My first job after college forever changed the way I prayed. Before I started it, I prayed that God would show me how to best serve him after receiving my diploma. After I completed it, I prayed that the Christian community would recognize the responsibility it has to work for justice and equity.
That first job was teaching social studies in a New Orleans high school with Teach For America, an organization that places recent college graduates in under-resourced public schools. My first few weeks in the classroom showed me that my ninth graders were, in many ways, typical high schoolers. They were talented, guarded at the outset of the school year, and filled with colorful hopes and dreams. But at the same time, they were enduring more challenges each day than most of us experience in a lifetime.
Most of my students were living in poverty. At home, many were helping care for younger siblings and they often rushed out of the house to catch the bus without breakfast. At the bus stop, many feared violence. On the way to school, they rode past housing projects and abandoned buildings. Upon arriving at school, they passed through a metal detector and rusty gate before entering their school's rundown campus, where they continued to stay vigilant, looking over their shoulders for potential confrontations. They all knew someone who had been shot, and many wondered if they would live to celebrate their thirtieth birthday
Then the bell rang to start the school day, bringing even more challenges.
My students sweltered in classrooms without air conditioning and took some courses without textbooks. Many struggled to read at a junior high level. They were often exhausted and hungry throughout the day.
During my two-year teaching experience in New Orleans, I saw these circumstances wage war on my students' hopes and dreams. I chose to maintain high expectations for their academic performance and I privately prayed for them as I learned more about their struggles.
My upbringing in northern New York was different than my students' experiences. My parents and teachers built in me a quiet expectation that my future could be as bright as I was willing to make it, and the achievements of college graduates in my community reinforced this message. As a teenager, I believed I would attend a four-year college. This expectation, however, was driven by selfish ambition until I heard the gospel message, became a Christian, and developed a desire to reflect the hope that I had found in life with Jesus.
In high school and college, the robust hope of the gospel stretched me beyond selfish myopia and deepened my concern for others. But this hope was tested anew once I saw people I loved and taught confronted with hopelessness on a daily basis. In New Orleans, my prayers began to take a different shape as I recognized the complexity of my students' needs. I learned to pray that God would empower me to reach my students, and I saw that he could, in part, use me to cultivate lasting hope in teenagers. Although my teaching experience was incredibly challenging, some of my students overcame poverty and the ravaging effects of Hurricane Katrina to attend four-year colleges.
My students and their stories have personalized the injustice of educational inequity for me. I know now that expectations are shaped by places, and places send trademark messages. Since young people in impoverished areas often internalize messages of hopelessness, I now pray that the church will view itself as God's change agent and send more teachers into low-income areas who will work to ensure all children have a high quality education. I pray that God will continue to give me fruitful opportunities to fight educational inequity and that he will transform me to be more like him in the process. I pray that one day, everyone in this country will have access to an education that fosters a sustainable lifestyle and reflects the abiding hope that I cling to and cherish.
Luke McFadden taught in New Orleans and Houston from 2003-2006 and is currently a Master of Divinity student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.