Each semester, AmeriCorps Project MARS collects “Great Stories” from its members, in which they reflect on their experiences mentoring in the classroom and the progress they see students making. This month’s story comes from Dana Williams and was written during last school year.
On Friday (of last school year,) we went home, knowing that sometime soon schools would close due to the spread of COVID-19. By that Sunday, the announcement was made: schools would be closed for two weeks, but anyone who reads the news knew that we’d be stuck at home for much longer.
My initial reaction was one of relief. The week leading up to the announcement was riddled with stress on campus. My hands were dry and red from using bleach wipes constantly and washing my hands every moment I could. At least at home, I wouldn’t have as much active stress about the virus. Soon, however, my stress turned to my students. How will they handle this? What about the kids who come to school for a respite from a stressful home? Will they lose all their progress? It felt like we had finally gotten to the sweet spot of the school year-routines. Relationships were established, and kids were maturing before my very eyes. Then it was ripped away.
Sammy was one of those students who kept me up at night, and when we moved to distant education, my concern multiplied. On the first day I arrived for service, I was charged with supporting this eighth-grade student one-on-one, all day, every day. I helped her with academics and more importantly, behavioral needs.
The progress she made between September and March was awesome to see. Her tendency to lie and manipulate decreased. She began feeling self-motivated to get her work done, and she was an all-around happier kid. Completing eighth grade would be an incredible milestone for her. There were so many times she didn’t believe she could do it. We were bummed to learn that she’d have to cross that finish line virtually.
The transition to online learning was difficult at first. She was late to meetings, didn’t do any work on her own, and had a hard time staying away from distractions on the internet. However, the relationship foundation she and I had, and her incredible progress over the year, didn’t just vanish. Once we found a good routine, she kept up with her work and took care of herself; the progress she made in math was particularly fun to see.
I called her every morning at 10 o’clock to touch base about her mood and her schedule for the day. Sometimes she’d sing me the most recent song she wrote. At 3 o’clock each afternoon, we did math, typically on Khan Academy via screen share. Doing math with her earlier in the year was like pulling teeth. By May, online, it was a blast. We both genuinely enjoyed the fundamentals of algebra and geometry. This summer, we still meet twice a week for a book club and some math practice.
One day, while in the middle of a Khan Academy lesson over Google Meet, someone knocked on the door. Teachers wearing masks came by to give her a cap and gown and celebrate her eighth-grade year. I thought she would end the meeting; instead, she brought me (the laptop) with her outside to receive her gifts. One of the teachers at the school held the computer while she got her photo taken so I could see. It was a very special and emotional moment, and the fact that she wanted me there made it that much more powerful. After the teachers left, I talked with her as she cried happy tears. She made it! We made it.
In the end, distant education helped me become more closely acquainted with Sammy’s home life. I feel that I understand her better now and in turn, can support her more effectively. Not all days of distance education were perfect, but I am so proud of her.
She’ll be starting high school in the fall. That idea used to fill me with nerves and dread, but now I am excited for her. She will have setbacks, but I have faith that she will succeed.