Ode to Anneris: How an 11-year Old Girl Led to Advocacy for Equity in Education
I found my first career job in Little San Juan
In 1985, I was a young, freshly minted college graduate embarking on my first career job. I would find that job as a language arts teacher at Robert E. Lee Middle School in the inner city of Miami, Florida, in an area known as “Little San Juan”. The neighborhood was home to the city’s first influx of Puerto Rican immigrants, which were later joined by African Americans, Cubans, Haitians, Columbians and Dominicans. Residents were considered lower middle class to poor and the community was plagued with high unemployment, drug trafficking, gangs and other crime. I sensed the residents who lived in the area were working hard so they could exit the neighborhood as quickly as possible. This was my career beginning. This is also where I met Anneris, a sixth-grade Hispanic student. She has been a major influence in my dedication to equity in education.
Anneris and many of her classmates were smart, enterprising preteens caught between hope and despair. Their parents defied presumptions many have of working class parents. I did not experience apathy from them. Instead, I found desperation. I found such an unwavering belief in the value of a good education. They showed up for parent-teacher conferences. They listened intently to how their child was performing and where he or she needed improvement. Anneris’s mother , as well as other parents waded through language barriers to assure me of their support. They needed their children’s academic achievement to be the springboard for the family’s departure from Little San Juan. They held tightly to the dream that motivated them to immigrate to America.
Anneris and many of her classmates were smart, enterprising preteens caught between hope and despair.
I was young, inexperienced and not fully committed to the teaching profession. This was simply my entry point as a working adult. My parents and maternal grandparents were educators and I had said the last thing I would do was teach. I always respected teachers, but I felt it was a thankless job – enormous work and meager pay. I desired a different path for myself. I thought I was just passing through until something better came along. Despite that inner dialogue with myself, I showed up every day. I enjoyed my students. I was just a tad more than a decade older than they were, so I appreciated their youth, vitality and innocence. I tried to make the best of the tattered books and lack of resources. I spent weekends thinking about my students and how to engage them and create fun and meaningful learning experiences for them. I knew they found love at home, but things were tough. Many days they came to school hungry. Other days they were more consumed with their budding adolescence than with curricula. Some days I altered my lesson plan to deal with their realities. They had few figures in their lives who modeled a path forward. They were their families’ educational trailblazers.
What do children from the inner city dream about?
When it came time for Anneris to share her career dream, I was all ears.
One day I led a class discussion about career aspirations. It was not a part of the lesson plan, but I was curious about my students’ visions of their futures. Some didn’t have a clue. Others had many career paths in mind. When it came time for Anneris to share her career dream, I was all ears. Anneris demonstrated above average quantitative and verbal skills. She was beautiful, more reserved than most of her classmates, yet popular with all of them. Anneris was special; her potential palpable. I saw a bit of my younger self in Anneris. She said quietly and hesitantly, “I’m going to be a doctor.” I interpreted the manner in which Anneris spoke to mean she realized the enormity of the challenge ahead of her. I smiled and I told her and all of my students that they could achieve what they set their minds to; if they worked hard, nothing was impossible to them. That day has stayed with me. I can still see Anneris’s face. My endorsement of her dream had comforted her.
Ode to Anneris: Equity and Equality in Education
When the school year came to an end and it was time to say goodbye to my students, I hoped that I had positively influenced them. I knew for sure they had influenced me and the direction of my career. Thirty years later, I still reflect on my time with those students and at Robert E. Lee Middle School. I spent over eight years as a teacher in school systems, public and private, before moving on to adult learning and development in corporate settings.
I wonder where is Anneris today. I hope she developed the self-efficacy and determination to accomplish her dream. In her eyes I found the reward so many teachers experience daily with their students – this intrinsic gratification knowing you’ve played a part in enabling others’ success. Teaching may be a profession of many hours and meager pay, but the value teachers provide to our children and our society is priceless.
The point of this story is less about me and more about the potential that resides in all of our children. Not one should be lost. The opportunity cost we all bear is much too great. The high expectations and positive affirmations parents, teachers and other concerned caregivers provide to our most needy students can mitigate the impact of the negative messages they receive on a daily basis. You can make a difference. I encourage you to get involved through mentoring, advocacy, or multiple other ways. No child should be left behind and every student should succeed. This is a personal account of how my first career job set me on a course, which 30 years later leads me to advocate for equity and equality in education, career and life. This is my story – ode to Anneris. What’s yours?