The Philadelphia Inquirer
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Helen Ubiñas shares the journey of Maureen Boland a Philadelphia teacher who will begin a new chapter in her career with a local nonprofit. Boland will join “Mighty Writers” which promotes literacy as a tool for social change.
People leave their jobs all the time. Just look at the last few years. The #Great Resignation, and all that.
Among the areas hardest hit were schools, and this is a story about an especially bittersweet departure.
In 2018, I met Maureen Boland, a ninth grade English teacher at Philadelphia’s Parkway Center City Middle College — a public high school in Callowhill where students take college-level courses along with their high school classes.
Boland sent me an email about my work on gun violence, and asked if I’d come to the school to listen to her students read essays about its impact on their lives. It was a month after a 19-year-old gunned down 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Walking into Parkway’s auditorium on that cold March day, I had no idea of the shared journey we’d soon be embarking upon.
I listened to the students — their words filled with fear and loss, but also hope. I tried to be thoughtful but truthful when a group of young women asked a question that stopped me.
First, some context: Parkland is a well-off suburb where the annual median household income is more than three times that of Philadelphia; in 2019 — the year after the Douglas High School shooting — zero homicides were reported there. Philadelphia is the nation’s poorest large city, and in 2019, the city averaged nearly one murder per day. After the shooting, Parkland students were asking other students around the country to support a walkout against gun violence.
The young women’s question: If the Parkland students hadn’t experienced this deadly shooting, and the Parkway students in Philadelphia had asked their peers in Florida to march for them in solidarity against the kind of violence that Philly kids live with on a regular basis, would they?
I hoped that I had chosen the right words when I told them that despite the unfair and uneven attention, it is sometimes better to claim space in someone else’s shine than stay in the righteous dark. In other words, grab the attention where you can get it.
Even before I made it back to my car, my heart was breaking for them. At the same time, I was also committed to doing all I could to help elevate their voices. So, for the past few years, I’ve checked in pretty regularly with Boland and watched close-up as she cultivated a spirit of activism in her students.
Whenever they could — at marches, demonstrations, in class essays — Boland’s ninth graders demanded that we all pay attention to the city’s gun violence epidemic, which is too often reduced to a mere footnote in the national conversation.
It was moving to watch young people step into their power, and it was just as thrilling to use my platform to help them do so.
With Boland by their side, the students took bus rides to lawmakers in Harrisburg and D.C. to call attention to the gun violence they live with. They joined citywide efforts, including leading the fourth annual Fill the Steps Against Gun Violence gathering at the Art Museum. They formed a social justice club at school and organized basketball and football tournaments with police.
Even after the class I got to know back in 2018 graduated, Boland continued her important work — inside and outside of the classroom — with subsequent generations of students.
“She’s amazing,” Angelina Quintos, 14, a current student told me the other day.
And then came the news that she was leaving Parkway to work with Mighty Writers, the local nonprofit that promotes literacy as a tool for social change. Boland’s last day at school was Friday; she starts with Mighty Writers next week.
Despite headlines dominated by teacher burnout, Boland told me that this wasn’t a decision spurred by exhaustion. In fact, she said, she’s more energized than ever by working with her students. Now, though, Boland said, she sees value in slowing down a bit and stepping away from the fast-break demands of a public school classroom and using her talents to help create more space for the voices of our city’s young people.
“I still absolutely love my job. I still love Parkway, I’m brokenhearted to leave,” she told me as we talked at a busy coffee shop near the school. But, “I could feel that my students had a lot more to say. And I had a lot more to say. I wanted to really be able to follow students down to the learning path they want to go on. And I can’t always do that in the classroom.”
With the impressive (and well-deserved) title of “chief writing officer,” she’s planning to form writing groups and host a podcast where she’ll draw Philadelphians into citywide conversations through some of the very writing prompts she long used in the classroom.
She’s using a quote from Nelson Mandela as her guide: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
And Philadelphia, we’re failing on that front.
“I think that we, as a city need to reflect really hard on what it’s like to be a kid growing up right now,” said Boland, 48. “I would say 80% of my students don’t feel safe going to and from school. Most will report some level of concern about mental health. Some of my students have had so many exposures to gun violence, they’ve lost count. This is a crisis.”
She wants to start addressing all of this by proposing something we don’t do very well any more, not as a country or as a city — slow down and listen to one another. And she’s going to do it the same way she got her students to open up, to own their voices and stories. By encouraging everyone to stop, think — and write — before they speak.
“We make so many assumptions about what’s going on in each other’s heads,” Boland said. “And usually there is a lot more good than bad if we give people a chance.”
Maybe that sounds too optimistic, even a little naive in these dark days. But I saw what she did for her students. And I’m hopeful she can do the same for our city.
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