BUILDING A COMMUNITY
J. Miguel Jiménez, New York City
“TEACHING FOR ME IS A HOPE TO FOSTER AND BUILD A COMMUNITY FOR ALL OF MY STUDENTS — BUT ESPECIALLY TO KEEP THE CANDLE BURNING FOR THOSE WHO ARE OUT THERE SEARCHING FOR THEIR TRIBE.”
When asked what information he could offer about me, his former teacher, I wasn’t sure what to expect Nico might say. He could recount any number of the trips we went on, the nickname he’d requested I call him when we first met (Sebastian), or one of the times I’d counseled him about a family situation. What I did not expect was the following: “I showed up the first day and I see this bald guy that looks kind of mean, but also reminds me of Shel Silverstein. I decided to give him a chance.”
I first met Nico during my third year of teaching. I was helping to found a school in the Bronx and he was a member of our freshman class. I’d heard of a student who’d called a few weeks before school started and requested a plan for his course schedule. He had already taken, and passed, Living Environment in the eighth grade.
I give a great deal of credit to Nico. This direct, honest, and earnest 14-year-old helped shape my present sensibilities about teaching — ensuring that I hold all my students to high academic achievement and expectations comes in no small part from Nico’s expectations of me and the system designed to educate him.
During his junior year, Nico approached me after our class and expressed a concern. Michael, a classmate he’d been acquainted with since fifth grade, was exhibiting a lot of the same behaviors from years before: ignoring directions, avoiding work, relying on his raw intellect to get by. “When is he going to learn?” Nico was dismayed at the fact that he saw another young man of color making the same mistakes made years earlier, and concerned about the ramifications it may have on Michael’s future. Nico’s compassion here often fuels me on days when I’m spent or feel I’ve reached a limit.
As a lot of educators do, I spend a great deal of my time reflecting on when I was a student. I do this both to consider the mindset of my students, and the better practices of my own teachers. As a high school teacher, I spend most of my time reliving high school — an experience most people would never willingly engage in.
What I remember most is riding the New York City buses, using the long trip from downtown back home so I’d have more time to read. As a Latino teenager in New York City in the late 90s, I found myself alone in my appreciation of books and language. Despite the amount I read, I did not find reflections of myself in the books I kept with me. I was willfully ignorant of Junot Díaz’ Drown, and was still about six years away from Oscar Wao. This solitude is what echoed to me when, in between classes, Nico expressed feeling apart from his classmates and peers.
Teaching for me is a hope to foster and build a community for all of my students — but especially to keep the candle burning for those who are out there searching for their tribe. There are few things we want more than our community to accept us, but sometimes it can take time to find that community. I teach in order to help my students improve their chances of finding that community.
J. Miguel Jimenez is a lifelong New Yorker and educator. Currently he teaches 11th Grade English Language Arts and AP English Language and Composition at MESA Charter High School in Bushwick, Brooklyn.