Seven years ago, when the Penn Class of 2012 learned that Geoffrey Canada would be our graduation speaker, I had the same reaction as many of my classmates: “Who?” At that time, I had never heard of Waiting for Superman and was frankly pretty uneducated on social causes; instead, I was gearing up to start my first post-college job in financial services. Despite my initial disappointment at not having someone more ‘famous’ as a grad speaker (I know, first world problems), I remember feeling inspired that spring as I watched Canada stand on stage in his cap and gown, speaking passionately about his work with children in Harlem. There are certain fields of work that touch the soul, even for those who aren’t well-acquainted with them, and education is one of them.
Last week, I watched Geoffrey Canada walk on stage once again as he was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at ASU GSV X. Admittedly, I still don’t know a ton about his undoubtedly impressive accomplishments – but this time around, I knew a lot more about the field of education than I did seven years ago. As he spoke of educators who believed in him as a student and students who trusted him a generation later, I paused and took a moment – just grateful to find myself in the education sector.
For me, the conference hadn’t started off on a particularly positively note: my first conference activity was a school tour to a charter school in San Diego. The school itself was incredible: I met 2nd graders who had reflected on their own needs using Maslow’s Hierarchy; I listened to 6th graders explain their agendas for upcoming Student Led Conferences with their teachers and parents.
Unfortunately, the school was also facing the prospects of being shut down. “I have to be the bearer of bad news,” the principal shared with our group as soon as we sat down: the school was currently slated to close in June of this year. Despite this, we were there for a school tour, and so after an initial introduction about the school’s philosophy and curricula, we dispersed to explore the campus and visit with students.
What I didn’t expect – and, as we know, this is a common theme with adults – was that the students knew much more than I thought they did. I sat down to talk to a pair of 4th grade girls sitting by the playground. “Are you going to help us keep our school open?” she asked bluntly.
“I’m not sure,” I responded regretfully, “but it sounds like you like school here. What do you like about it?”
“This school helped me so much socially! I met my best friend here,” she giggled, and pointed to her friend. I sat with them for another ten minutes, listening to them chatter about everything from wanting the newest iPhone to guessing what new school they’d end up attending the next year.
As I continued to visit classrooms in the school, other students, spotting new adults in the classroom, kept asking us: “Can you help us keep our school open?” Later, a teacher shared about how several of her students had even watched the close decision being made in Sacramento on their televisions at home. “They came in crying the next day,” she said, shaking her head, “It was heartbreaking.”
There’s always so much happening at conferences, and ASU GSV this year was no exception. Yet between the coffees and receptions and sessions and keynotes, my mind kept wandering back to those students I met on Monday morning: “Can you help keep our school open?” Helpless as that question made me feel, I also knew that more than anything else at the conference, it reminded me of why working in education is such a beautiful endeavor.
As I looked around me at the handshakes sealing partnerships and hugs reaffirming relationships, I saw trust being formed between conference attendees. And outside the walls of the conference, there are students all over the world who in turn trust adults to help them experience to the best possible educational journey. Adults like their teachers, who work tirelessly day in and day out despite being underpaid and overworked. Adults like me, who trusted the system when I was a kid and was lucky that the system worked in my favor. Adults like Geoffrey Canada, who took that trust and took it as far as he could, and then some, whose students – now older than he thought possible – still stop to thank him on the street.
It is that trust that I take away from ASUGSV 2019. I feel deeply aware that it is an honor and a privilege to even be allowed in this field of work. Education, like any other field, is not perfect – and yet despite the mistakes that we adults make, these students continue to trust us. In roles like my current one, where we’re several steps removed from students in the classroom, it is imperative to be even more vigilant about the implications of our actions: I do not take this trust lightly, and want to make damn sure that whatever decisions I make do not breach it. I’m not sure how long how long I’ll work in education, but I do know that in this moment, I’m very thankful for this precious, innocent, undeserved trust from our students to us imperfect, well-intended, still-learning adults.