Rylie Shore wrote this story from the perspective of a PLNU 2014 alumna, Jessica Wagner, who is a teacher in Gallup, New Mexico.
The Decision. When the email came in January of my senior year I thought, “I don’t want to do this.” I took the interview anyway because I knew it would be a good experience, but then I made it to the in-person interview. Again I thought, “good interviewing experience,” so I went.
The man who led the group interview started telling us about his experience of teaching in a low-income neighborhood in Texas. He told us about the injustice of education depending on the student’s socio-economic status and I found myself getting teary eyed and upset about the current education system. I very firmly believe education is the most powerful thing we can give to anyone. Without it, you can’t climb up the ladder. For a lot of students, it is about having a teacher who believes in them, and I left the interview even more passionate about being that teacher.
When I found out I got into Teach for America, I had to decide between that and teaching English in South Korea with Jordan, my boyfriend who had already been living in Cheonon for over a year. When I was praying about my decision, I honestly felt like God wanted me to go to New Mexico and love on the people there. I knew it would be hard, but I was passionate about being the teacher that showed my students I believe in them.
Setting. I live in the small town of Gallup, New Mexico, which sits 633 miles east of San Diego. The north and south sides of Gallup are separated by poor and really poor. I work on the south side with the poor and my roommate works on the north side with the really poor. If you are white and living in Gallup, you are either a teacher or a nurse.
5:52 A.M. My alarm rings. I am ready in eight minutes and drink four cups of coffee by 6:30. I make oatmeal in a mug, and when I get in my car to drive to work I hold it between my legs to warm up because my heater doesn’t work and it’s eight degrees outside.
6:45 A.M. I pull into the parking lot of the wealthier of the two high schools in Gallup, located on the south side. I am the only one here, other than the janitor and the librarian who always says he is having a terrible day. Walking through the door to my classroom, I say a quick prayer for all the students who will come through it today and then turn on Pandora’s All Sons & Daughters station to make my classroom feel like it’s a happy place. Every day I feel the pressure in teaching, because if I mess up, it’s on my kids. If I don’t do well, they fail the test and then they fail the class. It feels like an injustice that you would have to have me as a teacher because in a lot of ways I just don’t know.
8:10 A.M. The bell rings. My heart still drops when I hear it, but I stand by the door and greet my students by name as they come in. Since it is first period we try to do the pledge, and just like every other day I tell them, “You don’t have to say it, but you have to stand up.” My battles for the day continue as I fight their apathy.
Second Period. The bell rings. I am teaching the same material as first period, but I can never predict how this class will go because the students are so quiet. Zayne sits in the front, and since our parent-teacher conference discussing his academic goals, I have seen such a change in him. One day he even stayed in my classroom to make up his quizzes, but I didn’t see him in class the next day. His cousin emailed me and said he experienced a tragedy. His mother had hung herself and he was the one to walk in the house and find her hanging there. It seemed so unfair. He was gone for seven days and when he came back, I felt so inadequate. I want to teach him and his classmates math, but I also want to teach them how to be strong, how to be good people. But I don’t know what it’s like to walk in and find your mom like that. I want to protect them from situations I don’t know how to protect them from. I know I can’t always do that, but I do get to provide a safe space for them to be.
Third Period. The bell rings. This period I am teaching geometry. One time I gave them an assignment to design their own table and present their design in front of the class. One senior in my class, Shanelle, actually built her own table and then came to class and thanked me for helping her believe in herself. Everyday when she leaves, she takes the time to say “Bye Miss Wagner.”
Fourth Period. The bell rings. I have the same students from my third period, and today we have to finish a PowerPoint that we didn’t finish before their lunch break. As I try to wrap up the lesson I make eye contact with Shelby who is fully attentive, incredibly sweet, and eight and a half months pregnant. At the beginning of the semester, her mom had told me she would be gone because of the baby in October and in need of extra help to get the work done. I was expecting a student who wouldn’t work hard, but she is one of my best students and so smart.
Fifth Period. The bell rings. My group from first period is back, and now that they are awake they are louder than ever. To help them focus, I started giving each of my periods “class points.” Whoever has the most class points at the end of the week gets a baked good on Monday. Initially I thought it would be a way to help them learn how to focus and for me to learn how to bake, but it since turned into me buying a thing of cookie dough and shoving it in the oven Sunday night.
Sixth Period. The bell rings. My students from second period are back. Even though we have to finish our PowerPoint from the morning, I want to give them at least 35 minutes to do their homework because I know they have to go home to other duties, taking care of their families and helping make ends meet. As I go through the last few PowerPoint slides, “Mo,” short for Muhammad, is sitting in the front asking questions, raising his hand for everything and yelling answers even when he has no idea what he is talking about. He sits next to Zayne and Zayne has started getting engaged because of Mo. When I see Mo’s hand shoot up and watch him blurt out all the possible answers that don’t make sense, I can’t help but smile and appreciate that he helps me create a space where learning is encouraged. When we have finished the PowerPoint, we start their homework time and I am constantly going around the classroom from one raised hand to the next, which I love My favorite part of the day is when I can walk around and help them one on one.
2:15 P.M. The bell rings. My day of teaching ends and my prep period and lunchtime begins. The janitor comes in at 2:18 to clean my classroom and try to teach me new words in Navajo. Three months later I know “Aoo,” which means yes, and what sounds like “Shoosh,” which means just kidding.
3:15 P.M. The last bell rings and all the students leave.
3:45 P.M. I go home and start working on lesson plans for tomorrow and homework for grad school. Every night in September I would go home and cry, feeling really discouraged. I started reading Psalm 23 every night, and I found joy in knowing, “God, I have to lean on you. There is nothing else that can hold me together.” With this in mind, I have started to see the beauties in Gallup. And on those days when it gets really hard, I start thinking of students like Mo, Zayne, Shanelle and Shelby, and it makes it all worth it.