I have been working this summer for SOME (So Others Might Eat), a charity in Washington, DC. SOME provides a range of services to the poor and homeless of Washington, including: food, clothing, health care, affordable housing, addictions treatment, counseling, services for the elderly or mentally ill, and job training.
I work in the last of these fields – as a teacher at SOME’s Center for Employment Training, a school for unemployed adults in the District. Our program consists of general education in English and math, which prepares students to earn the GED, along with vocational training – in nursing, building maintenance and repair, or computer skills. Our students generally graduate with a job that pays a living wage; many students have also gone on to college. I teach classes in English and tutor students in computer skills. Due to the recent departure of a senior instructor, I am now responsible for creating lesson plans and developing the English curriculum.
The work is rewarding. I believe I have found my vocation. Teaching is enjoyable and engaging – so much so that my initial reaction now on reading TS Eliot is to question his grammar. It’s a great pleasure to help students – all of them older than me – understand something for the first time.
The majority of our students have high school diplomas from DC Public Schools – and many of them are reading and doing math at fifth- or sixth-grade levels. Public education in the District of Columbia is a failure. It is, perhaps, worse here than anywhere else in the country.
I grew up in Calcutta, India, famous for its poverty. Yet there are parts of DC which are as poor as Calcutta, and there are many parts of Calcutta that are better off than DC. This city is an anomaly in the world’s wealthiest nation.
There are historic reasons for this poverty, which seems to afflict African-Americans almost exclusively. The ghastly repercussions of slavery and segregation are still being felt – only a few generations separate the present from that shameful past. But many of the problems of inner-city DC – drugs and violent crime, for example – are locally grown, and cannot be blamed on external forces. Culture is as culpable as history.
This becomes especially apparent when I work with our immigrant students. Recent immigrants from Ethiopia or Sudan or Eritrea, who arrived here penniless and without any knowledge of English, they tend to work much harder than native-born American students. Though they face more serious obstacles, they usually receive better grades; our top students – even in English class – are from sub-Saharan Africa, and have been in America a few months or years at the most. The immigrant students are also unusually successful after they graduate – many start their own businesses or enter college.
The circumstances for teaching are difficult – we are grossly understaffed and underfunded. A recent slew of bad management decisions and staff departures has not helped. We have had to double the size of some classes, and may have to cancel others. But working with the students is still worthwhile. There is a crisis meeting in progress to decide the future of this Center. Hopefully, we will be able to continue somehow, helping a few more people become self-sufficient.