Jessyca Jackson is an insurance sales person and also a very good friend. Her daughter is close in age to my son. We met through the MBA program at Penn State University where I first noticed her fantastic taste in shoes, but soon came to appreciate her for her diplomacy, intellect, and great humor. Jessy is and engineer, a record holding pole vaulter, a single mom, an explorer and a dreamer. She also fosters older children, giving them a helping hand before they start out on their own. If there’s a woman who embodies the definition of incredible, it might be Jessy, even though she would laugh and change the subject if you asked her.
Q: Tell me about your experience with Teach for America, especially any stories that illustrate your time with them.
JJ: Teach For America (TFA) was one of the hardest and most rewarding experiences of my life. I knew I wanted to work with children who were under-served in some capacity since I was a young girl. I had no idea how to pursue that career option, however, since my parents were sales people and there were no ‘formal’ educators in my family. So I finished grade school and headed off to Syracuse to study civil engineering – still having a blast when working with youth, but knowing for sure that I did not want to earn an education degree. During the fall semester of senior year when everyone is taking their Fundamentals of Engineering exams, GREs, and committing to employers and graduate school (all of which I was doing), I came across a TFA poster. I knew nothing about this amazing organization at the time, but I did know a lot about Dinosaur Bar-B-Que (the locally renowned restaurant that was catering the event), so I went. After a ’96 corps member (that’s what TFA-ers are called) named Kwame shared his story, I knew to my very core that I would join the organization. Several interviews later (that included designing lessons and teaching to the interview panel), I was accepted as a corps member to the DC Metro region – very urban, very academically disadvantaged – exactly what I envisioned myself doing at least 15 years before!
I have countless stories worth sharing some good and some not-so-good, but I’ll limit it to one. The student’s name has been changed to protect the former adolescent from embarrassment now that he’s older and has a fully developed brain! Side note: Some studies have shown that a person’s brain doesn’t stop growing until 21 and sometimes longer for a child who experienced trauma in earlier years – a potential explanation for why some of my kids did what they did.
So, Jacob was one of the most respectful, reserved and charming students ever – I don’t have memories of him ever being loud or crass. I was an Algebra I teacher to 9th graders (I’m sure you can already pick up on the achievement gap with that fact alone. Many of my kids were taking Algebra I for the first time as 9th graders and many were older than the traditional 9th grade age – their ages spanned from 13 to 16). Jacob could not stand math, in fact, he HATED math – or so he’d say time and time again. Well, after several months of frustration and reminding myself to ‘stay within my locus of control’ and ‘to be flexible like the branches of willow trees’ (popular TFA mantras), I decided to take a concentrated and more holistic approach with Jacob. He showed so much initiative and potential in the classroom, but something was not clicking when left to complete algebraic steps on his own. It wasn’t until after he returned from a 2-month stint in a juvenile detention center (I don’t recall what he did to serve that time) and until I was literally spending most of my time by his side during his class period to catch him up on missed work that I figured out one of his problems.
Most kids have multiple factors that contribute to their less-than-desired academic achievement and one fine day, we discovered something big with Jacob that ended up dramatically improving his grades not only in my class, but in other classes as well – and it had nothing to do with his numeracy skills! So let’s say Jacob was reading from his math or science book – a paragraph with 15 lines of text. Well, after having him read aloud to me, I learned that Jacob was inadvertently skipping entire lines of text. He’d read line 1, then line 3, then line 4, then line 6… Of course, he couldn’t understand concepts in my class or any other classes since he was missing entire chunks of theories and principles when he read this way. I excited shared the news with my team teachers and we gave him steps to reduce and eventually eliminate the ‘conceptual loss’ that occurred when he accidentally skipped lines.
I also learned that even though he hated going to the juvenile detention center, he appreciated the structure that existed at the facility. They were required to rise at 4 AM every morning, but that was comforting to Jacob because he knew that a nice hot shower and meals would follow. He never had to wonder whether he’d have enough to eat at the center. That’s very comforting for a child stuck in a man-sized body. Most of my students were just little kids with tough exteriors. I still love every one of my students, flaws and all. Though I’m no longer a teacher in the classroom, I’m a proud foster parent to older youth. Since so many people blame under-performance on the home life of children, I’m now working with the same under-served population but from the other side – the home life side and it’s just as rewarding and fulfilling as being in the classroom. I often learn more from my kids than they learn from me.
Q: Do you feel like you are treated fairly as a black woman? Do you feel like there are more opportunities (or limitations) that come with race and/or gender? Tell me about your vision for gender and race equanimity. How will your vision come about?
JJ: This is a good question and you probably already know I can only speak about my experiences. I can only count a few times when I’ve overtly been marginalized by my brown skin – a couple times by kids when I was a child and once by an adult when I was an adolescent. If I was treated unfairly at other times because of my skin and/or gender, it was much more covert. One example is how a guy I knew in undergrad (he was a fellow civil engineering major) would insist on using ‘broken’ English and slang whenever he would talk to me. It was much more bothersome than inhibiting, but it’s something that definitely stands out in my mind when I think back.
My vision for such topics would be for the world to see color, but then quickly become colorblind – to remember that an overwhelming bulk of who we are falls into our ‘human’ category rather than in our subcategories like gender and ethnicity. The full spectrum of our experiences – from true love to detestation – have more to do with the fact that we are people and very, very little to do with our anatomical make up and skin tone. In my opinion, that would make the scale of this beautiful and broken world tip more on of the end of beautiful.
If I’m understanding your final question correctly, in addition to indefinitely working with youth who are underserved, underprivileged, and under exposed to positive experiences, I feel a personal obligation to do my part to dispel the myths and stereotypes associated with Black American women and families. Whatever ideas immediately pop into a person’s head who is not a Black female, that’s what I try to counter with my disposition and interactions with others. Hopefully, I’m not too obnoxious about it, but I’ve literally had folks yell at me for being too pleasant, as well as being so intrigued that I’m asked where I grew up and then told that I’m not like the other Black people they know – literally.
Q: How do you make time for yourself? What gives you balance?
JJ: During this season of my life, I value true rest. In addition to sleeping (a usual favorite, though I don’t get as many hours as I’d like), there are amazing regenerative powers in just being. Sometimes that involves just sitting and intentionally breathing, sometimes it’s catching a power nap, sometimes it’s meditating/mindfulness, and sometimes it’s being in great company (my daughter, my family, a love interest). Rest comes in a variety of forms for me now and I get it where I can. Sometimes I even use it as a reward during particularly mentally strenuous days. The balance comes when I accept whatever circumstances are in the present, evaluate all my options and select one – the balance is typically acted upon when I use some form of rest – even if its brief. Does that make sense or just sound mystical?
Q: What is something that the world should know? Maybe the best piece of advice that you ever received or the message you have for others.
JJ: My mentor often says ‘everyone has a story and we don’t what that story is.’ I always take that to mean that no matter what a person does – good or not-at-all-good – a person’s actions are justified in their minds, it usually makes sense to them, even when it may look and sound senseless to us. That understanding has given me more patience in every single relationship in my life (significant other, my biological child, my family members), but especially with the children I invite into my home through foster care. It literally helps me live out not sweating the small stuff because it’s a constant reminder to deal with the person, not the action, and that honey is sweeter than vinegar when it comes to addressing the root of the matter. We’re all kids in bodies of various sizes and, without excusing bad behavior (or not acknowledging good behavior), I’d like to say that when those times arise when I must have healthy confrontations with folks, I’m well-received because I’ve been respectful to them in the past, regardless of what they might’ve done.
Q: Who is your role model and why?
JJ: I have so many, must I choose? I admire anyone who lives with intention and according to what they profess – so long as others are not put in danger. I have my amazing parents and grandparents, of course, but the person who’s had the most influence on my life as a working professional is a dear woman named Viola. She lives a very unassuming life in a Maryland town minutes from both DC and Virginia. She is the most sprightly 70-something I’ve ever met and I usually tell her I want to be like her when I grow up. Every encounter with her, whether over the phone or in person or in writing, is oozing with brilliant practicality. She has a gentle way of reminding anyone not to take themselves too seriously, while reminding them of their exclusive talents. I love her and that reminds me that I’m due for a visit..
Q: What is the most rewarding thing you’ve ever done?
JJ: Being a teacher and parenting. Now I’m immersed in both for life and I’m thankful for regular opportunities to become greater at both.