When the Hamalian family first immigrated to the United States, they lived for a short time in Huntington Beach, Calif. Hrag's father, Manuel, worked repairing industrial parts for a mobile franchise company. Few men would take jobs in the inner-city neighborhoods; it was considered too dangerous. But Manuel took whatever business came his way. He ended up working in Watts nearly every day, and he made lots of friends there. Now things had come full circle. His son's first real job in America was in Watts, too. Neither of them had known what he was in for.
Sometimes Hrag assumed that because his kids had been cheated all their lives, they couldn't follow directions or weren't capable of grasping what he was trying to teach. After talking to his own father—who had helped him when he struggled in high school—Hrag changed his mind: No. They are 14. They could give a crap.
But there was a big difference. Most of these kids didn't have parents like his, holding their feet to the fire, checking on homework, helping them study.
Hrag realized he had it a lot easier than most of the other TFA-ers. He, at least, had Vanessa Morris, head of the science department. Morris had taken Hrag and the other new biology teacher, Jinsue Choi, under her wing. Her style of teaching biology was inquiry based. Because her students' literacy skills were so low, Morris rarely referred to the textbook; instead, she used hands-on labs to lead her kids to discovery. She had been at Locke for five years, and she coaxed pretty darn good results from her students. Seeing her teach was like watching a master magician. She glided from task to task with ease, handling behavioral issues with equanimity and presenting new scientific concepts with childlike delight. The period sped by, and inevitably, by its conclusion, Morris had worked her magic—the kids had been tricked into learning.
Hrag's collaboration with the two teachers felt good, and the kids seemed to be learning. Hrag's loyalty to Morris—and to Jinsue—was unshakable. Every time he contemplated quitting, he thought of how he would be letting Morris down, and leaving became unthinkable.
Hrag bitched, but he was really enjoying the kids, and he sensed that the kids were enjoying him, too. He joked around a lot. It kept his students engaged—and kept him from dying of boredom. Every time he got strict and serious, he could tell the kids were tuning him out. Most periods—with the exception of the incorrigible fifth—took his angry outbursts to heart. When he raised his voice in disapproval, the rowdy kids would turn into docile children, frown, and put their heads down. "Let's start over," he'd suggest. "I got off on a bad note, and so did you." They would come around, but it would take a few minutes. They became upset, too, if he was absent. They worried that he was quitting, that he wouldn't come back.
They really did seem to be learning, probably more than he had in high school. Hrag had learned how to take notes in high school, and that no doubt prepared him for college. But he didn't end up knowing anything about biology, and he thought that his students did. So, on the rare occasion that he allowed himself to think about it, he decided that what he was doing was a good thing, that he was doing a good job, a job he could be proud of, and that it was something that he would look back on as a moment in his life in which he had shined. Then, quickly, he'd go back to worrying. I feel like a commando. I go into the jungle, but the jungle keeps changing. I don't know who I'm fighting.
Excerpted from Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach For America by Donna Foote. Copyright © 2008 by Donna Foote. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House Inc.