The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.
- Proverbs 16:9
At the age of two my home exploded into a roaring inferno. No one knows for sure whether it was intentionally set to harm my family or an accident. I think the fact that the mystery exists gives a bit of a view into the kind of world I was entering into in Southeastern Ohio on the Kentucky border. And my father, like many folks where I’m from with few opportunities and lack of access to quality education, was heavily involved in the drug trade. Sadly, this type violence and family destruction resulting from drug abuse is a common if not often-told story of Appalachia.
Tragically, my father died in the fire. This meant that my mom, my three siblings and I were suddenly on our own – with little income or support. It was a rough period, but my mom made it work. After some time of moving from place to place and relying on the generosity of others, my mother chose to remarry. Our family soon moved into his trailer at the edge of a small farm at the end of a gravel road. For a year my mother, my siblings and I endured consistent physical and verbal abuse at this man’s hands. I also started school the year that my mother’s second husband came into our lives. I didn’t recognize it then, but the timing of these events had a huge impact on my life’s trajectory. With a violent stepfather at home school for me became a place of safety and security, I actually wanted to be there. I liked school and became a “good student,” which would set me up for future academic success.
At the end of that year my mother found a way to escape my stepfathers’ brutality. She divorced filed for a divorce and a restraining order and never looked back. This meant more moving and more instability. After finishing third grade a few years later we settled down in Athens County, and for the first time I set foot on a college campus — Ohio University. At the school I attended outside of town, however, college was not really discussed as the natural next step after high school. While it was assumed that all the kids in-town nearer to campus were college bound; there always existed a different set of expectations for the kids “out in the country,” the poorer kids.
Like countless kids growing up in low-income communities, I looked at military service as the most viable option after high school. When I was ultimately denied entrance into the military due to a rare eye disorder, I thought my life was over. Suddenly my life’s plan was pulverized into a thousand unrecognizable shards of it’s former self. My plan, my precious plan to “get out” – out of Appalachia, out of poverty, out of that small town culture, OUT! – was destroyed. Instead of getting out, I stayed in and did a year at the local community college before transferring to the university “in town.”
I struggled mightily as a college student. In trying to learn my way, I distanced myself from my identity as a first-generation college student from the sticks. And I definitely didn’t talk about my family. I lived on campus and hacked it, pretending to be better than those people – indeed my people. I partook in the college lifestyle and worked hard to fit in, even though most days I felt like I just didn’t belong. I decided to major in education because I thought it was easy and I wasn’t really sure what other options were available to me. I had this vague notion that I wanted to leave and do something great, but I really didn’t know what that meant.
My junior year I received an email from the nonprofit Teach For America (TFA). TFA is an organization that recruits top talent to teach in low-income communities across the country. At the time they were looking for someone to lead campus recruitment efforts at my college. I signed on because I needed the extra money on top of my two other part-time jobs — benevolent, I know! As I went around campus informing students about the organization’s mission of ensuring that all America’s low-income children have access to an excellent education, something clicked. I thought back to my upbringing and that feeling of not belonging in college. The idea overtook me like a flood; I knew that I wanted to devote my life to closing the gap of expectations and opportunity that exists between children growing up in low-income communities and those living in wealthier communities. I applied to TFA, and after college I loaded a pickup truck and drove to the South Bronx in New York City to teach 8th grade students.
I found teaching to be more emotionally challenging than I anticipated as I came face-to-face with the gap in expectations and opportunity that exists between the students I taught in the Bronx and their more affluent peers in the wealthier parts of the city. Because I knew personally how this gap felt for me growing up, I wanted my students to know they were just as valuable and intelligent as kids from wealthier backgrounds. So I pushed hard and held my students to rigorous expectations. And what I found out is something so simple and true. When you hold kids to high expectations and lead with a vision rooted in their future success, they rise to the occasion. Some of my 8th grade students entered my classroom reading on a fourth grade level. Some had challenging family situations that dwarfed mine a million times over. Some liked school and some didn’t. Most of these students, like some of the kids I grew up with, assumed incorrectly that certain academic goals were off-limits to them. They didn’t have a name for it, but every day they felt the achievement gap that is so often discussed in our nation’s debates about education reform. At the end of the year, though, all my students saw improvement in their academic performance and left my room equipped with the skills that would set them up for success in high school and beyond.
It’s been seven years now and I still have the pleasure of hearing from some of the students I taught, and even in a city this big I still run into a few of them here and there. Some are in college and looking forward to being first-generation graduates like me; others are navigating high school and thinking about their next steps. I know from talking to them that I made a real impact in their lives and that my high expectations mattered. The gap still exists and they’re aware of it. But thanks to committed teachers, they now have the tools to overcome it.
After leaving the classroom at the end of year four, staying committed to the fight for education equity wasn’t even a question. Since then I have helped train new teachers in New York and I now work on TFA’s national staff to bring more top talent into our nation’s classrooms. It’s funny. All I wanted to do was “get out” of the environment in which I was raised, but God had a different plan. I came to New York in 2006 as an atheist, and a fairly devout one at that. It was through teaching that I began to recognize God’s authorship and a larger plan for my life. All the things that didn’t work out the way I hoped they would; all the turns that brought me to college, to teaching, to the Bronx – these were not quirks. Rather these seemingly random coincidences, when strung together, revealed a divine conspiracy to bring me right back to what I was running away from.
Travis Ousley lives in New York City and currently serves as Teach For America’s director of strategy for regional talent recruitment. If you’d like to get in touch to hear more of his story feel free to email him at email@example.com