Right out of college in June 2003, I was a Teach for America corps member in Houston, TX. I taught second and third grade at J.W. Oates Elementary School (pictured above), which is on the northeast side of Houston. Most of the kids I taught had fathers who were long-haul truckers, 2-3 kids in my class barely spoke English (rather Spanish, which I don’t speak very well), and my second year I had a kid whose mom was suing the school district, so everything I did, I had to document.
Here’s a little more context: I started this job at 22. I had never had a full-time job before, and barely had a job of relevance. Before I got off a plane in Houston in June 2003, the only time I had ever been to Texas was a layover at DFW in 2002 en route to Spring Break. (Now I live in DFW, which is odd in some ways in its own right.) I lived with three guys in what was essentially a frat house for high-achieving, TFA-corps-member, public-school teachers. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing probably 97.2 percent of the time. (Not sure my life is much different now in that regard.)
Final nugget: my principal was a hard boss. This was in the early stages of No Child Left Behind and everyone was very concerned with test scores. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, as noted above. The first time my principal came to observe me, I did this lesson on “Nancy Noun” and “Veronica Verb” that crashed and burned at about 500 MPH. I thought she was going to fire me on the spot.
Long story short: young, dumb, far from home/friends, professionally a mess, personally probably even more so, 22 inner-city rugrats under my care, boss riding me all the time. It was a rough time.
One of the high points of it was Charlotte Chandler, my co-teacher in the third grade. She was a good old-fashioned Texas broad who threw out a lot of expressions I had never heard, lived a life I had no idea one could live (because I came from the Upper East Side of Manhattan), and taught me so much about how to grind through a job … stuff I still think about today. She died last night.
Probably my closest friend, faculty-wise, at J.W. Oates was Brian Albert, the PE teacher/coach. He e-mailed me the news this morning. I’m going to pull quote part of his e-mail because he worked with her longer and it does it a bit more justice than I probably could:
Charlotte was so much fun to work with. She was a packrat like me, and took a long time to get things done like me. We had many conversations, sometimes to avoid working. She had all these Texas country sayings that amused me. I remember sometimes when she was a little frustrated that she would say, ” Oh poo.” I talked to her in June and really regret not visiting her this year. She was a very dedicated teacher and Palacios really rode her HARD the last two years that she was there. She was a tough woman and I know that she really battled the last few years. I am glad that she was a part of my life.
Palacios = our principal.
“Really battled” = she ultimately died of cancer.
Here’s the thing I remember about her, even all these years later: I had shitty days all the time back then, and I have shitty days now too. (For different reasons, as you might imagine, because now I work in “luxury travel” and then I worked at an inner-city elementary school.) I used to walk into her room to commiserate/bitch/etc. She’d have had a worse day — she had a kid, Michael, in her class that was so hard to deal with — and she’d be smiling. I know it’s super trite to talk about a person who just died and say “They were always smiling,” but she was. She’d always have some expression or idea or concept about the day — stuff that now I understand more, because I live in Texas, but back then they seemed like this thing I had to aspire to understand — and whenever I said something about Palacios riding me or being hard on me, she’d say “Don’t worry about it. Life’s too short to focus on how others think about you.”
I still struggle with that lesson, but she was professionally the first person that taught me it. I’ll forever be grateful about that.
Here are two other things that I think are relevant about Chandler and the whole Teach for America concept:
- People don’t really understand this and a lot of people from far away think that TFA is about rich white kids from Princeton going into the inner city, teaching for a few years, and then heading to law school with a better resume. That’s not really the whole picture. When you do Teach for America, you become a part of that school, of that community, of that little part of the world. It, again, sounds trite as fuck to be like “I’m from Manhattan and I really bonded with these poorer Houston women!” Fuck that. That’s not the picture of what happened. I considered these women my friends. I drank and ate chips/salsa with them. I saw pictures of their kids. I went to street fairs with them. I hugged ’em and cried with ’em. Trite reference No. 3: it is nearly impossible for most kids who grew up where I did and went to the schools I did to make friends with someone like Charlotte Chandler, and she was a good friend of mine. She was a person that meant a lot to me in that time frame, and that was only made possible because of Teach for America. If you believe that you need different/new experiences to make yourself a complete person/leader, well … here’s an example of that working.
- I feel like a total piece of shit because while we e-mailed, I hadn’t talked to her in probably 4-5 years. I didn’t even know she had cancer. (I might have from Coach Albert, but I don’t think I did.) If people are important to you, reach out. Try to stay close. It’s hard and people get busy, but it’s worth it. Tell people you care. Tell people what they mean to you. I know I did before I left Houston and Teach for America, but I wish I could more now.
RIP, Charlotte Chandler.