The day before Sept. 11, 2001, Marilyn Rhames and her husband flew from Chicago to New York City. As the plane reached Manhattan, Rhames’ husband noted the Twin Towers looked eerie and strange. Rhames, who had taken the flight many times, didn’t think much about her husband’s comment. Less than 24 hours later, the towers were gone, and the world changed drastically.
At the time, she was working as a newspaper reporter, following a stint as an entertainment writer for People magazine. For days after the terrorist attack, Rhames reported on deaths and destruction, while seven months pregnant with her first child. She wouldn’t venture into Ground Zero because of elevated toxic fumes, but she covered a lot of funerals and experienced a lot of sadness.
"Because of that terror attack, America was introspective and people were asking what is life all about,” she says. “Do I want to be at a job I hate? What do I want to do with my life? Everyone was asking that and so was I.”
As Rhames considered a career change, she was teaching Sunday school, and children were becoming more central to her life. “I was writing stories,” she says, “but I didn’t feel like I was making a direct impact on people’s lives.”
After Sept. 11, Rhames moved back to Chicago, her hometown, with her husband, and their baby. She had previously tried out for a Chicago Teaching Fellowship, but didn’t make the cut. She didn’t make it the second time either. She wondered what was it about herself that was turning people off.
“I realized there was some language I needed to learn that educators know,” she says. “I didn’t know the lingo. For instance, they liked to hear, ‘All kids can learn.’ I thought that was a given. I didn’t know it was important to say that. Another one was ‘If things are going wrong in a classroom, it’s up for the teacher to try and fix it.’ That, too, seemed obvious.”
Delving deeper into her research, Rhames discovered the Academy for Urban School Leadership in Chicago, an organization that looks for career-changers who would make good educators. The deadline was eight days away when she decided to apply in 2003. She quickly wrote the required essays using the lingo she had learned and collected her letters of recommendation. Not trusting the mail, she hand-delivered the package.
She was accepted, and now Rhames is in the 10th year of teaching on Chicago’s South Side, one of the most impoverished and gang-ridden areas of the city. She chose that neighborhood because that’s where she grew up and believes she can have a real impact there.
Rhames began her career in public schools, and for the last six years has taught at a charter school with primarily Hispanic students. This year, she teaches writing and reading to seventh and eighth graders, most of whom have suffered troubles beyond their years.
“The city is full of children like that,” she says.
But that doesn't mean those children are understanding of one another. Rhames makes the point that although students may live in a multi-cultural urban area they can be insensitive to each others' needs. She sees it as her mission to introduce her students to various ways of life.
One story she likes to tell revolves around a male Hispanic student who was in her fourth grade social studies class during Obama’s first Presidential run. During a mock election, this student said he was for Senator John McCain because a black man should not be president.
“All the kids were like 'Oooooh' and said, ‘You know Mrs. Rhames is black,’” she says. “I asked him, ‘Why do you think a black man should not be president?’ He said that black people are gangstas and that was no job a black person should have.”
Rhames wondered how to handle the situation. The student obviously had no clue that what he was saying was inappropriate or misconceived. He had no context of the overall struggle of racism or about integration, segregation, and the Civil Rights movement.
“Did you know I am African-American?” she asked him.
“Yes, I know that,” he said.
“Do you think I am a gangsta?” she asked.
“No, they shoot up people and sell drugs. You are teacher.”
“My dad isn’t a teacher and he isn’t a gangsta,” she said.
That dialogue launched a conversation about stereotypes in her classroom that made a lasting impact on the boy. When he completed eighth grade in June, he wrote a graduation speech in which he admitted he was racist in fourth grade.
“He just knew that blacks were bad and whites were better,” Rhames says. “Hispanics could go either way. He wrote in his speech that I had patience with him even though he was a racist and that I helped him open his eyes.”
Rhames now shares her experiences with other educators on her award-winning blog. “When I left journalism, I wanted to make a more immediate and deeper impact,” she says. “I also want to talk about the taboo topics in education like racism and not just repeat 'the lingo.' If taboo topics are talked about in education circles, it is talked about with anger and fighting for justice. Sometimes we need to talk about it calmly and not let it boil over. That’s what I hope to achieve.”
As much as Rhames loves her job now, she doesn't regret the time she spent as a journalist. “I’m from a rough part of Chicago,” she says. “I made it to New York to work for People magazine in its hey day. It was an amazing experience. You got to meet Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks, you got to go home and tell people what you did. I wanted to share that with kids, to tell them they can get out.”
This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.