This week Pass The Chalk features posts from contributors who learn, teach and work in Native communties in honor of Native American Heritage Month. Tracie Michelle Benally is a senior at Crownpoint High School in New Mexico.
PB&J cookies and Bikram Yoga on the Navajo Reservation are about as easy to find as a dancing, Vietnamese, Teach For America corps member now working for Bridge International Academies in Kenya. Finding such a woman is rare—in fact, it’s about a one in a million chance.
She exists. Her name is Ms. Dang.
I met her when I was a sophomore at Crownpoint High School in New Mexico. I was fifteen and uninspired—as far as I knew, educational success just wasn’t possible for me. I wasn’t expected to graduate high school or leave my community; unemployment hovered around fifty percent on my reservation and the drop-out rate was increasing. The odds of failing at attaining higher education were greater than succeeding, so trying seemed useless.
Her class, Geometry, was my first period. She greeted me with a fist bump and said something like, “GeoMonsters wahoooo!” When class began she referred to a schedule that looked like, “Greet Students—1 min. Intro—2 mins.”
I gave her two weeks.
Two weeks to stop using the schedule and being so excited—the usual amount of time needed for a teacher to get over the beginning of school. I paid attention to this trend for years, and didn’t think she’d be an exception to the many teachers who played solitaire at their computers. She would give in soon enough because very few were up to the challenge of teaching troubled students.
I was so wrong.
I saw that “Greet Students—1 min. Intro—2 mins” schedule every day of the school year. Ms. Dang wore a tool belt full of dry-erase markers and pencils because she refused to “waste time” running to and from her desk. She even attended community meetings and talked to residents about why education was important. I never saw a teacher try so hard to earn trust. She was the definition of tenacious.
When Ms. Dang talked to us about the achievement gap, she made us remember her words by being completely vulnerable. Like us, she was expected to drop out and contribute the bare minimum to society. Statistically, she wasn’t supposed to be a teacher or a college graduate. She wasn’t supposed to be successful because of her background. But there she was running around the classroom, teaching us to make sense of geometry because she believed we could be successful too.
Ms. Dang’s dedication to Crownpoint High School was demonstrated in a variety of ways, but her students’ mastery of that encrypted code, geometry, was most important to her. She worked hard to prove that she believed in every student. I think this is why she was honest with me when I asked her if we were learning the same material as other students in America.
She looked me in the eyes and told me, “No.” We were still far, far behind.
Ms. Dang chose to be blunt because she cared. Hearing the truth from her became our defining moment. I was inspired to defy the statistics and the factors that were trying to decide my trajectory by applying to highly competitive enrichment programs and deciding to one day become a teacher. The achievement gap was a restriction, but it was not going to decide my future. I was going to become empowered to find a voice to advocate for my people, the Navajo Nation, and become the success story I couldn’t see.
I found that voice when she invited me to the first annual Four Corners Education Summit where I gave a speech demanding higher standards from my district. To this day, Ms. Dang is my mentor and friend. Ms. Dang proved that it was possible to overcome. She changed my life on the first day of sophomore year, and continues to inspire me to find my voice in the world.
Tracie Michelle Benally is a 17-year old senior from the small community of Crownpoint on the Navajo reservation. She describes herself as biracial—Navajo and white—and from a single-parent household. Her mother is a secretary. Currently number two in her class, Tracie is the president of the National Honor Society, the Senior Class, and Natural Helpers. Additionally, she is a Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) Scholar, and hopes to join the Smith College class of 2017 next fall. She works for Teach For America New Mexico as a Tribal Recruitment Coordinator.