In my second year of service, I was caught in a moment of sheer hopelessness as I stood in front of my class of 23 third-grade students. This wasn't an unfamiliar feeling. I had become all too accustomed to the absence of hope, as my story intertwined with those of my students over the past two years; accounts of homelessness, armed robberies, shootings, hunger, and neglect regularly filled our classroom walls. I had come to believe that a childhood spent on the south side of Chicago was not a childhood at all. Still, I was bent on making Room 213 a sanctuary separate from that reality.
So here I was, sharing a Scholastic News article with my students about the imminent milestone of the world population reaching seven billion. It was going to be a cross-curricular lesson-a teacher's masterpiece. We were going to discuss geography (locating the world's most populous nations), weave in math (place value to the billions!), draw in science (the impact on natural resources), and anything else that came to my mind in the moment. Because as an infantile teacher, running with a whim had become my specialty.
It was one such whim that led me to zero in on a particular line within the children's article: it explained that, even though the world's population was on the rise, this is not universally the case. I asked my students to reflect on that sentence and brainstorm possible causes for a group's population to decline. Brilliantly, and with hardly any prompting, these 8 year-olds came up with a host of reasons: sickness, no doctors, war, not enough food. To confirm their grasp on this concept, I followed up with a simple question: "So, then, what do you think is going on in the United States? Are we one of those countries that has an increasing population, or is our population decreasing?"
With an almost guilty expression on her face, Isabel raised her hand from the back right corner of my classroom. I called on her.
"Well, it must be decreasing here."
"And why is that?" I asked, preparing to clear up her confusion.
"‘Cause everyone's shooting each other here."
The breath knocked out of me, I steadied myself, and looked out at Isabel's classmates, their faces full of youth but void of innocence. "And what do you all think?" I finally brought myself to ask. "Do you agree with Isabel?"
One by one, my students piped in. There are gangs on every corner. My mom doesn't let us play outside. We wake up to the sound of gunshots. Their opinion was unanimous and very clear: Yes, we agree with Isabel.
Humbled, I stood there speechless. There was nothing I could say to correct my students' perceptions. For even though their grasp on demography might have been skewed, there was nothing false about their observations. I honestly don't know what I said to conclude this discussion, but I remember praying for grace and hope in that moment.
In the wake of recent tragedies, this memory won't stop running through my head. I find myself back in Room 213, looking out at their faces. I am struck with despair as I see the world through my students' eyes, and the devastation that is their norm.
Shortly after that moment in my classroom, I was home on winter break. It was Christmas Eve, and alongside my family I was singing along to "O Holy Night." I was a broken version of myself, and most of all, I was exhausted. And so in that moment, the words of this song struck a particular chord with me: "A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices / For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn."
Now, it is to this hope I return. I am weary; perhaps not as weary as I was in my second year of service, but weary still. The realities of this world engulf me, and threaten to engulf my hope. But they will not, because as the Christmas story reminds us, we are promised a glorious new morning. And even in the midst of this one, the birth of our Savior has given us the ultimate gift: a thrill of hope.
(December 28 the Western church commemorates the Holy Innocents, the children killed by Herod, described in Matthew 2. Hearing from the magi that a new king had been born, Herod decreed the death of boy babies two years old and younger, in Bethlehem and surrounding areas. Joseph and Mary flee with the infant Jesus to sanctuary in Egypt.)
Kendall served with the Inner-City Teaching Corps in Chicago from 2010 through 2012, teaching third grade at St. Gall School. She recently moved to the Pacific Northwest and began teaching a 4th/5th classroom at West Seattle Elementary School. Kendall is one of six Colleagues providing leadership and direction through the Krista Colleague Council.