I saw this picture on Facebook this morning, and immediately had to save it. The amount of times I've said these very words, or very similar words to friends, family, and students.
In fact, I gave a mini speech about this very thing during the first week of school last year and fully intend on giving the same speech again this coming week.
Working in a highly diverse and low income school comes with it's fair set of challenges. Kids from families who have overcome major hurdles and struggles just to make it to this country and provide a life for their children that is better than whatever original country they came from. However, some of what parents and families consider major victories, are often perceived as major setbacks to the children.
What I mean is, a family lives with another family in a small home. There is barely enough money to make ends meet. But there is food on the table each night, and running water, and electricity. There is not any money for long school supply lists, fancy tennis shoes, or name brand clothing. That stuff comes from donations and local thrift stores. The heads of the family feel blessed that they have a lot more than what they are used to having. The kids feel like they are poor and are ashamed and embarrassed about their living situation.
Unfortunately, there are several kids that school supplies and clothes are the last thing they are thinking about. They leave the school each day wondering if there will be food for them when they get home, or water, or electricity.
For some of the kids, coming to school is an escape. A place where they can actually be a kid. Laugh, play, enjoy the company of children their own age. Not having to worry about babysitting or cleaning or preparing food for other children in the home while the adults are off at work trying to make enough money to live on.
And for many of these children, when asked about their futures, the answers are often pretty grim.
On the first day of school, I ask each child to fill out a survey about themselves. The generic sort of stuff - things they like, don't like, favorite foods, candy, games, and I always include the question: What do you want to be when you grow up?
I found that last year, I had the occasional teacher, one doctor, and one business owner. The rest? Working at the local chicken plant, or local grocery store, or local restaurant.
Not that there's anything wrong with those professions...but these kids truly believe that's pretty much all that's available to them. Many don't think of college or leaving their small town as even the slightest possibility. Their job will to be to help their families, and do what their families do now. The limit for them is the city limit. Period.
So, that's why it's so important for me to give them this little speech....
I tell them about moving to America. For me, it was somewhat of a reverse situation. In England, I thought we were happy. We had the latest and greatest clothes, toys, and electronics. We went to good schools and lived in a good neighborhood. And then one day, my parents told me I was leaving my home to move to a brand new country. At first, I was excited, but when we arrived... I wondered what on earth my parents were thinking.
I explain to the kids that the town we moved to is very similar to the town I teach in. Small population. A few businesses strewn about here and there. The main source of employment coming from a factory that makes engine parts. The nearest large town was 30 minutes in one direction and almost an hour in the other. We had to live with my aunt and uncle for a while, and then moved in with my grandparents. Being the oldest, it was my job to take care of my younger siblings while my parents worked long hours trying to make enough money to get us our own home. And when my parents were able to get us our own place, it was a small low income house. Definitely not big enough for 4 children and a new baby that had just arrived (my baby sister).
I explain that up until that time, I had always wanted to be a teacher. But, my hopes of reaching that goal started to disappear when I saw how much my family had to struggle. I started to think that I wouldn't be able to go to college. That I would forever be stuck in that small town. Except there was one place that kept my dream alive...and that was school. Going to school was where I could see my friends, not worry about my home responsibilities, and do things I've never done before... like play a musical instrument, use a computer, and act in plays.
It was a teacher that kept my dreams alive about one day becoming a teacher. He encouraged me, challenged me, and uttered those words in the picture to motivate me. And I made the decision in 8th grade that no matter what my home life was like, I would one day break free of this town, go to college, and become a teacher.
And it wasn't all smooth sailing. I had some obstacles along the way. But, I kept those words in my head...and no matter how hard things got, I always reminded myself that I made my own decisions. I was in charge of my future and how it played out. I couldn't use anything as an excuse... but myself.
Everyday since that time, I have reminded and keep reminding myself of that. It is now my job to be the teacher that inspires my students to do the same. Break free from the mentality that their town is as good as it gets. That the chances of college, and a fancy career are not possible. I want my kids to see what the world has to offer, and make their place in it. To dream big, and know that dreams can actually become reality.
But it all starts with their choices. Their decisions.
Give me all you got. Failure is not an option.
If they think they can't do something because they're not good at math. I'll teach them. If they think they can't do something because they can't read very well. I'll teach them. If they think they can't do something because they're not sure what they need to do to get there. I'll show them the way.
That's my job. Inspire. Motivate. And turn dreams in to reality.
Teaching them stuff is just others believe I do. Yeah, I teach them how to do math problems and how to comprehend something they've read... but I also show them how that "stuff" will help them in the future, how it holds the key to their dreams, and that I can only show them so much.. the rest is up to them.
And one day, my hope is that I start getting notes in the mail... invitations to college graduations, birth announcements, emails about being offered a teaching job, or a doctor's job, or being accepted to a fancy law office, phone calls about new start-up businesses being ventured in to, tales of exotic travel adventures, or philanthropic endeavors.
My hope is that 20 years from now, I won't drive through that town and know most of the faces. And if I do, I can feel at ease that the person I see wanted that town to be their home, the place they raised their family...their own choice.
And that's why that speech is so important.
It's those simple words that lead me to where I am today. And it's those words that will hopefully lead my students in to tomorrow.