Twenty years ago, I walked through the red doors of William Fox Elementary School as a volunteer, and my heart opened. For me, magic permeated the thick walls and squeaky floors of this charming building in the Fan. In these halls, I could feel the stories of children and educators who had been nurtured here through the years.
My journey began as a volunteer mentor. Every Tuesday morning, I was enthusiastically greeted by a diverse community of first graders. It was in this space that I discovered my passion for education. For uniting young people around a common goal. For creating a culture of respect and reciprocity.
My role at Fox Elementary evolved from volunteer, to after-school care provider, to kindergarten teacher, tutor, program director and parent. Not only has Fox Elementary made me the educator I am, it has given my three children a strong foundation in both academics and the arts, while allowing them to experience themselves as compassionate human beings in a diverse world.
I am, at heart, a public school cheerleader. So it was with trepidation five years ago, while exploring middle school options for my oldest daughter, that I decided to "just look" at Orchard House School, a private, single-sex middle school near the Robert E. Lee Monument. My intention was to take the tour, smile graciously and leave promptly. Instead, I stayed and engaged in a dialogue about education that's lasted four years and counting.
I remember that when I shared the news about our private-school decision with my friends and colleagues at Fox Elementary, I was met with raised eyebrows. I knew they thought that I had sold out, jumped the ship of social justice. My identity was in crisis until my husband reminded me, "This isn't about you. This is about our daughter."
While my oldest and then youngest girl settled at Orchard House, I stayed rooted in public schools and inner-city organizations. From the outside in, I worked hard to make a difference in public education. That was until Fox teacher and former colleague Annie Campbell suggested I might be more impactful working from the inside out. I was a teacher, she reminded me, and I needed a classroom.
So my tour of schools and search for the right teaching position began. I explored possibilities inside and outside of the public system.
What I witnessed on my first visits to Sabot at Stony Point was revelatory. It went beyond academics — the children were connected to nature and to one another. And the teachers' autonomous, creative approach to education was perfectly aligned with my own.
My inner judge, however, called me out on the injustice of this seeming utopia. This wasn't fair! Why weren't all children given the freedom to pioneer possibilities yet to be imagined? Why weren't all children privileged with small class sizes and multiple teachers supporting their learning? While I could deal with the discrepancy of public and private education as a parent, I couldn't reconcile spending my energy in a place that didn't require my bleeding heart.
However, I quickly realized that I had serendipitously landed in a place that shares my passion for social justice and unity across geographical, socio-economic and racial divides. Granted, Sabot is a young school, and without an endowment, this vision of diversity is not yet the reality one sees on campus. But it is embedded in their thoughtful and reciprocal outreach projects. The overarching question is not "what can we offer you?" But "what can we learn from each other?"
"Teachers, like students, are in a constant state of discovering themselves," Sabot director Irene Carney said to me when I accepted the job. "If, after a year, you are still feeling the call of the inner city, take what you've learned at Sabot and share it. We like to build bridges here."
I like to build bridges, too. And as I cross one on my way to school everyday, I will be reminded that all children need good teachers. And so do I.