Posted by: Academy of Achievement | 05/13/2011

Wookie Kim

2011 Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation Teach for America Fellow

Harvard Law School

Yale University

I have difficulty summarizing my Teach For America experience. But, if I had to describe what teaching has been like, I’d compare it to riding an invisible rollercoaster: as with anything in life, it has a sequence of ups and downs; what makes teaching more challenging than anything I’ve ever done is that I never know when, or for how long, these climbs and falls occur.

Throughout my time as a high school English teacher here in DC Public Schools, I’ve learned just as much as I hope my students have learned from me. I’ve learned about the influence that a teacher can have on changing not only a student’s classroom achievement, but also his or her attitude towards life. Indeed, an education is more than an understanding of facts and equations; it provides one with the self-belief that, in turn, empowers one to realize his or her full potential. In a way, then, an education is the greatest gift one can receive.

But, I’ve also learned about an essential nuance of the American Dream: it doesn’t apply to everyone. In America, supposedly, prosperity is a function of effort and ability. Yet, I’ve learned that this is not the case for too many students, who face challenges—racial discrimination, abject poverty, broken families, gang violence—that become barriers to the pursuit of this dream.

Some examples of bright, talented and hard-working students with unjust challenges: M., who aspired to be her family’s first college graduate, dropped out of college to support her family after her only parent and mother lost her job; both of J.’s parents have been in incarceration for essentially her entire life because of serious drug addictions; and nothing can help P., who was shot dead as a result of a petty gang beef.

Ultimately, it was my discomfort with what my students’ situations revealed about America that led to my next big step: after the 2010-2011 school year, I’ll be dismounting the invisible rollercoaster and beginning my studies at Harvard Law School. While there—and beyond—I intend to jump right into the community and do whatever I can to make the equality of opportunity promised by America a reality for all. In this pursuit, I’ll always have students like M., J. and P. in mind.

Of course, if not for amazing Teach For America supporters like Catherine and Wayne Reynolds, I would not be where I am today. In particular, the knowledge that I had behind-the-scenes fans pushed me to work harder for my students than I’d ever worked before. For this, I am forever grateful. Thank you.

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