There is a saying in Trenton which states: Trenton makes, the world takes. It is a bold statement made by a city as vibrant as its diversity. It’s also something you wouldn’t know about Trenton unless you lived and worked in the area. While the statement comes from a time where Trenton was a huge manufacturing hub for Roebling Steel, the adage has taken on new meaning in more recent time.
For me, personally, I can say that Trenton made me the educator that I became. I grew up in East Brunswick, NJ about an hour north of our Capital City. I lived in a suburb of New York City and on 9/11 we were lived close enough that we were able to see the dust cloud from the top of my street. I attended Rutgers University and graduated with a dual degree in Art History and Journalism and Media Studies. I lived abroad in Paris and thought my life was going to take me to places very far from here. Trenton was not on my radar other than it being a place that you didn’t go. Where I lived, Trenton was the hood and we were often told that if you stepped foot in Trenton you would be shot. That is all I knew about our capital.
Fast forward some years to my mid-20’s when I was a teacher that was tired of my original school district making me a French teacher each chance they had instead of hiring me for tenure track English positions. I sent resumes out to everywhere I could and had several offers that summer. Trenton was one of them and Trenton was the one that I chose.
Yes, I chose to come to Trenton.
I chose Trenton because for a couple of summers I wrote and facilitated programming for the CYO in Ewing and I found that I loved the kids and the families. While Trenton is rough and raw and yes, you can get shot and killed in Trenton, our capital city also makes some of the best families and kids I have ever had the privilege to work with.
In my six years in the capital city, I have lost a student to gang violence (she was one of my favorites too), watched several of my students become mothers before their time, coached sports and facilitated clubs, run home instruction for sick kids that are often forgotten in the system, met my husband and gotten married, bought a house, finished my master’s degree and am in the final chapter of writing my doctoral dissertation. I have had kids write essays about being smuggled into our country, sat and listened to them as they cried about their losses—no matter how big or small, and have sat with kids in police stations after they were arrested and waited with them until their parents came.
And in each of these experiences and relationships I have made with students and their families, I became the educator I couldn’t have been able to become had I stayed in my original district. Trenton taught me the importance of relationships and the importance of rising up to meet the needs of your students. However, those needs aren’t always academic and sometimes a student just needs someone who would listen.
I think that is true of most people, not just kids. I moved into teaching college at a campus within our capital city and I teach foundation courses for students who do not test into regular classes. I teach reading and so often, my students are products of Trenton who are trying to better themselves. Foundation classes have a high dropout rate because they are hard and work heavy. And so often with nontraditional students, you have nontraditional problems. I have students who are under 30 and already have five or six kids. Some women are pregnant and others are part of a parole program with the state that are coming to school to better their lives out of poverty and out of the system.
And that’s the tricky piece: poverty. When you live in poverty all you know is survival. If you’re lucky enough to get to the mind frame of betterment, then you need people who are going to lead you to accomplishing something better for your life and more often than not, the key to bettering your life is through getting some form of an education whether it is completing a college degree, certificate or learning a trade is up to the person, but regardless of their choice, they need people who will help lead them out of poverty.
For me, on a teaching level, that means I allow my college students to bring their kids to class if they can’t find a baby sitter. I allow my students makeup blocks to fix any grade they don’t like. I offer embedded extra credit opportunities that they often don’t even realize is extra work because it’s quick and often, they take ownership of the task because it lends to their interest or their point that they are trying to assert on any given topic.
Now, as an emerging school leader, I see helping students living in poverty not only needing everything I provide them on a teaching level, but on a leadership level we need to be offering students consistency. We need to stop implementing new program every other year, we need leaders who are going to stay in our schools and not push to privatize and outsource teachers and staff to save money. We need to put money into our infrastructure and fix the buildings we have been teaching in (and neglecting) since the 1920’s. Our kids and our families deserve better.
They deserve a light that leads them out of poverty and into a comfortable life where day to day survival isn’t at the heart of their existence. We need leaders who care and who are going to stay and fight for our kids instead of creating situations where we’re just fighting each other.