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Class Notes
Money, alone, is 'not enough'
(Published January 23, 2006)

By MATT WENNERSTEN

There are many opportunities for teachers in this area to work in extremely well-funded schools, full of highly literate, independently motivated students who will experience few interruptions on their path to college graduation and career success. I chose to teach in D.C. because this is not the story for many of our kids, and I wanted this smooth path to be the norm for all. I feel frustrated at times because it seems our nation is profoundly disinterested in helping me achieve this.

Increasingly I have cause to wonder what will come next for my students. Five years ago when I started teaching, my concern was, "What should I teach tomorrow?" and then "What do my students need to learn?" I am still learning how to be an educator, but with my experience I also have a family of students who have left my classroom and school and are making their way on a larger stage. Now I wonder, "What world are we creating for them?" The more I teach, the more I question. I would build for them a different America.

I question a society that engages in a war of aggression. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like [the war] continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

I question a society that puts more emphasis on what we can buy than on what we can be. As Thomas Friedman wrote in "The World Is Flat": "When we got hit with 9/11, it was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to summon the nation to sacrifice, to address some of its pressing fiscal, energy, science, and education shortfalls all the things that we had let slide. But our president did not summon us to sacrifice. He summoned us to go shopping." We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

I question a society that allows a growing portion of its people to go without adequate health care. I question a society that celebrates the recent increase in average wages while ignoring the increase in inequality, i.e. ignoring the fact that a larger share is going to a wealthier few. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.

I question a society that allows its government to ignore civil liberties and imprison citizens without charges, illegally tap phones and pay journalists to report "good news" to the public. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.

This is the society in which my students live.

I teach, in large part, for myself. I enjoy it. I left a good job in the computer industry to be a high school math teacher, and when asked why, I usually talk about how I love what I do and how my experience in D.C. Public Schools has changed my life in a wonderfully positive way.

I also teach for my students. They are crucially important to me. They are vital for our country, if only out of self-interest: we rely on them to take up the reins and to provide for us in the future all the goods and services that we alone cannot, to be our doctors or nurses, our lawyers and policeman, our soldiers and diplomats, grocers, truck drivers, computer programmers and electricians.

I'm not a charity worker; I teach for pay, but I can't deny that I get a "Good Samaritan" feeling from helping kids in DCPS when I could instead scoot on down the road to Fairfax or Montgomery schools, or return to a comfortable job in the tech industry. And then I am reminded that this is not enough. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

[Quotes in italics from "Beyond Vietnam" by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1967, Riverside Church, New York City]

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Wennersten teaches mathematics at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program (http://www.dcteachingfellows.org). Please send stories, comments or questions to mwenners@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator