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How a Teach For America Teacher Saved My Life

Clifton Kinnie was disillusioned with school until he met teacher Michael Vargas (St. Louis '09). How did he spark Clifton's academic turnaround and activism today?

Clifton Kinnie

By Clifton Kinnie

June 4, 2015

I remember my first day at kindergarten. I remember the very first lesson I received that day because it followed me for the rest of my life. At six years old, I recall walking to my class and receiving stares because I was the only Black kid out of 30 students.

It was Career Day, which meant that everyone in class was supposed to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up. Everyone chose to be lawyers, doctors, astronauts, and firefighters. Me? I wanted to be the President of the United States.

So, I drew the American flag, or if I were to look at my picture today, what I thought, was the American flag at the time. After spending hours drawing my picture in class, I ran to my teacher and begged her to look at my picture: “Look. Look at what I had drawn.” My smile quickly went away when she handed it back to me and said, “Garbage collectors don't look like that. Please try again.”

I didn’t really understand her statement at the time, but I was so enthusiastic that I went home and bragged to my mother about the new job that my teacher had gave me—about a new job that she said was the most important job in America: a garbage collector. My mom froze up in anger and explained to me what my teacher meant. At that point, I realized that the odds—the odds were really stacked against me. At six years old, I had lost faith in the education system.

We're all born into a broken world that is separated by race, religion, class, and violence. We all need to be out there scrambling for ways to help these kids inside the school and outside the classroom. How many of us were taught that the Civil Rights Movement ended in the 1960s with Dr. [Martin Luther] King? Do you know that it never really ended? Do you know that one of the most important civil rights issues of our time is education?

I will always remember the four years that Mr. Vargas, who entered teaching through Teach For America, changed my life. Before stepping into his classroom, I had developed a strong dislike—a strong dislike for the school system, but I loved learning. I had found myself surrounded by bad company, but I knew there was so much more for me. After Mr. Vargas learned about my circumstances at home, and the fact that I had to raise my seven other siblings because my mother had Stage 4 breast cancer, he began to teach me about social justice, and how it intertwined with American history.

He not only taught me about Dr. King, but of the role that many black women have played in the Civil Rights Movement. He began to teach me about integrity, love, and responsibility. Stepping into his classroom every day and hearing lessons from Mr. Vargas was an escape from the trauma I faced outside of the school. Vargas taught me that there was so much more in this world than what I was offered.

Clifton is headed for Howard University this fall.

Although traumatic, my story is not relatively new to the students in my community. If you think I'm the only kid that struggles financially, or lost a loved one, you're dead wrong. Wait until you hear some of the testimonies of the students next year. You may find out that when they step out of of the classroom after 3 or 4 p.m., they have to become adults. They have to work two or three jobs to help make ends meet at home. They have to walk home in fear of gang violence. They have to shop at stories without a hoodie on their head in fear that they will be racially profiled or killed by police.

Life is very traumatic for many of the students you will teach. Knowing that, understand that we all come from and have some sort of privilege. Some may have a little more than others. Understand that because you have that privilege, it is your duty—it is your duty to reach out and help others while standing up to those who feel that poverty and a lack of education is due to self-fault. You have to stand up against those who advocate for policies that have led to disparities for many of the children you teach.

If you are brave enough—if you are brave enough as a teacher, you will have to fight back against the notion that we live in a post-racial world. You see, education is so much more than just lesson planning. So much more. Teaching is so much more than just telling a kid to memorize a bunch of facts and dates. It's more than just depositing information into a child’s head like he's a bank. Teaching is so much more than that, because ultimately, the real impact comes from when you listen and learn from these kids. It happens when you learn where these kids come from, understanding who they are, and what they aspire to be.

Early on in the Ferguson movement, I would call Mr. Vargas and I would ask for ways to collectively organize kids through St. Louis. I would often host sessions at my house with over 50 students, teaching them about civics and planning protests and demonstrations at schools. Although Mr. Vargas lived over 100 miles away, he was still there for me. He still cared for me outside of that classroom. He was still willing to teach me.

Michael Vargas (St. Louis '09) changed Clifton's life trajectory in the four walls of his Pre-AP U.S. History classroom.

The Ferguson movement was so much more than just how to protest. It taught me that for once in my life, I could finally believe in myself, That for once in my life, I could break that glass ceiling I was held under for so long. It taught me that I'm still a kid—a kid willing to learn, willing to be loved, willing to love, wanting to be free.

Over the past 10 months, Teach For America has changed my life countless times and I hope it continues to do so for so many other children. About less than a month before August 9th, the day Michael Brown was killed, I lost my mom to Stage 4 breast cancer.

Before my mom passed away, she used to tell me that you honestly may never know how much of an impact you may have on someone else, because as our thoughts and actions change, our world changes. As students, as teachers, as activists, and educators, we have the ability to create a beautiful world with beautiful thoughts and actions.