Reflections From MTR Camp: Kids and Hope

Author: Allison Mollenkamp | MTR Camp Summer Intern 2016 | University of Alabama, Class of 2018

MTR Camp is a summer internship for college students interested in urban education. It is designed to provide academic enrichment within a summer camp experience for students who attend an MTR partner school.  Allison served at MTR Camp as a Reading Teacher at Kingsbury Elementary. She gave this reflection at the MTR Camp Closing Dinner.

When I was seven years old and in the second grade, I fell in love for the first time. With theatre that is. Boys were still kind of icky at that point. My second grade teacher, Ms. Dahms, had us write and perform our own puppet shows and do reader’s theatre for various holidays. I was hooked. I found a book at the library about how to be a playwright, which I would happily explain to anyone who would listen was spelled with a “ght” not a “te” because being a playwright was about crafting and creating, not just writing. I used the book to adapt a short story (and I mean very short, literally like two or three pages of second grader writing) I’d written into a play. A few months later I performed it with my brothers and my best friend for our parents. That was the first time the older of my two brothers got to demonstrate his unwavering professionalism by playing all the male roles, as our youngest brother had fallen asleep and could not perform.

Allison at MTR Camp Closing Dinner

Allison at MTR Camp Closing Dinner.

Ms. Dahms gave me a new way to tell stories. I found voice for my own stories at seven years old, and theatre has continued to provide me that avenue for the past thirteen years.

This summer, thirteen years after Ms. Dahms gave me the gift of a way to tell stories, a bunch of six and seven year olds gave me a new story to tell. It’s a story of joy but also one where the ending isn’t written yet.

Meeting the kids this summer, I was honestly shocked at how happy they all are. It’s easy to imagine urban schools as places of doom and gloom. However, kids are kids everywhere. The children at Kingsbury have not yet realized that their school has less money than others, or that every statistic is stacked against them. They are happy to be at school with their friends and their teachers. They are happy to be learning and getting better at things. They have so much joy and hope that every day will be better than the last.

However, in many cases that hope can be drained away by the realities of America. Over ninety-nine percent of Kingsbury students are economically disadvantaged. These students will not have money for SAT prep classes or extra tutoring if they have trouble in high school. The kids we fell in love with may have an expiration date on their joy for school.

These realities also make it very easy to lose my own joy for kids and for teaching.It’s easy to think that maybe I don’t deserve how far I’ve gotten. Maybe I did well in school because my parents were doing well enough to work during the day and read to me before bed at night. Maybe I did well on tests because they’re written by other white upper middle class people. Maybe if I didn’t have those advantages I couldn’t afford to only work six weeks of the summer and learn as much as I have here. However, my guilt won’t fix anything. It’s important to acknowledge our privilege, but it’s more important to work to give everybody the same privilege, the same stepping stones to a good education and a happy life. I want to give the kids I worked with the same opportunity for continued joy that I have been given.

MTR Camp at Kingsbury

Allison teaching at MTR Camp at Kingsbury.

One of my favorite students, or sorry, one of the students who I liked a lot but exactly the same amount as all the other ones, was named Maria [name changed for privacy]. She turned six years old during camp, she has no front teeth, and she crinkles her nose when she laughs. Also, she’s absolutely brilliant. She loves to read and figure things out. She reminds me a lot of second grade me. Her enthusiasm is contagious. However, especially in the last week of camp, it got very sad to watch her because as I imagine a future for her, there are so many roadblocks between even her and college. Perhaps her teachers won’t have the time or resources to push her when she’s ahead of her classmates. Perhaps she will be faced with home-life issues that make it difficult for her to stay engaged at school. Perhaps she will make it past all that and have all the necessary stuff to go to college, but there won’t be anyone there to help her apply because she will get lost in a sea of less successful stories.

MTR Camp Summer Showcase performance at Kingsbury Elementary.

MTR Camp Summer Showcase performance at Kingsbury Elementary.

I don’t know how Maria’s story will end. I will likely not get to be a part of it because after this summer I see that I will probably never lead a classroom. However, I want to tell stories like Maria’s so that America knows that if we do our best even when no one is looking, as we told the kids to do, we can preserve Maria’s joy for school. We can help her story and all the other stories end a little happier. As I look to my next to years of college, I will carry the necessity of telling the stories of communities like Kingsbury with me. I hope to be a journalist or perhaps a policy maker and in either profession I want to bring awareness to the need and the potential of urban communities.

The second to last day of camp as I was walking Maria back to dance class after her sight word test, I asked her what she wants to be when she grows up. She smiled her nearly toothless smile and crinkled her nose. “I don’t know. Maybe a teacher.” I smiled too and told her that would be good. She could come back and teach here in Memphis. I asked if she would want to teach little kids or big kids and she didn’t have an answer, though I suggested she might need to get a little taller before she could teach high school. I hope that Maria is afforded the opportunities and the support necessary to become whatever she wants. In perfect circumstances, she could apply herself and become anything. I would proudly vote for President Maria in fifty years. However, there’s a special degree of hope if she becomes a teacher. She will understand the challenges her neighborhood faces and she can continue the work so many people here tonight hope to do.

Choir performance at MTR Camp Summer Showcase for the Graham Heights community.

Choir performance at MTR Camp Summer Showcase for the Graham Heights community.

To learn more about MTR Camp, visit the MTR camp website.