I’m Not Here to Save Anyone

The year I showed up in a classroom in an urban High School in south Atlanta, was the year after the movie “Freedom Writer” came out. I know this because the kids called me that as though it was my name. 

“Who you got for English?” 

“Freedom Writer!” 

I acted annoyed and told them I was younger and cuter than Hillary Swank, but secretly I was pleased. I was there to save them. I was there to bring them their freedom, show them a better way. Maybe I was hoping to be a little more edgy, like Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, but they saw me for what I was hoping to be.

I was hoping to be the white savior. I was planning on it really. 

Spoiler Alert: The white savior figure isn’t real. We already have a savior, and I am never it. Instead of spending the year winning over hearts and minds by showing up with brilliant lesson plans and a hear of gold,

I learned that I wasn’t enough. I wasn’t even close to enough. 

I learned I was underprepared. I had not done the work I needed to do to serve the community. I had not read a single book about black identity. Really the only stories of black high schools I had familiarized myself with weren’t actually about the kids. They were about people who looked just like me being changed and affirmed by black communities. Those were the stories I was interested in. 

I learned just how egotistical I was. What made me think I could change the system just because I really wanted to? What did I think all those other teachers who had been there before me wanted? To be honest, I didn’t think much about the system at all. I mean, I had been an honors student at a middle class, mostly white school. The system had worked for me. Didn’t that mean the system worked? I just needed to show all of these other people who were more qualified and educated than I was how it worked, so they could work it too! At 22 with exactly zero work experience, I really thought I knew better. 

I learned the realities of my students lives. Despite the fact that I was ill-prepared and egotistical, my students opened up to me anyway. Through the sharing of their lives and stories I was able to see the ways they were being set up to fail. I learned how much they had to get through just to show up every day. I learned how the system did not account for all the extra hardships poverty and systemic racism had thrust upon them. 

I learned how to listen. I learned how to really listen to my students, what they were telling me. I learned how to pay attention to the ways the system was unfair. I learned to see the ways they were overcoming it anyway. 

But mostly I learned that I wasn’t their savior. I wasn’t going to swoop into a community that I did not know, let alone love, and just make things all better. I wasn’t going to be able to fix anything in the time frame I was expecting, and certainly not all on my own. 

It turns out they didn’t need a savior. No one needed me to come in and offer hope; they already had hope. No one needed me to come in and offer dignity; they already had dignity. 

I didn’t learn that I was the white savior by accident. Our culture is full of stories that teach people like me that I have the power to bring people hope, dignity, freedom. I learned them in church. I learned them in movies. I certainly learned these stories in teacher school. I learned that I was supposed to go save people. So I did. 

And then, I really learned. I learned that we all are in need of a savior. I learned how wrapped up in each other our salvation really is. I learned about systemic racism and the ways I was complicit. I learned about how systemic racism hurt me too. I learned we need each other, desperately to point to freedom for everyone. 

Mostly I learned that I was not the savior. I could not be more grateful for that lesson. 

 

Abby Norman

Abby lives and loves in the city of Atlanta. She swears a lot more than you would think for a public school teacher and mother of two under three. She can’t help that she loves all words.She believes in champagne for celebrating every day life, laughing until her stomach hurts and telling the truth, even when it is hard, maybe especially then.

Latest posts by Abby Norman (see all)

  • I’ve spent most of my adult life showing people “a better way” only to find that I’m the one being taught how to love. Well said, Abby. We’re all in need of a savior.

  • This very much mirrored my experience in Teach For America! I definitely thought I was Michelle Pfeiffer going in…only to learn that it really wasn’t about me.