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Yesterday marked the end of my first full week of teaching at Highland Renaissance Academy with Freedom School Partners in Charlotte. As I reflect on my first week, I cannot help but think back to a talk that Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, gave during our first week in Charlotte. During the talk, he repeatedly emphasized the usefulness of proximity as a means of bringing about understanding and empathy between different cultural groups within our country. According to his hypothesis, some learning cannot be done at a distance, or at least not nearly as well.

At the start of this program, I did a lot of learning at a distance. To prepare for our scholars’ arrivals, my fellow interns and I all went through an extensive three weeks of training. We learned strategies for classroom management, the ins-and-outs of our interactive reading curriculum, and important safety basics like how to administer first-aid. We also were told, at the start of each morning, that our scholars would be strong. Every morning, this theme was the central component of “Something inside so strong,” a song that we sang as a group before the rest of our training. “There’s something inside so strong,” we would sing. “Something inside so strong.”

Though I heard this every morning at training for weeks, it was not until I was more proximate this last week to my students that I began to understand it more deeply. For some of my scholars, just showing up to a place where many of their classmates do not speak the same language that they do is a courageous action. For others, due to circumstances beyond their control, their daily joy shows strength. After being proximate, I can say with confidence that my scholars are exceptionally strong. Throughout the rest of this summer, this is one of the lessons that will stick with me the most.