When I first started telling my friends I was joining Teach For America to teach 4th graders in the South Bronx I got everything from quixotic looks and bad jokes about bullet proof vests to pats on the back and a line akin to “that’s so nice of you.” Maybe it was the way I phrased it or the uncertainty they saw on my face, but only a select few seemed to get that I wasn’t doing it as part of some grand social science experiment.
I was teaching because I wanted to love our country, but I couldn’t until our country could hold up to its promise of a fair chance for all. No balance required. And education has the potential to be the great equalizer.
That and I love kids. Adults can get boring quickly, but I’ve never had a boring day with kids.
Recently, when I’ve had to set up fake meetings at work and nights out on the town with friends to tell them about Tanzania, I’ve noticed a very different reaction.
Sure, some still have a bit of the “don’t drink the water” first take, but just about everyone who I talk to is actually interested to hear more about what I’m going to be doing there. There’s an almost unspoken tension of “I want to come with you” and “just take good pics” that still speaks to a more intuitive understanding of the why. The difference – the near polar opposite difference – got me thinking about the deeper story behind these two very different reactions.
And it comes down to this – there are basically two types of people in the world: those who believe that humans can grow and achieve great things, and those who believe that certain humans can do great things.
We don’t talk about it that way because it’s messy – full of uncontrollable variables, unconquered biases, and anecdotes that make it easy to trump the often biased research (from both sides). But put the research aside for a second because I actually don’t think it matters that much. Your perspective – your gut and core values – and your awareness of your perspective matter much more than what something you can read. Do you believe that everyone, regardless of race, zip code, or number of parents could be the next President? The next Steve Jobs?
How did we get to this point, where we’re split on a fundamental belief in our ability as a species to thrive?
A recent NYT OP-ED by David Brooks addresses just this issue, and the comments section is perfectly telling. What do we owe to those who came before, what do we believe is possible for ourselves, and what do we believe is possible for others. The specific “how” we got here is different for different groups of people and in different countries, but in an increasingly global and interlinked market, those with the most opportunities have been able to “leverage them” to put a deep distance between those that have those opportunities and those that don’t. And it’s all been exacerbated by technology.
This is one of the key reasons I’m going to work in Tanzania – I’m convinced that finding the most meaningful and sustainable ways to bring real opportunity to those most disadvantaged will help change people’s minds, and in turn, their expectations. From there, we’re able to go back to being great.
Fortunately, there is a growing force of people around the world who want to place the emphasis back on kids and their future. We have to stop thinking about what they will inherit. They are our future – they are leaders waiting to happen.