Hard Lessons Follow Rocky Start For Chicago Teacher

May 27, 2012
Originally published on May 27, 2012 9:40 am

Tyrese Graham is a second-year science teacher at John Marshall Metropolitan High School on the West Side of Chicago. When he started teaching there, Marshall was among the worst public schools in the city.

When Graham walked into his first class, he could hardly speak over the noise of the students. He tried to make a point by not talking.

"I'll let you finish, but realize, every moment that I'm not talking and providing you instruction, you guys will be giving that back to me," he told them.

Graham's remarks were met with a sharp rebuke from one of his students.

"Oh you must not know what [expletive] school you at," the student shouted.

Graham didn't know how to respond.

"I went home that first night, and I was like, 'What am I doing? Why did I ever agree to this?'" he says.

Teaching at that school presented unexpected challenges.

"I never thought I would face the death of a student. He was a kid that I had when he was a freshman, in freshman Biology. And he got killed in a drive-by shooting. He was shot in the head — his mother was also shot in the arm," he says. "I've dealt with death before, but I had never dealt with the death of somebody so young and somebody with so much potential."

While many of his students didn't have the motivation to be in school, this particular student had taken his education seriously.

"I remember being at the funeral; I was trying to be strong, and I saw one of my students approach his casket to view his body, and she couldn't, and she started crying, and that's when I lost it," he says. "These kids have to face this every day. I don't live here. I can go home when all of that stuff begins to happen. They don't have that luxury."

Graham considers this one of the most challenging jobs there is.

"Really, it's not a job; you're dedicating your life to this," he says.

When he started last year, he thought he would only push through one year of teaching.

"But then, at the beginning of September, I walked through this door, and at this point I would not go anywhere else," Graham says. "I love it here."

Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Anita Rao

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, for another conversation from StoryCorps' National Teachers Initiative.

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MARTIN: This school year, we're sharing stories from and about teachers and their students. Tyrese Graham is a second-year science teacher at John Marshall Metropolitan High School on the West Side of Chicago. When he started teaching, Marshall was ranked as one of the worst public schools in the city. At StoryCorps, Tyrese talked about his first day on the job - and we should tell you, this story does contain strong language.

TYRESE GRAHAM: I walked into my first class and the kids were talking. They were loud. I couldn't get a word in edgewise. And I said, OK, guys, you know what, I'm going to stop talking, I'll let you finish but realize every moment that I'm not talking and providing you instruction, you guys will be giving that back to me. And one of the kids yelled out, oh, you must not know what (beep) school you're at. And I stopped and I didn't know what to say, and then one of the kids yelled out who the (beep) are you? And I said I'm Mr. Graham. It's nice to meet you.

I went home that first night and I was like what am I doing? Why did I ever agree to this? Being a teacher in this type of environment, you're going to be faced with a lot that you never thought you would face. I never thought I would face the death of a student. He was a kid that I had when he was a freshman - in freshman biology - and he got killed in a drive-by shooting. He was shot in the head, his mother was also shot in the arm. You know, I've dealt with death before but I had never dealt with the death of somebody so young and somebody with so much potential.

A lot of times we're faced with a lot of kids who don't want to be in school or who are forced to be here, but this was a kid who really valued his education. I remember being at the funeral. I was trying to be strong and I saw one of my students approach his casket to view his body and she couldn't and she started crying, and that's when I lost it, and I could not control myself.

These kids have to face this every day. I don't live here. I can go home when all of that stuff begins to happen. They don't have that luxury. I've been humbled a lot. I've learned so much and I understand it's one of the most challenging, if not one of the most challenging, jobs you will ever face. Really it's not a job. You're dedicating your life to this. And at the beginning of the year last year I was like, you know what, I'm going to make it through this year then I'm leaving. But at the beginning of the September, I walked through this door and at this point I would not go anywhere else. I love it here.

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MARTIN: That was Tyrese Graham in Chicago. You can learn more about StoryCorps' National Teachers Initiative at npr.org.

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MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.