A Chance to Shine This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

April 11, 2011
“I want to go home … but I can't … I can't handle school anymore!!! I just want to go somewhere far away from this world where there aren't any schools, homework, and mean teachers.”

When I first found this note, my gut clenched and my heart sank. A clever yet quiet sixth grader named Amber, with whom I had worked, had penned those words during a math lesson and secretly slipped the message into my pocket.

Unbeknownst to Amber, the pocket of my City Year jacket is not an ideal place to deliver such a message. Lost between confiscated notes declaring crushes or cursing out teachers, along with spare pencils for my students, I nearly threw her message away. What would I be saying of public education had I not read those words?

I grew up in a bourgeois bubble. I used to imagine that all classrooms were like mine: warm, colorful, filled with smiling children and a teacher who looked and spoke like me. I had heard whispers
of American schools' shortcomings: teachers' unions working for job security rather than quality, standardized tests misrepresenting the multiple intelligences of students, No Child Left Behind unintentionally widening the funding disparity between schools of different racial and socioeconomic makeups. But these inadequacies did not appear in my upper-middle-class suburban hometown. I could harp about poor public schooling all I wanted, but I felt I didn't have the right to make such claims personally.

When the opportunity arose to take a gap year in between high school and college, I decided that it was time to get my hands dirty and experience the flip side of the U.S. school system. I applied and was accepted into City Year, a national nonprofit organization aimed at decreasing the high school dropout rate. I work with sixth graders at Aki Kurose Middle School Academy as a tutor, mentor, and role model. Aki Kurose is located in southern Seattle, a statistically low-income area, and feeds into one of four high schools that account for 50 percent of all dropouts across the city. Almost all the students I work with scored low on their standardized tests; many have told me no one had ever called them “bright” or “capable” before City Year came along. Amber, my sneaky note-writer, is one such student.

The harsh reality of the public education system became real to me when I started work at Aki Kurose. I have seen students crying in class after receiving F's on their progress reports. I have witnessed fistfights between 11-year-olds. I watched a science teacher yell at her students for having low standardized test scores. I have heard the phrase “slipping through the cracks” from just about every teacher I've talked to; they make failure sound like an anomaly, but I see kids struggling to stay afloat at every turn. And I have read the woeful words of a disheartened sixth grader who was fed up with unhelpful teachers.

I believe wholeheartedly that public education in the United States is academically and socially failing the next generation. As a City Year member, a citizen in service, and a member of our global community, I vow that I will take as much action as necessary to provide distinguished and comprehensive learning experiences for all students. I will arm myself with knowledge through my studies and then charge once more into the fray, ready to combat all that obstructs the way toward an excellent education. I will do this for Amber and the rest of the students I have bonded with this year, the students who are just waiting for a chance to shine.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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KatsK This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jun. 18, 2012 at 3:52 pm
This is really good. I commend your efforts for helping others, and congrats on your college admissions! People like you are what make this world a better place.
Apr. 20, 2011 at 10:51 am
Wow. This article gives me a real retrospective view on what to expect if accepted into City Year (knock on wood)! What i especially want to commemorate you for was that you came from an upper-middle-class home and saw what the less fortunate have, and had the audacity to give 10 months to make an impression on their lives forever. I had a rough start, but not for a second will that hanicap me from helping others. We need more people like you around.
Breeze said...
Apr. 19, 2011 at 6:00 pm
Anna, I'm impressed by your awareness and commitment.  Having worked in the public schools, I believe everyone from toddlers to teachers need more love, less stress and more support.  Seems like our whole society is increasingly mean and confrontational.  Write on!
emily507 said...
Apr. 18, 2011 at 6:22 pm
Wow, you are a beautiful writer. I've never considered the state of American public education before. Now I'll have to look into it :) Thanks for the article!
sincerely_anna This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Apr. 18, 2011 at 5:37 pm
A Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the above article, "I Want To Go Home, But I Can't" are solely those of Anna Gergen, and do not reflect the policies or opinions of City Year in any way. For official City Year information, please visit cityyear.org 
EMaree said...
Apr. 18, 2011 at 4:36 pm

I know the feeling of being afraid to go to high school, but for different reasons - my teachers were great, but the other kids weren't as easy to deal with. So Amber's story breaks my heart - there's nothing worse than that sickening dread when you wake up knowing you have to go back to a place you hate. School should never have to be like that.

I wish there was a 'City Year' scheme in the UK. It sounds like a stressful environment to be in, but the teachers and kids must really appre... (more »)

Cherryview_D said...
Apr. 18, 2011 at 4:28 pm
I am wondering if you talked to Amber about this? It seems like a really serious cry for help to me. Her note sounds slighly suicidal.
sincerely_anna This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Apr. 18, 2011 at 4:29 pm
Amber was definitely having a bad day. She was not suicidal but she was feeling really discouraged by the way teachers addressed her. I did get her some counseling, though that's for a separate issue.
billis said...
Apr. 18, 2011 at 11:52 am

You get 'em, agergen!  The most distressing thing about my own stints with national service is that I didn't do them immediately after high school.  I am consistently and immeasurably impressed by the younger CMs I have run into and fully believe that they enter into college more motivated, more prepared and more aware of how to maximize their own benefit in college and best affect change in their surrounding environments. 

I'm proud of you and the rest of the Aki Team.&... (more »)

sincerely_anna This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Apr. 18, 2011 at 4:01 pm
Thanks, billis :) I really appreciate your kind words. 
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