Today I went to M.S. 223 in the South Bronx with Junior Achievement. It has been a year almost to the day that I first visited that school. One year later, I still felt excited and nervous, prepared and completely unprepared. My work with the organization, and others like it, make me feel more useful and alive than I feel anywhere else. Teaching is hard work – perhaps the hardest work I’ve ever done because it requires me to draw on every skill I have and then some. Every time I stand in front of a class, I learn something new about myself and about the world.
We spent the morning talking about international trade – how it works and its impact on our everyday lives. In one topic, we covered math, politics, economics, diplomacy, contract negotiations, sociology, and psychology. We didn’t even get to the prescribed activities because the students had so many questions, insights, and concerns. As usual, I had to summon my improvisation skills early and often.
When we talked about product imports and legal stipulations that often impact those imports, some students brought up a topic I was not at all expecting: guns. They knew about licensing, having a warrant to search a house, the relationships between the police and people in a community, and the damage that guns cause. They asked me about laws governing guns, in the U.S. and abroad, their sale, purchase, and sadly, their use in neighborhoods in New York City. It was a tough conversation – this is the reality of an inner-city middle school student.
After lunch, they were wound up. We reviewed the activities in their workbooks. Some were engaged, and some were not. Most couldn’t seem to sit still or focus or listen to one another. For the first time in a classroom I began to see the split between students who really embraced learning and those who did not, and I got very worried. I couldn’t leave some behind and feel good about the day. I had to find a way to bring them all with me. What I was doing wasn’t working and so for the last activity, we turned to the tool I love best – a blank sheet of paper.
On the back of their workbooks, I had them design and describe a product they would like to make and sell.
“How much money do we have?” they asked.
“Unlimited,” I responded.
“How do I make something?” they asked.
“Think of something in your life that you want to fix and develop a product or service that fixes it,” I said.
“Anything?” they asked.
“Yes, anything you want,” I replied.
The floodgates were open. Even the most disruptive students had a rush of ideas: a global communication device that translates your voice to another language so communication with others is easier across the globe; a machine that cures every disease known to man; a pocket-sized screen connected to a home security camera. There was no shortage of creativity in that room and I was able to relate what I do every day at work to what these students were doing in this exercise.
“You get paid to make things?” one student asked.
“I do,” I replied.
“Wow, you’re lucky,” another one said.
“It’s not about luck,” I said. “It’s about deciding to get a certain skill set and then working hard. You could do it, too.”
They raised their eyebrows as if to say, “Really?”
Our class ended in a rush and before I knew it, silence filled the classroom. Off they went out into the world, to circumstances that are more difficult than most people can ever imagine. I worry about them all the time. I’d like to think that years from now, one of them will create a product or service because of our 45 minute lesson on product development. Maybe it inspired a small dream that someday becomes a reality for one of them.
This is the most curious thing about teaching: you plant seeds with nothing but love and faith, hoping that somewhere down the line something you said resonates with someone, inspires them, encourages them, gives them a reason to believe.