Teaching for America, In Rural Arkansas

There are no hooded sweatshirts emblazoned with “HELENA, ARKANSAS” for sale around here. I still just wear my cozy Lowell House regalia that occupies a solid third of a shelf in my closet. I once wore these clothes to Stein Club, but these Thursday nights, I’m not signing up for my sixth karaoke entry. I’m usually writing lesson plans for the next morning.

This is my new life as Mr. McNamara, Teach for America Corps Member. If you did well on your reading quiz, I won’t scold you for calling me “Mistah Mac.”

During my years at the College, I tutored pre-teens in Dorchester, helping out with homework and often breaking up fights over who got to pass out snacks that day. I thought my experience in the impoverished areas of Boston had prepared me well for my new teaching post at Central High School. My students in Teach for America’s “Mississippi Delta” placement region are, in fact, similar to those in Dorchester in many ways. They, too, need a lot of help on homework, and they also fight, even though they’ve graduated from brownie squares to love triangles.

There is a difference, however, between these two groups of students.

Teach for America often talks about the “achievement gap,” a term that describes the poor academic performance found in disadvantaged communities. In Boston, it was easy to see the achievement gap as a physical fissure, the distance from the Harvard T stop to the less pampered subway stations on the other end of the Red Line. Crossing that fissure cost about two dollars, and no matter how often I visited Dorchester, I remained a citizen of Harvard’s side of the Gap.

But in Helena, poverty isn’t escapable by the quick swipe of a Charlie Card. The divide here could more aptly be called an “Achievement Abyss”: it’s really deep, and there is no foreseeable edge. Unlike its urban counterpart, rural poverty does not see six-figure salaries every day on the subway. It does not understand how education is a means to success because it sees neither. It does not perceive its own strangeness because it so rarely travels away from the abandoned storefronts and dilapidated streets of Helena.

When I tutored in Dorchester, part of my work was helping kids leave their apartment complexes on daytrips to urban educational resources like the aquarium or the museum. But here in the Achievement Abyss, there is no aquarium, only endless cotton fields and rusty farming equipment.

The best resource our kids have is their school faculty. I am reminded of this fact every Monday afternoon at Math Club, held in my English classroom. The students who attend regularly don’t just come for the extra credit. They come because they love math. They come because they love hearing the teachers on my hallway debate the best way to solve an old AMC problem about the area of Farmer Bob’s land. We teachers are the Helena Aquarium.

My emphasis on the importance of quality teachers in the American countryside is not meant to be self-aggrandizing. It is meant to underscore the unique ability of motivated and intelligent classroom leaders to single-handedly transform students living among nothing but poverty.

Even though I’ve only just finished my first quarter of teaching, I already know that money isn’t solving the problem here. Even the most generous government subsidies haven’t improved Helena’s situation. Thanks to The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the local school district’s “Title I School Improvement” status, we have an entire building full of federally funded posterboard, copy machines, and as of my last visit, several new SMART Boards. My English department, also sponsored by federal funds, just purchased thousands of dollars worth of literature. Most of my students, however, do not need copy machines and an edition of Anna Karenina. They first need to know that a period comes before quotation marks and that a paragraph is always indented.

I would hate to limit my role as an educator to this pedantry, and thankfully, I don’t. Rural teachers, as singular resources in isolated communities, are too important to reduce their impact to a five-step lesson plan. Indeed, my Math Club kids don’t stay two hours after school to listen to me lecture. They want me and Mr. Agrawal, a chemical engineer from Columbia, to make learning fun, one Farmer Bob problem at a time.

As a first-year teacher, I can hardly claim to be the most effective educator Helena has ever seen. But simply by opening our doors every Monday for Math Club, we teachers are filling the Abyss. The secret? Farmer Bob, not federal dollars. As my students will tell you, millions in government subsidies plus an ever-growing Abyss is still, sadly, less than zero.

Charles J. McNamara ’07 was a classics concentrator in Lowell House. He is a first-year Teach for America Corps Member in Helena, Arkansas.