First Person Singular

Sunday, December 23, 2007

When I joined Teach for America, my parents were like: "What are you doing? Get a real job." Traditional Korean American families don't want their children to go into education. They want you to be a doctor or a lawyer or a hedge fund manager. It's funny, when I came here for the announcement of my nomination, I brought my kids and my parents. And we got off the plane, and right on the newsstand there, The Washington Post had done this huge article on the front page [essentially asking], Can D.C. schools be fixed? My mother looked at it, and she was like: "Holy crap! Are you going to be able to do this?"

The bar was really low early on. People were like: "Who is this little Korean lady? She's not going to be able to relate to the community." But almost everywhere I go, whether at meetings, in the library, in somebody's living room, or a school, or even on the weekends at the grocery store, people always pull me aside: "You're doing the right thing." The general population is out of patience with the level of dysfunction that exists in this district. I was at a community meeting, and this older woman said to me, "I was a teacher in this district, and then I was a principal in this district, and, baby, you just got to blow the whole thing up."

A lot of this can be very draining, but talking with kids, that's going to make you work with a different sense of urgency. I was asking kids in this pre-college program: "Do you feel prepared for college?" And they were like: "Yeah, we feel prepared. We learned how to use commas. We learned that you shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition. We learned what a preposition was . . ." These are 12th-graders. So I said, "You said you were prepared for college, but you're also saying that you didn't know this stuff." They said: "Oh, we didn't mean we were prepared academically, we just meant, like, we have what it takes. We know we're going to succeed, no matter what." These were the cream-of-the-crop-type kids, the most motivated. And we had done so little to prepare them. And they knew it. You can't get any sadder than that. Or any more motivation.

Interview by KK Ottesen

© 2007 The Washington Post Company