By Jeremy Venook, AmeriCorps member serving on the Wellington Management team with McKay K-8 School
“Well, I’ve never heard of him, so he must not be important.”
I’m sure that my student thought this was an innocuous enough statement when he made it. The class book, Seedfolks, made a passing reference to, of all people, President Richard Nixon, and I was momentarily surprised by the lack of recognition on my students’ faces. I mean, it’s not like the book name-dropped, say, President Millard Fillmore, whose name remains the most memorable thing about him, or everybody’s favorite historical footnote David Rice Atchison, who may or may not have been (but probably wasn’t) president for a day in 1849. Surely Nixon must have shown up somewhere in their history books by now.
As we filed out of the classroom, I realized that my student’s observation, fallacious though it may have been, offered me the chance to engage in one of my favorite pastimes: the lunchtime conversation, which today I would steer to the subject of good ol’ Tricky Dick. The classroom has its benefits, but the free-flowing lunchroom sometimes presents a unique opportunity to really feel the thrill of learning and teaching. Even the least engaged among them might suddenly perk up during an unscripted conversation about, say, why guzzling water after inhaling a whole bag of spicy Takis is only going to make things worse (which, having not taken a chemistry class for a good seven years now, I sincerely hope I explained correctly). Our students, it quickly becomes clear, are remarkably bright and inquisitive when you find the right combinations of buttons to push, the right piece of information you’ve had stored in the vault for who knows how long—and suddenly, you can picture them doing the same thing with students of their own someday.
These are also the moments when I really start to understand why so many people have told me that, in tutoring or teaching, you often learn an enormous amount from your students as well. Here, the lesson was in large part a reminder not to take for granted the depth and breadth of the education I have received in my 22 years because, as one so often forgets, one hasn’t always known the things one knows now. Of course my students haven’t heard of Richard Nixon; by 5th grade, I doubt I knew about any more than George Washington (a.k.a. "the first one"), Abraham Lincoln (a.k.a. "the one who freed the slaves") and Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (a.k.a. "the ones with whom I grew up"). Since then, more than a decade of education has enabled me to move deeper, to learn about Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson. I would love nothing more than to see my students be able to do the same, if not in the social sciences, in whatever happens to be their personal areas of interest.
Our students, it quickly becomes clear, are remarkably bright and inquisitive when you find the right combinations of buttons to push, the right piece of information you’ve had stored in the vault for who knows how long—and suddenly, you can picture them doing the same thing with students of their own someday.
These students, so easily written off for so many reasons—socioeconomic status, race, citizenship—have inordinate potential to find just as much success as I have had, but very little of the support that has enabled me to do so. Hopefully, if we all play our cards right—not just we City Year AmeriCorps members but everybody who works with the next generation—maybe we can keep nourishing those sparks and foster the love of learning so that, one day in the not-so-distant future, they, too, can glibly name-drop David Rice Atchison.