Reflecting on my internship at Inwood Academy

In between the stairway steps at the high school you see the letters V A L U E S as you enter the building. The word is a part of a sentence “Our values can change the world.” It’s meant to inspire the students as they bustle up the stairway. It’s likely that over time the students overlook the words that appear between the steps, however, for me, I am heartened in what Inwood Academy stands for—honesty, integrity, responsibility, caring, and restraint can change the world. These are the values of Inwood Academy.

It seems idealistic to want to serve students who face a huge number of obstacles toward achieving academic success and expect them all to truly change the world. Perhaps it is, and perhaps we are all dreamers. But that is exactly what makes me feel this dream is worth it. It’s a dream that sees the underdogs rise to the top. It’s the stuff that we pay to see at the movies—the dreams that seem so ordinary yet are extraordinary. I’ve been working with ELL students (English Language Learners) at Inwood Academy as a Social Worker Intern. These are students who are enrolled in this school because their parents are also dreamers. These are immigrant families who dream of a better life than what they’ve experienced and have taken action to make it happen.

It wasn’t until this year while completing my social work degree at Lehman College that I realized I am “privileged.” I thought the privileged were the “one-percenters,” right? But as I listen to my students’ stories and learn about their aspirations I just keep thinking, “That’s great! What’s stopping you?” But it’s now clear to me that what’s holding them back are their language skills. Students who don’t yet have a great grasp on English simply cannot do well on their Regents tests. They simply cannot complete their schoolwork unless they get extra help.

I also realize that I had the advantage of learning English when I was a young child and because of that, I am accomplishing some of my dreams. These students did not have the privilege or advantage of learning English at a younger age, yet their stories remind me so much of my own. They told me about their sweet homes back in the Caribbean, the festive dishes they’d eat, the baseball games they played, and their loud vecinos (neighbors) who were very much like their family. I couldn’t help but feel “pero nosotros somos primos!” “we must be cousins!”

Yet, they are facing an immense challenge of adapting to a new culture and that includes the language. I often talk to them about their classes and what they are comprehending. They often feel helpless, like the language barrier is too big to climb, too large to tear down. Sometimes they are relieved when they pass their classes and make new friends. Other times they are frustrated, feeling like the last kid to get picked for kickball, always last, always a step behind. It’s times like these where I think about the words on the staircase—Our values can change the world.

If we value every student, despite their obstacles, and see their dignity as a young scholar we will see, despite their supposed “disadvantage,” that they have the same desires and potential that we all do. The truth is, my students need the extra support, support that we will at times struggle to provide. But what if we stop? What if we stop caring and begin to compromise our values because it is too hard, too difficult? Well, if that happens I guess we won’t hear the stories we all pay to see. I guess we will settle for ordinary and not seek the extraordinary. And that is why I admire Inwood Academy and how they stand next to the student with the immense obstacle. They stand next to the ELL student and say “Your values can change the world!” do not let up and let’s push through this together. It is true, some students just weren’t dealt the same cards and aren’t as privileged. However, that doesn’t mean those students dreams, ambitions, and lives aren’t as dignified and precious. For that, I am grateful, because here at Inwood Academy, that is a value.