Chicago is a city designed to move. Freight, pigs, money. It moves fast. The country’s third busiest subway. A fixture of the nation’s rail system and two congested international airports. Chicago was designed to run fast. Little did the city planners foresee Chicago was designed for me to run fast. Flat. A grid system, where every major street is a half mile. Miles of tree-lined boulevards connecting the hundreds of acres of parks. The lakefront path, separating the skyscrapers of the Loop and the blue-green inland sea that is Lake Michigan.
I lace up my shoes. On a 10-mile run, I go through 12 neighborhoods — past multimillion-dollar greystones and subsidized housing projects, rows of boarded-up businesses and rows of businesses thriving, if you hables espanol or mówić po polsku.
Past Catholic cathedrals and storefront Pentecostal churches, and bar after bar with flags: Bears, Blackhawks, Sox, Cubs. I cross the Chicago River twice, under the Kennedy expressway and Metra tracks, veining to the suburbs, north, south, west. All of us moving, one way or another.
I never used to run this much. I ran cross-country for my high school, in a suburb of Akron, Ohio, never catching the attention of any college scouts. I tried to run with Morrissey’s intramural cross-country team my first week at Notre Dame and was left in the dust around Saint Mary’s Lake. After that, the running shoes went under the bed with other relics of adolescence, only to be brought out each spring when the weather warmed, and as a last-minute addition to packing when I moved to Chicago.
Chicago led me back to running, not just with its boulevards and bridges but with what brought me to Chicago in the first place. For four years I have taught 7th and 8th grade special education on the city’s west side. I’ve grown accustomed to the looks of sympathy when I tell others I teach in the inner city, and I watch as the incredulity increases with each degree of challenge: that it is middle school, that it is special education, that it is on the west side, with all the stereotypes that conjures. A perfect storm of stress, most people would assume. And they would not be wrong. I am reminded that 33 percent of elementary teachers leave Chicago teaching jobs after just one year when people wonder out loud, “How have you managed to survive?” Well, I say, at the end of the day . . . I go for a run.
Through the years, running to clear my mind from the young man who was so frustrated he tore pages out of The Hunger Games so he wouldn’t have to read in class. Running to think of how I could have taught reading better so Anthony wouldn’t suffer that frustration in the first place. Running to reflect on how to get Maya back in school now that she’s had her baby. I honestly miss how she would ask for harder math problems. Running to remind myself to call Javon’s mom — not because he bullied someone but because he didn’t. And I promised him if he had a good day, I’d let his mom know. Running while thinking about each student, how each day went, and how to be the best I could be, as a teacher and as a role model.
To be a teacher in the inner city, especially as a white man, is to daily confront and overcome stereotypes, including stereotypes imposed on my students. I teach in a school that is 100 percent African American, named after a 19th century abolitionist, an irony that is not lost on this Notre Dame graduate. I teach the students who have been diagnosed as disabled: learning, emotionally, behaviorally. And each day I feel a responsibility to overturn the labels placed upon my students.
While on isolated occasions I’ve seen stereotypes appear true — yes, I have seen the parents who use their children as collateral for welfare checks, and the gang symbols scrawled onto notebooks, and I have dealt with defiant and violent behavior no teacher in the burbs has ever encountered. But I also have been blessed to be a teacher to some of the most amazing children, who only desire to learn more and see more than their broken circumstances.
Children who, by fate, were born into one of the most segregated cities in the country. Born into this country, whose educational system is undisputedly unequal and unjust. As our largest cities were ghettoized by redlining, so were the schools. And in 2014, we bear the bitter fruit of that. To be a teacher here is to directly face the effects of decades of insidious racism, lingering like a virus.
I began running in earnest during the 2012 teacher’s strike in Chicago. I marched on Michigan Avenue, protesting for better treatment of my students, and, without a class to teach the next day, took off on a higher-paced march, by myself. I continued to run through the following Chicago winter, wearing a facemask to shield my lungs from the bitter wind, as the mayor threatened the closure of hundreds of public schools, my own in danger. I waited apprehensively with my students on the day the final list of school closings was announced. I saw the fear in my students’ eyes. In a neighborhood overwhelmed by gunfire, the seven hours in our school were their asylum, their safe haven. How could a mayor close 50 schools at once, they wanted to know. Where will we go, they asked.
I ran again that night in the spring of 2013. It was an unseasonably warm evening — warm enough that the piles of plowed snow were melting into the street. On my run, from the west side of Chicago on Madison, I could see the Willis Tower against the night sky. A reminder that, in Chicago, mere miles separate lives and outcomes. On this night, my school was spared the cut — but my students will exemplify that distance in their own lives.
No easy solutions exist for the problems surrounding urban education. Charter schools can relieve the crisis for some families, but with admission based on a lottery and with parental involvement required, they will continually leave out our most vulnerable children — those without a stable parental background. And it must be said that the primary cause for the lack of a stable home life is poverty itself. As long as a child grows up in a poor home, she or he will face overwhelming odds against educational success.
As a teacher I never thought I would encounter students arriving to school hungry because they had not eaten all weekend. Students who were without pencils or paper, because their parents couldn’t afford or wouldn’t choose such a purchase. Students who spent all weekend taking care of younger siblings. How could you or I be expected to learn when our most basic needs — physical, social, emotional — are not being met? I did not need four years at a university to tell me that algebra comes second to feeling fed or feeling loved.
September marked my fifth year of teaching. In all likelihood, it could be my last. Although I continue to run, my runs help me to get to the next day. Nothing more, nothing less. I realize more and more that although I can affect change for the children in front of me, I will only receive a new class next year of children possessing the exact same negative circumstances. A Sisyphean occupation.
The challenges facing urban education cannot be solved by one teacher alone, or even hundreds of teachers. Charter schools can continue to segregate the lower class into haves and have-nots, and mayors can continue to close “underperforming” schools. But until we as a nation address the external factors of racism and economic inequity that contribute to and create failing schools, we will be running away from reality.
Paul Steinle’s essay was one of four second-place winners in this magazine’s 2014 Young Alumni Essay Contest. He teaches 7th and 8th grade special education at a public school in the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago. He ran his second Chicago Marathon in October.