By Katharine Tilmes
AmeriCorps member serving at Achievement Preparatory Academy Public Charter School
Monday afternoon, and four of my seventh grade students are examining several photographs taped to the whiteboard. After a few minutes, I call them back to the cluster of desks we have pushed together for lunch. Once we regroup, I read out what they have written at the bottom of each photograph: the careers they thought each person might have. Under an Asian woman in a pink dress are the words “Chinese carry out lady,” “Nail person,” “Chef,” and “Businesswoman,” and under an older Latino man the word “Actor” is written four times. When I reveal the true occupations of the two (lawyer and banker, respectively), excited chatter breaks out. We begin a broader discussion of stereotypes and the dangerous effect they can have in our society. As lunch comes to a close, I ask each child to think of a time when they experienced a stereotype in their own lives and to be ready to share how it affected them by our meeting the following week. Then they run out to recess, barely pausing to grab their coats. A couple seconds later, the door opens again, and Karla pokes her head into the classroom, a smile pulling at the corners of her mouth. “I came back because I forgot to say thank you. So, thanks, Ms. Tilmes. See ya later.”
It took time to get to this point. In fact, the reason that I began working with these particular students was because the school had identified them as having poor behavior. They often spent more time in the dean’s office than they did in class. The name “troublemaker” followed them around no matter how hard they tried to get rid of it.
I did not know that having lunch with them once a week would be such a powerful thing. Lunch clubs became this magic space we shared—as long as they were respectful and engaged, they would receive my full attention. Lunch clubs became a place to de-stress. A simple “How are y’all doing today?” allows each student to talk freely. We have discussions about goal setting and the power to turn even the worst day around. We talk about sportsmanship, peer pressure, and the painful race relations in our country. We talk about fear, leadership, and the power of words. Lunch clubs are a place where my kids know they can be themselves. They are a place where they know an adult will not only listen, but care about what they have to say.
The implications of these conversations extend far beyond the lunch club space. I watched Karla go from spending three to four afternoons a week in the Dean’s office to being one of the most engaged scholars in class. I watched Khalif slowly stop sleeping in class and pull his grades up enough to play on the basketball team. I watched Sierra step into the hall to take a deep breath after someone had cursed her out. Once she was calm, she asked her classmate for an apology. In the beginning of the year, both scholars would have ended up in a fistfight.
The progress that each of my lunch club students has made extends to all aspects of school, I am amazed to see that by now, many of them even serve as motivators to other students in their grade. “Troublemakers” turning over a new leaf inspired others to do the same.
I’m glad to have been able to give them this space, but even prouder to see what they have made of it.