Perspective: Going Back to School

Executive Director Rhonda Haynes Shares "Back to School" Reflections

coach and student
An Urban Debate League coach advises a student debater. 

September 10, 2019 (Chicago) — It’s September and, across the urban debate network, students are back in school. For many students, the first weeks of school inspire excitement — while some may not be so eager. In the debate community, varsity debaters are thrilled to meet with their teams again, excited to share new skills and arguments they learned at summer debate camps as they diligently prepare to deploy those arguments at their first tournaments. Novice debaters will begin to discover debate — learning to distinguish claims, warrants and impacts and how to flow — and finding their place among a debate family as they realize the power of their voice.

As a student, I recall Septembers when I was over-the-top excited — and Septembers when I was much less sure of myself.  As a seventh-grader, I prepared weeks in advance for my first day of junior high.  It would be the first time I would change classrooms throughout the day (which felt like a very grown-up thing to do) and I would have the chance to meet new kids from different neighborhoods.  I couldn’t wait!  By early August, I had secured my Trapper Keeper, my pencil pack and my multi-colored pens.  I also had five spiral-bound notebooks
as back-ups – just in case one (or two or three) wasn’t enough.  I was fully prepared to conquer junior high.

Three years later,  I was about to start high school; however, things were very different.  I had lost my grandfather during the summer, and my grandmother was gravely ill.  More, I was starting a new school and not the least bit excited about it.  I craved the comfort of my old friends and the familiarity of the junior high, where my teachers understood me, appreciated my work ethic, and fully supported me.  In a school of 1,200 high-achieving students, I knew exactly two.  I felt anxious and terrified.

A hard start to say the least – plus, the classes were much more advanced.

For the first time in my academic career, I found myself struggling – really struggling – with schoolwork.  Algebra II tested my love for school, and math, in particular. Within a few weeks, I felt completely left behind and my teacher showed no interest
whatsoever in helping me catch up.

Feeling frustrated, and that I wasn’t as smart as everyone thought I was in junior high, I committed to saving myself. I decided to launch a “Hail Mary” by reaching out to one of my former teachers.  One evening after school, I opened the phone book (remember those?) and looked up Tom Benton. Mr. Benton had introduced me to Algebra three years prior and inspired my love for the subject.
I called him in an act of total desperation.

Mr. Benton was surprised to hear from me, but immediately sprang into action, volunteering to tutor me over the phone.  Since he also worked at “Homework Hotline” a couple nights a week, Mr. Benton could access the teacher’s manual for my Algebra II text book.  Two or three evenings a week, he used that manual to coach me back into good academic standing, providing crucial feedback and instruction over the phone, and restoring my excitement for my school work.

In the urban debate network, hundreds of teachers like Mr. Benton serve critical roles for our students as coaches, confidantes, mentors and educators.  These transformative figures catch those “Hail Mary” passes from their students and help them to get across the goal line.  Without a timely intervention from a trusted educator who took the time to care, I have no doubt my high school experience, and my longer-term trajectory, would have been completely different.

Today, I am so grateful to Mr. Benton and the thousands of caring teachers like him who go above and beyond the call of duty to make a world of difference for our kids.

Please join me in celebrating our teachers and wishing them the best as they start this school year!

Rhonda Haynes
Executive Director

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