“Ok, Let’s Try This Again…”
The second story in a three-part series chronicling student-led Middlebury Alternative Trips (MAlt) before the start of spring semester. In this Dispatch, twelve students spend a week at a struggling elementary and middle school in rural South Carolina.
Pencils and pens hit the floor.
A teacher yelled at her students.
A classroom door slammed shut.
Before the meltdown began at this small school in rural South Carolina, a sixth grader had raised her hand and asked a question.
“Miss,” she said to her teacher, “I don’t feel like I am learning anything by you just clicking through these slides. I am not understanding or learning anything from it.”
The science teacher responded by throwing down a handful of pencils and pens.
“If you want to learn science, teach it to yourself!” she yelled and stormed out of the classroom.
That was the welcome that twelve Middlebury students received on their first day on site at the school. The shocked and fearful expressions that spread across the faces of the Middlebury students in no way compared to the reactions of the sixth graders, most of whom shrugged their shoulders, as if saying,
“This is normal…nothing really changes with her.”
What scared us was that it was abundantly clear that this was not the first time the children had been yelled at or walked out on. We had heard that teacher retention was a challenge at the school, something the administration struggled with. And the students? They didn’t have a voice.
This school has a history of threatened closure; it has long been seen as one of the worst elementary and middle schools in this rural county in northeastern South Carolina, an area best-known for tobacco farming. With only about 46 students being taught in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, school administrators have tried valiantly to meet the needs of their students, most of whom come from lower socio-economic backgrounds. After administrative changes and the addition of Teach for America instructors during the past few years, there has been a subtle shifts for the better in the school’s academic standing. A big issue that remains, though, is keeping those teachers who are having a positive influence—and working around those who aren’t.
When that science teacher walked out on our first day at the school, Stuart Green ’16 went to the front of the classroom and began to draw on a white board, sketching diagrams. He asked students to come to the board to point out the answers to his questions; some were encouraged to recreate the diagrams that he had drawn and erased. Slowly, the energy level rose. Hands were raised. Answers were shouted out. Collectively, the class was signalling what that one brave young woman had voiced earlier: they wanted to learn.
On our final day in South Carolina, the students held a talent show, an impressive display of wit and candor and enthusiasm. At the end of the show, our MAlt was called to the stage. The sixth, seventh, and eighth graders had prepared something for us, something we did not expect. Every Middlebury Mentor was presented with a white mailbox, each containing individual notes from every one of the students we had interacted with during the week. The messages varied though shared a common theme of appreciation:
“Thank you for coming.”
“You helped me a lot through the week.”
“I calmed down because of you.”
“Thank you for making everyone laugh and for having a fun time with us.”
At that moment, it was hard to tell if we had made a greater impression on them, or them on us.