On Going Far by Dr. Annah Kuriakose
"Go far in life....farther than this."
J’Kea Starks—a junior at Simmons High School in Hollandale, Mississippi at the time—offers these words as parting advice to me in a short film that MTC uses in its current application process. It’s the part of the film that always breaks my heart. There’s a bittersweetness to her words, an almost grandmotherly quality, as if aspirations are costly and she can’t afford them, but she wants me to go on ahead anyway. There’s something else, too, unsaid but not unheard: it’s a resignation that truly going far in life doesn’t involve Hollandale.
Hollandale wasn’t a town I’d slated into in my five-year plan when I started college. In fact, it wasn’t one I’d even heard of. In 2005, I matriculated into Amherst College with eventual plans to become a doctor. As liberal arts educations are apt to reveal, however, I couldn’t contain my academic interests to a single subject like biology. I began to love reading and writing about all aspects of human experience; in addition to science, I studied identity, narrative, religion, culture, race, behavior, illness and wellness. Easily, I added an anthropology major to pre-med requirements.
These areas of study lent themselves well to the field of public health, the study of which pointed me towards public education. The more I examined racial and socioeconomic disparities in public health in the US, the less I could ignore education both as a window into community health and as a key leverage point. So, I started thinking about taking time off before medical school to teach. It seemed like a logical and appealing opportunity, based on my interest in and experience with kids and considering I wanted to work before more school. Like scores of other soon-to-be college graduates in 2009, I began to look into alternate-route teaching certification programs. Ben Guest, the program manager of the Mississippi Teacher Corps at the time, recruited at Amherst the fall of my senior year, and I put in an application.
Eight months later, I landed at Simmons High School in Hollandale, MS, a tiny town of 3000. (Hollandale was—and is—a classic Delta town: fields for miles, one traffic light, three water towers. A billboard off Highway 61 reads, A Town Preparing for the Future Today, its motto.) The school served 240 students with a staff of about fifteen, most of whom were graduates of SHS themselves. That first year, I failed and survived on repeat, for all the reasons one might imagine a newly-minted college grad with a clean eight weeks of intensive teacher training doing so. Even my all-important data showed nothing to boast about; I spent hours prepping for lessons for which every student failed the test. Knowledge gaps abounded: students were academically far behind; I felt like I was way out of my league.
It wasn’t only in the classroom that I was struggling to make sense of where I found myself. I also remember having three principals within the span of the first three months. I remember students missing school for months on end for reasons utterly foreign to me, like maternity leave and gunshot wounds. I remember thinking of Hollandale as the place time left behind, like it was being mocked by its own motto. Here, my degree didn’t matter. Here, I wrestled with the fact that my presence probably didn’t change much in the trajectory of students’ lives. Here, I was undoubtedly being schooled more than I was schooling.
I applied to medical school in the summer between the two years of my commitment, then returned to Hollandale, holding my breath for a repeat of year one. But everyone who has ever taught for more than a year at the same school will know the significance of simply returning; nothing may have changed, but everything feels different. Communities like Hollandale see turnover so often that simply coming back is noteworthy; it buys credibility and investment from students that, otherwise, you have no business asking for. This, and the fact that I had stable and supportive leadership this time around in the form of Dr. Randy Grierson (now principal of newly integrated Cleveland Central High in Cleveland, MS), made the second year an altogether different experience. My personal and professional communities expanded, and I connected, to Hollandale and to the Delta at large, in a way only time can do. Suffice it to say, an offer from NY Medical College wasn’t as easy to accept as I’d imagined.
Ultimately, I did accept. The next fall, I returned to the Northeast for med school, armed with much of what Mississippi taught me and with new interests in rural medicine and adolescent medicine…but I missed Hollandale as soon as I left it. I spent my clinical rotation years in school districts, behavioral health centers, child abuse clinics, detention centers, and developmental clinics, looking for issues and places that were similar to what I’d felt were Hollandale’s needs. I began to feel acutely the difference between seeing and working with kids regularly rather than in crisis, and had an inkling I wasn’t done with public education. By my last year of med school, I was sure I wouldn’t apply directly for residency after graduating. Instead, I deferred and looked for teaching jobs in Title I districts closer to home in New Jersey. I currently work at a charter school in Newark, among a similar population.
Since leaving Hollandale, I’ve thought often of J’Kea’s words. Those of us who go to places for a time, then leave—whether it’s because we’re moving away from there or towards elsewhere—know that those places become parts of us that we take with us. In Hollandale, people leave with such consistency, supposedly for bigger and better things, that even kids have begun to equate “going far” in life with getting away. I can’t claim uniqueness here; I left, too, and in doing so, perpetuated that story.
But I also think about the ways in which my idea of “going far” has changed because of what I learned in Mississippi. I certainly learned technical aspects of math pedagogy, like classroom management and lesson planning. But the informal lessons are what stick with me: how inequitable access is the rule rather than the exception in towns as geographically and socioeconomically isolated as Hollandale; how teenage pregnancy interplays with generational poverty as students must choose between caring for a child and completing homework; how J’Kea’s comment speaks not only to my motivation to leave, but my ability to, my privilege.
Initially, I took her words to mean that I should rise above being a teacher, be something bigger, better, more impactful, and that I’d have to leave her and Hollandale behind in order to do so. Now, I think not as much about where “farther” is, but about my responsibility in the “going.” Now, working in a context that is wildly different than Hollandale but with remarkably similar issues, I work, still, toward the education and health of disenfranchised communities. Many of my decisions since Mississippi have been directly informed by the people I’ve met while there. In at least that way, while I’ve left Hollandale, it hasn’t been left behind.