The fire alarm pierces the chatter in Mr. Stanley’s morning chemistry class. Students abandon their work to herd out the door where smoke billows out quietly from the bathroom across the hall. Noticing, Mr. Stanley yells at the teacher next door, before grabbing his fire extinguisher and running into the bathroom. The fire flickers out from the soap dispenser, which the janitors have loaded with hand sanitizer, and climbs the cinder block walls to lick the ceiling tiles above. The other teacher’s extinguisher jams open, and continues spewing white clouds long after the fire has been put out.
Later, Mr. Stanley (who is also my husband) sends me a text: “Well, I put out a literal fire today.” I am only marginally surprised. Our family has lived in what is widely-considered an “at-risk” neighborhood in southwest Atlanta for nearly eight years. Last year, my husband (Adam) took a job teaching chemistry at the local high school. Since then, we have been given an inside look at a struggling Title 1 school. This year, it has been taken over by a charter school in what feels like a last-ditch effort to turn it around. My husband, one of only about six returning teachers, gets promoted to “veteran” his second year at the school.
The high school occupies an old college campus, a historic brick building topped with soaring spires in bright white. It remains a neighborhood school and not an actual charter school, nothing has changed in the population of students or the makeup of the surrounding community. Although under new charter school leadership, the student population remains ninety-nine percent African-American and one hundred percent eligible for free-and-reduced lunch.
We love our neighborhood. We love the kids, where we live, and my husband loves his job. And yet, it has taken me eight years of rooting our family here to understand the complexity of a system that’s simultaneously failing our children and bringing me hope.
The problem, it seems, with a failing school in an under-resourced neighborhood, is that we can never make it past the triage stage of intervention. My husband finds himself so busy putting out fires, both literal and figurative, that he is left with little time to dig deeper into transforming a system that seems determined to leave behind a certain demographic of children—despite the rhetoric we use that insists otherwise.
The charter school that has taken over our neighborhood high school this year is innovative and interested in trying new strategies, in providing wrap-around services, in meeting the students’ needs in more holistic ways. But this bathroom fire is the second arson-attempt of the year—the first involved a boy setting a girl’s hair aflame.
The students confide in my husband, though, casually mentioning losing family members to gun violence or their brothers with life-sentences. A few weeks ago a ninth-grade student’s water broke in lit class. These are legitimate emergency-room situations, wounds that require binding and salving. Generational poverty compounded by a system set up against them plus deep trauma contribute to a classroom full of students who have witnessed, withstood, or enacted violence, as well as a collective consciousness that remains unmoved by thoughts of their tenuous future.
But how can we move from binding wounds to full healing? How can we create a classroom and school that becomes more like an ICU than an emergency room? Instead of merely handing out Band-Aids and putting out fires, how can we find and treat the cause of the pain in the first place?
The security cameras at the school caught the students who set the fire that my husband put out. Police arrested them in an assembly later that morning. We are equal parts aghast at the boys being outed and arrested in a room full of their peers, and understanding of why this is necessary. Because if we have learned nothing over the last eight years, we have learned this: Everything is more complicated than it seems. No school, no community, no teacher, no student can be reduced to a single-step problem or solution. Instead, we need to find creative and rooted ways of moving closer to thriving for every level and neighborhood.
As Christians who believe in loving our neighbors, we must expand our definition of neighbor, and then fight to make their classrooms a place we would desire for our own children. In scripture, I find a God who always advocates and enacts in creative ways to care for the poor and marginalized. We desire, as neighbors and as educators, to do the same. When a system becomes a race to the top, there will always be those at the bottom left to grapple with the realities of a country that professes faith yet leaves them behind.
The morning after the fire, I make a sign reminding teachers that their students matter, and that they are making a difference, and we bring coffee and donuts. Adam tells me his strategy for making it through each day, particularly those days he comes home with fire-extinguisher-remnants on his wingtip shoes is to remember one simple reality: To his students, he is the system.
This week, Adam asked me to come take headshots of his students for a project they are working on. I came in three different times to take pictures of six classes over two days, and every class went the same way. A few students jumped at the chance to have their photo taken, but most were uncertain. I walked them to the edge of the shade under the towering oak in the courtyard, where the sun dappled gently on their skin. I framed them, focusing on their dark eyes, flickering with light. I released the shutter, and then I turned around my camera and showed them what I saw. And then nearly every student insisted on more pictures and wondered what kind of camera could make them look like that.
What they don’t see is that my husband is doing this for them every day. With every class, every fire he puts out, every listening ear, every offer of resources or advice or love he is taking a picture of what he sees that they can’t. Then he turns around our camera so they can see it too, believing in their beauty and insisting upon their worth until they can walk in the truth of who they are.