A few posts ago, I expressed some of my anxiety about the 20th anniversary summit. I’m not a charter corps and I didn’t start a charter school. I guess my claim to fame is that I got two books published, but that hasn’t been enough to get me on the TFA A-list, though I’m friendly with many people who are.
At the summit, I had to search for people I knew. At first, it seemed like there weren’t many old-timers, but I did eventually find a bunch of people who I knew from my Houston days and also from my time as a CMA. My most enjoyable moments were definitely reminiscing with my old friends and also catching up with them. I didn’t meet very many new people — everyone seemed to be there to see their old friends too, which was fine. I guess the most unpleasant times were when I’d notice one of the TFA celebrities, people who I’ve spent time with in the past, but who were being mobbed by fans. Since they didn’t notice me, I’d feel compelled to leave my group of friends and wait on line to see them. They all seemed pretty happy to see me initially, but after about 30 seconds, it seemed like they were looking around, looking for the next person to talk to, and that was it. Fortunately I could go back to my other friends and back to deep conversations and catching up. I even got a few seconds of time with Wendy Kopp. At first she didn’t seem to know who I was. There are 28,000 alumni, and she can’t be expected to know us all by name. She looked down at my name tag and then smiled and asked “are you still teaching?” so she did know me a little after all — I don’t think she knows about this blog. I’m not any kind of threat, or even a guy who has some good constructive criticism. Maybe to TFA I’m what I need to be — one of the alums that are still teaching, which TFA likes to use in their speeches. She seemed willing to talk longer, but I thought I should go away before I said something stupid, so I walked away after about 30 seconds, and was happy with the exchange.
I had volunteered to speak at the summit, or to do a workshop, or anything really. The one thing I was granted in an official capacity was a table that I could set up to sell books. There were two places where tables were set up. There was the upstairs room with a lot of traffic and constant excitement, open all day on Saturday. My table, however, was in the cafeteria on the lower level. The row of tables was very far from where the food was, and I was told that I could man the booth for two hours from 7:00 AM to 9:00 AM and again from 1:00 PM to 3:00 PM. Well, I got there a little after 7:00 AM and noticed that my table was in the worst possible spot. It was facing away from the food tables so even if someone decided to take a walk to see what me and the other poor vendors in the steerage of the Titanic had to offer, they would have trouble finding me. Nobody came by the booth for the 7:00 AM to 9:00 AM time slot. The later time slot was a bit better. I decided that rather than sell the books, I’d just give them away to whoever stopped by. Though I brought 20 of each book, I could only even give away about fifteen books total. Books are pretty heavy to lug to a convention and they feel even heavier when you lug them back.
At just before 3:00 PM a young man stopped by my booth, just as I was getting ready to pack up. He shook my hand and said “I want to thank you. If it weren’t for your book, I would have quit during my first year.” He told me that someone had bought it for him during his first year, and it made him feel that he could overcome his difficulties. He made it through that first year and then the second, and now is in his fifth year at his original placement school. “You must hear this all the time,” he said, to which I truthfully told him that I rarely hear it. I had always thought that ‘Reluctant Disciplinarian’ was just for people before they start their first year since I’m pretty clear in it that I believe that if you don’t get off to a good start there’s really no way to salvage the year. Now I know that the book has a second, unintended, purpose. It can help someone who is in the midst of a tough first year so they don’t feel like they’re the only person who ever struggled. The guy told me “TFA gives us a very specific mindset and if that isn’t working for us then we have nothing to fall back on. Your book helped me with that.” This five minute exchange was, for me, the thing I needed more than anything. Maybe I was snubbed by the A-listers, but I left the summit knowing that I had prevented a man from quitting. As his teaching career continues, I can take pride that the kids he teaches each year benefit from a teacher who wouldn’t be there had it not been for my sharing of my experiences. As I continue my writing on this unedited blog, I sometimes wonder if I’m crazy to still be investing time into this or whether I’m doing it because I feel like I have to — like I’m supposed to.
He left the booth and said, again, “Thank You.”
And thank you too.