I wanted to kick off the new year by sending out some love to a group of educators, students, and storytellers I truly admire. The year ended with stories of teachers who gave the their lives for their students. I love my students, and I can only hope I would be brave enough to protect them when faced with the same circumstances. In the wake of Newtown, my brain has ventured to all the spaces and crevices in my middle school building, places I could stash my students should the threat of physical harm enter my classroom. However, the psychic threat that the students and teachers of Newtown face is much more insidious, and no special hiding place can offer adequate refuge.
I don't know how I would be able to recover from that threat; the post-traumatic fear of violence. As the news reports begin to fade into other events of the day, I find myself drawn back to a documentary about of the students and teachers of the International Community School.
A year or so ago, I heard about a film called A Place in the World, directed by Adam Maurer and William Reddington. The students and teachers profiled by these filmmakers beg the question of what it means to be a great teacher in the face of great challenges, and the value that these great teachers impart to students, their community, and the country. I teach relatively unharmed, in tact children, but these teachers take on the most challenging students. Students such as those of Newtown, children who have been scarred by trauma and fear. Children born to war and conflict who have seen things they never should have witnessed during their young lives.
The documentary chronicles two years at The International Community School (ICS), a K-6 charter school in DeKalb County, Georgia. DeKalb County is the largest refugee resettlement area in the country and the most diverse county in the state of Georgia. Half the students at ICS are recent immigrants and refugees from war zones, and half are local children from DeKalb County. The film focuses on two educators: Drew Whitelegg (Mr. Drew to his students), a first-year teacher, and Dr. Laurent Ditman, Principal of ICS. Mr. Drew, formerly a post-doctoral Fellow at Emory University, speaks honestly about how tiring his job as a fourth-grade teacher is, how difficult it is to avoid being consumed by the challenges inherent in teaching a population of barely English-literate, emotionally and physically terrorized children how to function as educated members of American society. “Teaching at a university was a dawdle compared to teaching here. I mean it really was. And there’s a sense that you are in this for the long haul. But the rewards – the rewards here are absolutely endless. And they don’t come from all the great moments, they come from the small moments.”
Many of Mr. Drew’s students come to his classroom with no knowledge of English, and some students, such as Bashir, who was born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, have no understanding of the concept of school. Bashir spent his first days at ICS wandering the halls, walking in and out of classrooms, calling out for his father. Principal Laurent Dittman recounts the story of a girl from the refugee camps in the Sudan who spent her first weeks at ICS huddled under a table, hiding from whatever dangers she had survived in the Sudanese refugee camp.
Dr. Dittman, himself an immigrant and the child of Holocaust survivors, believes in school as a refuge from his students’ unsettled home lives. He understands his students’ impulse to hide under tables in order to escape. “The first thing I learned from my parents was how to hide. When something bad happens, or is about to happen, you hide. I see that in many of the kids at the school.” Dr. Dittman views his school as a refuge for his students, a place to come out of hiding and learn. Dr. Dittman says of his own upbringing in an immigrant family in France, “I really liked school. It was a safe place. My parents were refugees and things at home were not always a lot of fun, and I saw school clearly as a refuge.”
Logically, I know that the threat of violence at school is low. I know that my students are much more likely to come to harm in the car on the way to school or swimming in the local pond. However, I have seen things in the news I wish I had not seen, and my students are afraid of a boogeyman that should not exist in their young minds. As teachers and administrators move forward and continue to do the job of teaching this country’s students, we need leaders such as Dr. Dittman and Mr. Drew. We need teachers unafraid to get down on their hands and knees, venture into their students' hiding places, and guide them back out into the light of a safe refuge.