elective teachers? What about the piano instructor?”
“I don’t know. I’m sure some of them do.”
“Then why would you do it?”
“I enjoy being around you all, and its my way of giving back. I’d hope that you all will feel inclined to do the same…Right?”
We all laughed.
This was the second classroom exchange in which my high school students questioned my incentive to work with them. Perhaps it won’t be the last. But I guess it is a fair question. Why would a graduate student training to teach at the collegiate level volunteer his (fleeting) time to work with high school students?
In all honesty, I’ve dreamt about doing this for quite some time. The school that I teach at isn’t random—I had the privilege of attending for two years when my family made the trek back to R.I. from Texas in 2006. It is a small charter school with a track record of placing its students, mostly black and latino, from low to middle income households, in great colleges around the country. Moving from a large, suburban Texas school to a tiny Rhode Island charter school proved less challenging than one might immediately assume. Though I’d always been an accomplished student academically, Blackstone Academy’s emphasis on community engagement ignited my passion and commitment to social justice. On top of my academic pursuits, I was on the indoor track team, soccer team, student council (Vice President), debate team, Students for Darfur Club, and Latinos Helping Hands, among other commitments. I was really able to flourish at Blackstone and I knew that when I graduated if I ever found myself back in RI I’d have to get involved somehow. Graduate school at Brown provided the perfect opportunity.
Teaching high schoolers is hard work. They demand your attention and constant engagement. Unlike at the collegiate level, you cannot simply assign a bunch of readings and come together in class for a lecture or conversation. When it comes to sociology, it is also a challenge to find readings that aren’t too abstract as to be completely untenable. Instead, I focused my efforts on developing my students' sociological imagination, and capacities to think sociologically, with emphasis on exploration of social inequality.
As young people growing up in the midst of many of the issues that sociologists explore on a daily basis, much of what we talked about wasn’t news to them. Of my 13 students, 2 are white, and 1 is male. Many of them are daughters of immigrants, or immigrants themselves. They know what it is like to see their parents struggle with finding work, and they know what it is like to have unfair expectations placed upon you just because you are a girl, or your skin has a certain pigmentation. They already had the experiences, I simply offered the language and conceptual tools to think through and understand them. Having these tools is critical for young people of color, women, the poor, because they are the foundation of any real emancipatory project. While sociology by itself cannot change the material conditions that infringe upon our collective welfare, it provides the tools that can lead to cognitive liberation, upon which we can build movements to challenge structural conditions that limit our individual and collective possibilities. Imagine, for instance, how learning that gender isn’t biological, and thus that women aren’t inherently any weaker than men, could influence a young woman’s development in life. Women can and should be just as powerful as men, social structures are to blame for the lack of women in politics. Perhaps learning that race is a social construct might encourage young people to stop viewing themselves and others in essentialist terms. People of color aren’t lazy and don’t find living on welfare very comfortable, social structures are to blame for the amount of folks struggling to get by.
So, no I don’t get paid to work with the high schoolers as a graduate student, and I’m not sure how long I will keep it up. However, no amount of monetary compensation, nor school credit, could ever amount to the satisfaction I feel in knowing that maybe—just maybe—I’ve helped one of these students better understand his or her own life and the freedom that that entails. Who needs to get paid when you’ve got that? I’m convinced that one day the students will understand that too.