Teach For America took my best friend away from me… and it’s all my fault. As a long-time educator who, for more than 20 years, has been committed to educational equity through non-profit youth development sector, college preparation programs, and formal teaching in public high schools, I should have known that all my enthusiasm and passion for young people would eventually rub off. I had only been leading Teach For America’s LGBTQ Community Initiative for a few months when one of my besties, Manuel “Manny” Albert, noted that he’d long had an interest in TFA. In my short time working in the organization, the conversations with people outside of the organization had mostly been laced with vitriol or infused with unproductive ideological comments that decenter the conversations from students and communities. When he asked: “You are working with TFA?!” I expected the usual and was prepared to tune out. After all, why would my super intelligent homie with a Doctorate in his field be at all interested in leaving his comfortable pharmaceutical job to teach low-income students? Well… he was. I had no idea how serious this interest was until he informed me that he was starting his second application in two years.
I already knew Manny to be a leader—active in his fraternity, rooted in service to his community from his HBCU days at Xavier University of Louisiana, but TFA?! I was honored, if surprised, by his interest and the investment of his time and research. Truth is, I was grappling with lots of the critiques of Teach For America very new to me. Still, I knew that at the root of the work I was doing building partnerships with organizations, some of whom were reticent about supporting our work, and fighting for the dignity of low-income LGBTQ students of color and the educators who support them, I valued having a friend who would be in the trenches with me. To know me is to know my passion for educational justice. The nature of our check-ins opened up a world far bigger than our occasional small talk. We had a common point of passion that strengthened our bond.
Manny’s interest in the Teach For America corps challenged me in a very personal way. Did I believe enough in this work that I would “go to bat” to support my best friend leaving his “good job” to work with low-income kids back in his hometown of Los Angeles? What if it didn’t go well? What if he realized teaching wasn’t for him and that the challenges outweighed the benefits? Supporting his application, as best I could, meant seriously challenging his motivations for wanting to teach. I was all too aware of critiques of TFA not supporting life-long educators, even though my experience has introduced me to many educators committed to teach and/or lead in schools long beyond the “two years and done” that is, perhaps, a most common criticism . Manny assured me that he’d given the decision a lot of thought. He grew up in family able to leave the inner city and provide a life for him that even some of his extended family couldn’t afford. He noted the dramatic differences in the opportunities available to him as a result. True to his brand as an “Alpha Man,” he was committed to giving back as a departure from the sometimes mechanistic and uninspiring work of working in the for-profit sector as a pharmacist.
I think I may have been more nervous at decision time than he was. He’d already begun doing work to prepare to teach in advance of the decision from TFA—even transitioning from his job. Was he mad? It was study guides, reviewing material far removed from his studies, and lots of conversations about black men teaching STEM in the secondary landscape I advised might be best suited for him. Manny was also acutely aware of the dearth of black male educators in the United States. Black men make up less than 2% of all teachers in public education though we serve black and brown boys at much higher percentages. Understanding the systemic determinants to our school to prison pipeline, alongside his sensitivity to and awareness of my work to address, not just the black school to prison pipeline, but the reality that LGBTQ students are even more disproportionately represented, set a fire ablaze in him that I hadn’t seen much of in our rather brief but intense friendship. Manny seemed alive with purpose, fearless in his determination to give back, confident in the belief that if TFA didn’t see his value, someone would. And so I was not surprised, in 2014, when he called to inform me that he’d be returning to teach STEM as part of the 2015 Los Angeles corps with Teach For America the following year. I wasn’t surprised when he’d start packing life up in New Jersey to make the move back to Los Angeles to begin his first year as a corps member. There was little surprise when he noted that, beyond teaching, he has a desire to explore school leadership and, after some years, develop both the skills and promise to have impact as the leader of a school. I know my bestie, so have no doubt that he’ll accomplish all he desires.
What I didn’t expect or anticipate, perhaps blindly, was that he wouldn’t always return my text messages. I was always the tireless working in the non-profit sector friend who never had time. Now Manny is consumed with Lesson planning, even on weekends and late evenings. He now lives on the Left Coast, so when he finishes his day or grading or planning at 10pm PST, I’ve gone to bed. So yes… a part of me misses my friend. And yet we remained aligned in the silence between us at times that marks our commitment to fighting for all young people to have the opportunity to have an excellent education. I know that Manny’s relative absence since he started in the corps at TFA is marked by his commitment and passion for teaching. I know that just a decade ago, I got little sleep too, making endless edits to Lesson Plans because I was truly invested in students “getting it.” And yes, I’m concerned about him burning out; and I’m also concerned about his self-care. He’s my friend. I’m probably not the best example of work-life balance, as a teacher or youth director once, or currently as an educational justice advocate. Nights are tireless, days or long, but we are all the more connected through this common fight. And yes, I’ve always loved and been very proud of my friend Manny; but there are few people on the planet I can say I’m more proud of today. When I mention to those at TFA who support his training that he’s my bestie, they beam with consistent optimism for the future he’ll have as an educator. Recently, at an LGBTQ Educator’s Summit held in Los Angeles at USC, and again at our 25th Anniversary Summit, I set eyes on a new man with a purpose. So ultimately I didn’t lose my friend at all. I gained a friend inspired by the little daily miracles he gets to witness in the achievement of his students. I get to connect with someone who knows me all the better for my passion for students and communities we serve. And for all the ways I miss the more casual conversations about life; I know he’s growing as an educator, learning so much, and that we’ll soon align, during an actual vacation and promise not to talk school and young people we’ve taught but fail. He’s my bestie for a reason. And yes, there are educators who’ve been in the classroom for longer, though few as close as this young man is to me. To that end it’s my bestie, Manny Albert, that I celebrate on Teacher’s Appreciation Week 2016. Couldn’t be more proud. And yes, it’s all my fault.