Reality in Watts

by Rachel Warecki '08

Rachel Warecki ’08

I was halfway through fifth period when one of my students pulled a gun from his pocket, aimed it at me, and pulled the trigger.

I’d been teaching for only four months, but I was savvy enough to recognize the gun was a fake. I put out my hand, the student handed it over, and the incident became just another moment in just another day at Locke High School in Watts.

Such is my life as a Teach For America corps member. It is a grueling existence: not only am I a full-time first-year teacher, I am also the varsity softball coach and a full-time graduate student. It is a difficult lifestyle, and there are some days when I wonder if it’s sustainable.

But the hardest part isn’t juggling the numerous commitments or stressing over the 24/7 nature of the job. It’s knowing that the difference I try to make every day is not enough.

The reality of this was brought home to me over Thanksgiving, when I shared an airport SuperShuttle with some freshmen from Caltech. They were discussing nuclear physics and neurobiology; they were only one year older than my current seniors. In comparison, some of my 12th graders still struggle with writing complete sentences.

Nuclear physics vs. incomplete sentences: that’s the achievement gap. It’s not the difference between a poor education and a good one; it’s the difference between a poor education and a great one. In order to receive an excellent education, pupils must have committed, well-trained teachers from first grade onward. With every mediocre teacher they have, they lose a little ground; they lose a few more opportunities, and they don’t even realize it. Of course, the quality of teaching is not the sole reason kids fail or succeed; but it is a crucial factor.

The unfortunate truth is that these kids are coming to me at age 17, after 11 years of less-than-fantastic education. It might be too late to get them where they need to be. It breaks my heart.

Yet most people don’t want to discuss the achievement gap. All they ever want to hear about are the “bad” stories — the stories they expect when they hear the words “I teach high school in Watts.” Sometimes I oblige them, because I’m human, and there are times when I need to vent. I teach students who can’t afford to waste a minute of class, so I’m frustrated when I have to write an office referral within the first two minutes because one of my 10th graders throws a paper ball across the room. Or when a student whom I call “Inspector Gadget” — because I have to confiscate at least three electronic devices from her every period — raises her hand to inform me that her cell phone doesn’t get service in my classroom. Or when I have to “take away” another student’s imaginary cell phone because she’s pretend-texting while I’m teaching. Or when I find out that girls are pregnant and won’t be continuing their education. The “bad” stories range from the darkly comic to the soul-crushingly depressing, and every time my classroom runs amok, I’m reminded that, as an educator, I am failing my students — students who are not undeserving, just unused to being in an academic setting.

After I’ve satisfied preconceived notions of what teaching in Watts must be like — and letting off steam — here’s the story I like to tell:

This past semester, I had a 12th-grade student named Roberto. As a new father and a former gang member, Roberto was trying to turn his life around, but in 2008 he fell just short of the A-through-G requirements needed to graduate. Instead of giving up, he came back again this year. The only class he had left to pass was the first semester of 12th grade English. One semester of my class.

However, since the school year started, his attendance was off-and-on, and, with one month left in the semester, he had a failing grade.

Having a failing grade in one of my English classes is fairly common, even though a D is considered passing in the state of California. Often, my students’ response at the sight of an F is to give up for the rest of the semester. Never mind if they’ve received an A for the first quarter — all it takes is one F and they refuse to take education seriously for the remainder of the course. Take Carlos, who up through October had an A but refused to write the last paragraph of his personal narrative, even though I stood over him for 15 minutes and tried to talk him into finishing it. He never turned the essay in, received a zero for the assignment, and hasn’t done a bit of work since. The same can be said for some of my 12th graders. So, when Roberto’s counselor emailed me to ask about his grade — “All he needs is a D!” — I told her I didn’t think he was going to make it.

Realizing this, Roberto busted his butt for the last month of the semester. And guess what? It paid off. On the last day of the semester, I had the pleasure of handing back his final research paper with a C and the following note: “Congratulations, Roberto! You have officially graduated from high school.” I didn’t say anything, just watched him read the note.

“Thank you, Miss, thank you, thank you,” he said. And then we pretended that neither of us was on the verge of tears because we had street cred to maintain.

When school was over, he brought me pancakes and a balloon. But seeing Roberto’s expression when he realized that he’d receive his diploma was all the thanks I needed.

This is why I teach for America.

Above: In her Locke High School classroom, Rachael Warecki models her verbal instructions to students by holding up two fingers, indicating the answer to a grammar question was “independent clause”; for a dependent clause, she had asked students to hold up one finger.