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A call to teach and change the nation

Letter to the Editor | Monday, February 12, 2007

We all are so very fortunate to call ourselves part of the Notre Dame community.

We all have received excellent educations, and will likely have great success in whatever it is we choose to do with that education. I issue to you a challenge: use your education to create more educated, inquisitive people ready to take on the world. In sum, more people like you.

In the beginning, Teach For America (TFA) was an idea nothing more than an undergraduate senior thesis about a national teacher corps. The basic idea was that an excellent education can be utilized to change children’s lives – to give them new opportunities to meet the challenges associated with poverty. The key to this new life is an education.

I was first reached by an amazing TFA presenter that spoke to a group in O’Shaughnessey in fall 1992. She spoke of the need to fill teaching positions in under-resourced, under-funded schools throughout urban and rural areas in the United States. It was if she was speaking directly to me. Me, a Latina woman fluent in Spanish, who had an excellent education and many opportunities in life. Could I provide opportunities for children who had few?

I answered the call and applied. “What about law school?” said my parents. I told them that a TFA experience would prepare me for law school. I told them I wanted to go to law school in order to provide legal services in the public interest. Except what did I know about what was needed in the public sector? I wanted to live it and learn how I could best serve the greater community that gave me so much. Fortunately, I was accepted in 1993 and my parents begrudgingly accepted my decision.

I had the privilege of teaching wonderful bilingual kindergartners in inner-city Houston. Make no mistake, this job was not easy, and struggles are exceptionally difficult to stomach when one is used to success. The TFA experience is not for the weak or meek of heart, but for those who hear the call to serve in the classroom. Many tears were shed, many sleepless nights were spent pouring over books and acquiring materials for “my babies.” But in the end, the efforts were well spent. My five-year-old students could read, write, add and subtract. A full quarter of my class could multiply. But my greatest achievement was getting one of my most neglected students to go from being unable to hold a pair of scissors, to being able to read sight words in one year. Miguel, wherever he is in the world, can read. I had a hand in making sure this one child is literate, and not illiterate.

I do know where Lizette is today. She writes me during the holidays and lets me know about her activities and school. She sent me pictures of her quinceanera (traditional coming-of-age birthday celebration). She is now 17 and in the National Honor Society.

As for me, after TFA I did go to law school, and am now a practicing criminal defense attorney at the Federal Defender’s Office in Buffalo, N.Y. I see the difference that literacy makes every day, especially when I speak to a client that is illiterate. Would this person be sitting before me in chains if he had learned how to read? Would she have had more options in life if there had been someone who cared enough to give her opportunities to succeed?

As I present a case before the judge in federal criminal court, I remember my students. They were my first audience, where I learned to communicate a message, to make my point. As I speak to a confused and scared client, or to a client’s distraught family member, I remember the lessons my small students taught me about speaking softly to those who raise their voices to defuse a tense situation.

More than 10 years ago, I was privileged to give two years of my life to the children of Houston. In the beginning, Teach For America had great goals and ideals, with the hope that the face of education could be changed. More than a decade later, those goals are being met one teacher and one classroom at a time. Now there is a new generation of children that thirst for the knowledge that will bring them a bright future.

How will they achieve this amazing education? Who will lead these children with oftentimes few resources and few role models down the ardent path of learning and achievement? Who will counsel them through the failures and struggles that accompany any new endeavor that requires effort? Can you guide the future leaders of the community and nurture their desires to make things better? Can you grow the skills and abilities that they will need to succeed?

Can you give two years of your life to create an indelible mark on a child? Can you change the future for the better? Can you help build the foundation of communities by preparing those who will lead them?

The final deadline to submit applications is Feb. 18. It can be found at www.teachforamerica.org. As a fellow Notre Dame alumnus and TFA alum, I ask you: Will you answer the call?

Roxanne Mendez Johnson


class of 1993

Feb. 8