I didn’t become a teacher for the paycheck. I did it to fight for marginalized students.
I became a teacher in the Fort Worth Independent School District with a single goal: to give students what I was so lucky to receive. After emigrating to Texas from India in 2000, I graduated from Fort Worth’s R.L. Paschal High School in 2008. But Paschal’s best resources—teachers with more than 20 years of experience, weekend and summer SAT/PSAT prep classes, AP exam prep—are reserved for its small white and Asian student population, not the Black and brown students who comprise over 60 percent of the school body. I benefited from an educational apartheid that persists to this day. When I became a teacher, I vowed to help bridge this gap.
After graduating from New York University, I worked a variety of odd jobs. Eventually, I moved back to Fort Worth and lived with my mother, who was approaching 20 years in the district’s employment as an ESL teacher to elementary school students. Inspired by her, I joined the district, working as a tutor and eventually becoming the freshman study skills teacher at Amon Carter-Riverside, a high school in north Fort Worth where 92 percent of the student body is Black and Hispanic.
The job gave me purpose. It distracted me; it structured me. Ten years after starting my battle against severe depression, my new job required I care of myself because that’s how I could do my best for my extraordinary students. Whenever I broke through to a student I celebrated quietly, knowing I’d have to reinforce the bond every subsequent day. The only way to earn their respect was to respect them first. On the last day of school before winter break in 2019, my principal offered me a job in the English department. A longtime teacher was leaving, and I’d take over his classes in January 2020. I accepted immediately.
Then COVID-19 hit. None of us knew the virus would change our lives forever. But last summer, when the state of Texas made clear that teachers wouldn’t have a choice—they’d either have to come to work in person, or quit—I saw what the district is really made of.
One of the few good things to come from the pandemic is that the district can no longer claim ignorance of inequality. I was party to this divide at Paschal. Now everyone witnessed it at school board meetings: white students, parents, and teachers, calling for a return to normalcy, while students, parents, and teachers of color called for caution. White families do not live in multigenerational homes, nor do they work in frontline industries like retail or fast food. My students live with toddler cousins and elderly grandparents. They and their parents work in chicken processing plants, at Wal-Mart, Wendy’s, paper factories, and in construction and agrarian work.
The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, passed by both Republicans and Democrats despite a veto by then-President Harry Truman, made it possible for “right to work” proposals to become law. It is this law, written by a native Fort Worthian and KKK member named Vance Muse, that prevents Texas teachers from going on strike; if we do, we permanently lose our teaching licenses. In 2018, teachers in West Virginia went on strike to protest low wages and high healthcare costs. They were successful, and public workers, including teachers, won a 5 percent increase in pay. The wave of solidarity continued in 2018 as teachers in Oklahoma, Arizona, Virginia, and Colorado—all right-to-work except for the latter—held wildcat strikes and won anywhere from two to 25 percent increase in wages.
Since I joined the district while studying for my licensing exam, I thought I’d found a loophole: no one could suspend my license for striking if I didn’t have one. When I proposed this to my union, a toothless organization called United Educators’ Association, they said they wouldn’t back me because it’d be illegal. I was flabbergasted. The success of a strike comes from its efficacy, not its legality. When adults at my school tested positive for COVID-19, week after week, we received copy-pasted form letters, stating the school would not be closed. I filed a grievance, saying the district could not prove schools were safe. The district executive director who polices Carter wrote a lengthy reply which amounted to “you’re free to quit.”
Meanwhile, our students were struggling. Households with more than two siblings battled poor Internet connections as they all attended class online. Chromebooks—the tech equivalent of thick waxy crayons—broke down, forcing students to attempt schoolwork on their cellphones. Special education students were issued ultimatums by Carter administrators: you have to come to school in person. Students who got sick with COVID-19 were set back by months.
COVID-19 intensified struggles that already existed. I have students who don’t know the last time they ate a piece of fruit. I have students who watched their parents get tossed into unmarked vans by ICE and not know where they went. Deprivations in material conditions cannot be remedied in 90 minutes of class five days a week. No one knows this better than our students, whose lived experience has already othered them in society. They suffer from a nonexistent social safety net. Libertarians have run this state into the ground and expected everyone to use their bootstraps to get back up. And Fort Worth ISD has posed no resistance whatsoever to this structural cruelty.
Carter-Riverside has one interventionist—a hybrid therapist-counselor—who is responsible for the emotional wellbeing of 1,200 students. We need whole departments of therapists and social workers. At the end of the previous school year, the district took away our only male and Spanish-fluent counselor. Carter’s principal then submitted reams of data to support his request for another interventionist. The district never responded.
My last straw was a department meeting on February 5. I asked my colleagues to demand resources that support our students’ material conditions. I said: if hunger, poverty, exhaustion, mental illness, racism, and lack of healthcare are ignored, our work in the classroom is futile. Two teachers (one white, one Black) concurred; the rest, all white, disagreed, saying they were only paid to be teachers, not social workers. I left the Google Meet, fell to the floor, and wept.
I didn’t become a teacher for the paycheck, or to make my parents proud. I did it to fight for marginalized students. But instead of fighting for me, the district and Carter administrators fought against me. Both accepted mandates from our feckless governor and the corrupt Texas Education Agency. In losing me, my mother, and scores of other employees, the district made clear they only want people who will conform. Anyone who tries to fight them will have to leave.
My students, whom I miss terribly, and I are in a big group text together. I listen to them vent about school, send them vaccine sign-up links, and offer help with job applications. I will host a celebratory meal for them later this summer. Some want to have families, others want to become teachers. I encourage both groups to stay far away from Fort Worth.