Why I Left Teach for America an Unbeliever

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Teach for America gives countless surveys to their corps members. One question, in particular, always resurfaced during my two-year commitment: “I believe that one day all children will have the opportunity to achieve an excellent education. Agree or disagree?”

Slowly, during the course of my time with Teach for America, I found my response gradually shifting from “agree” to “neutral” to finally “disagree.”

The truth is, teaching in low-income schools can feel hopeless at times, and there are moments when I despair. I look at my school’s higher income neighbors, and I despair of catching up. I look at the innumerable intersecting forces that converge every day to determine the lives of my students, and I despair of changing their path. I look at my city, and I see a population in power that is happy with the status quo. I look at the church, and I see many people who give lip service to helping the poor, but whose daily lives speak a different story.

I entered Teach for America a strong believer in transformational change. I left an unbeliever. The cause just seemed too big and people too selfish for anything to truly change.

Over this past summer, I expressed some of my disillusionment to Marjorie Somerville, one of my closest friends, and she challenged me to answer a different question than what Teach for America posed in their surveys. She asked me, instead, “Where do you place your hope?”

I realized something in that moment. In the midst of my grief over the troubles of the world, I was placing my hope in the world to save and fix itself. A hopeless cause.

Even if we succeed in eradicating poverty, how many more problems would we create in its place? We all talk about how the poor need saving from their poverty, but don’t the rich need saving from their wealth? Would the world really be better if everyone had equal access to money and opportunity?

Cycles of despair are inevitable when the only solutions we have are solutions created by ourselves. An image enters my mind of a child wiping her face with a napkin. She cleans her mouth, but now her cheeks and nose are covered in yogurt.

For every problem that we fix, we create another. The United States “cracked down” on drugs and now holds almost a fourth of the entire world’s prison population. The atomic bomb ended WWII and started the Cold War. Colonists destroyed Native American civilization in the very name of civilization. The progress of today becomes a problem in the future, and we never succeed in eradicating the intransigent issues that have afflicted the human condition since the beginning of history. We don’t even get close.

We create more issues than we ever solve. I mess up more things in my life than I ever fix. The answer to poverty is in fact no answer at all. We have no answers.

It is in this realization that the human soul finally looks upward in search of something more. An answer that we are given rather than one that we have made. It is in this place that I find my own soul crying, in the words of the apostle John, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” Come, and save us from ourselves.

Some would say that this is the cry of the weak. But perhaps the only difference between the weak and the strong is that one knows that they are weak. The other refuses to see it.

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