I grew up in an affluent, conservative family in Atlanta, Georgia. I adopted my parents’ conservative political values, as well as their religious and social values. When my oldest sister, Caroline, started going to school, it became clear to my parents that she would thrive in a smaller classroom setting. They thoroughly researched their options and tried a few different schools, but none of them were right for her. Ultimately, my mom felt God calling her to create a Christian school for Caroline and other students with learning differences that would be located close to home.

When I was six years old, my mom, with my dad’s support, created Sophia Academy and admitted the first class of eleven students. The school logo was a square of four thumbprints above words that read “No Two Are Alike.” The experience of watching my parents value my sister and her education so much that they would create a school for her taught me many lessons. It taught me that rather than seeing differences as shortcomings, we should see them as assets. It taught me the importance of serving individuals on the margins of society. Most of all, it instilled in me that every child — every person — is valuable. Balanced with my conservative political values, it was this value of treating people fairly that I carried with me into young adulthood and the start of my professional career.

In spring of 2014, I graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. While studying there, I worked for a student-run consulting organization that provided pro bono services to nonprofit organizations. I liked the consulting experience and after attending one of the most expensive universities in the country, I felt pressure to prove myself by landing a high-paying job at a well-known company. Consulting and banking jobs were the most popular and sought after jobs at Georgetown. I spent a good chunk of my senior year applying for positions with consulting and banking companies, but all of them rejected me.

I reflected more on my next steps and thought about how during college I had been involved in a tutoring program in D.C. called Reading Road. A few times a week we drove to the Northeast edge of the district to tutor elementary school students in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Most of these schools were located in what’s called a “food desert,” meaning that there’s no fresh produce located within a few miles. Many of the houses lining the school resembled the “shotgun” style house that Martin Luther King’s family lived in in Atlanta. Being there, I felt like this part of the country hadn’t experienced the Civil Rights Movement, because the vast majority of the residents were African American and the area lacked the grocery stores, updated textbooks, retail stores, and extracurricular activities available in the areas of D.C. that were populated by more white people.[1]

Reading Road taught me about the education gap and its ties to racial and income inequality. Studies show that across the U.S., students living in poorer districts have access to fewer educational resources and opportunities than students living in more affluent areas.[2] The student body of the school that I tutored at was 99 percent African American and all of the students qualified for the free lunch program. The reading level of the students fell below national standards and that of their peers who attended the Georgetown public schools.

I tutored one student, Isaiah, for two years. After months of working together, Isaiah still preferred to read the book No No, Yes Yes by Leslie Patricelli (which only contained those words) over and over again. I would look out the window and daydream on the forty-minute van drive to his school with the other tutors. Maybe today Isaiah will want to read a different book, I thought. Maybe today, he’ll show signs of progress. Then on the way home we would debrief as a group. “Well,” I said, “Isaiah had a rough day today. Thank you Mia,” (our coordinator) “for helping me get him out from under the table.” Mia would give me ideas to try the next time, and I would try them all, but most of the time they didn’t work.

One afternoon, I tried to engage Isaiah by doing a reading exercise with him in the hallway. The school custodial worker walked by and saw that Isaiah wasn’t answering my questions. “Isaiah,” he said. “Stop acting up.” Isaiah looked up at him and didn’t say anything. The man brought him into a hallway closet. I stood outside the hallway, frozen. What is going on in there??? What do I do?? I didn’t hear anything. A few moments later the custodian stepped back out, and Isaiah stepped out from behind him. The man informed me that Isaiah’s mom had given him permission to “rough him up” if Isaiah acted out. The man left, and then it was just me and Isaiah in the hallway. I knelt down next to him. “Isaiah,” I said. “Did he do anything to you?” He didn’t answer me, but a tear rolled down his cheek.

I reported the incident to our program director when I got back to the Reading Road office. When my class schedule changed, I kept tabs on Isaiah through his new tutor. I was glad that he continued working with Reading Road, but the thought of Isaiah’s school and home life haunted me.

I wanted to help Isaiah by fixing his school. (Looking back on this now, I realize that I was naive to think that I could, or should, fix his school on my own.) I disagreed with his mom permitting the school custodian to “rough him up” but I thought, I can’t change his mom. The school is the answer. If his school could just be better, his life would be better. He would have more opportunities. Because of Isaiah and students like him, I shifted my focus after graduation to an end goal of a career in education policy, but first I wanted to work on the ground level in schools. If I work on the ground level, I thought, then I’ll see the issues firsthand and I’ll learn how to fix them.

I applied to various jobs in schools and got an Americorps position with Gameday, a national nonprofit organization. In this role, I led kindergarten through fifth grade students in sports and games at Washington Elementary, which was located in a low- to middle-income neighborhood in D.C. largely populated by African American and Latino immigrant families. I stuck out. I was one of the only white, blue-eyed, blonde-haired people walking around the school.

I wasn’t sure if my parents knew what I was doing on a day-to-day basis at Gameday, but I felt pretty certain that they didn’t understand why I was doing it. At a party, a family friend asked my mom what I was up to. My mom responded, “Mellie’s coaching basketball to students in D.C.” The friend asked, “Does Mellie know how to coach basketball?” To which my mom apparently responded, “We don’t know.” Not only was I a Georgetown grad who had just taken a coaching job on an Americorps stipend, but also I didn’t have any experience as an athlete. I was involved in theater in high school. At Gameday, I was teaching kids how to play sports that I didn’t play myself, and the job didn’t even have the clout of a program like Teach for America. I had achieved my goal of being on the ground level, figuratively, literally, and psychologically.

I had conflicting feelings about my achievement. At times I felt confident that my firsthand experience would pay off down the road when I got into education policy, and at other times the doubt would creep in that I was wasting my time on a job that didn’t have a clear upward trajectory. Sometimes I felt ashamed that I had taken a lower paying job than most of my peers from Georgetown, and other times I felt proud of myself for taking the road less traveled and pursuing a job where I was serving others.

It’s nice that my mom knew what I was doing at Gameday, even if she didn’t know how I was doing it. We did receive training on how to coach the sport, by the way. My 5’3” stature coupled with my basketball inexperience didn’t lend itself to being a basketball pro, but I think the girls on the team had a fun time.

One of my player’s dads, Coach Mike, volunteered to be my assistant coach. Coach Mike had more basketball experience than me since he had played in high school and still played pickup occasionally with his friends. He was African American, probably in his thirties, and wore black athletic shorts, black socks, black sneakers, and usually wore a whistle around his neck during practices. Before he became my assistant coach, I had noticed him and his wife dropping their kids off at school together in the morning. They had four daughters, one still in a stroller. He was excited to be the assistant basketball coach and hoped that one day his daughter, Destiny, would go to college on a basketball scholarship. He taught the girls that when they shot their free throws they should say “Money!!” (pronounced Mon-ay). It was nice to have him around at practices because he gave more substance to the team and he made the girls laugh.

Coach Mike’s background check came back with some criminal activity and my manager told me that he couldn’t be my assistant coach anymore. I was sad to lose him and planned out how I would tell Coach Mike. I brought him to the side at school the next time that I saw him. I told him, “You’ve been such a big help and the girls and I have loved having you as an assistant coach…” feeling awkward and scratching the back of my neck nervously, “…but your criminal background check didn’t pass and so unfortunately you can’t be the official assistant coach anymore.” Coach Mike’s face remained in the same deer in headlights look; he exhaled, nodded, and said, “Okay. Can I still come to the games?” I assured him that yes, of course he could, and he smiled softly and thanked me. At most games I spotted him in the bleachers and he would take Destiny home afterward. I think we won one or two games that season.

While I had taken the Gameday job as a means of learning about schools and how to “fix” the education system, through experiences like the one with Coach Mike I realized that some problems were systemic: they were bigger than the school. In Coach Mike’s case, his criminal record prevented him from being a volunteer coach. In many families’ cases, poverty held students back from achievement. One report says, “In general, schools that serve students from higher-income families educate significantly higher-achieving students than schools that serve high concentrations of students in poverty.”[3] My interest in education policy began to wane as I realized that there was no easy fix to these greater societal issues.

In speaking with some of the students’ parents at Washington, I thought to myself, how can I expect these parents to prioritize education when they’re worried about paying their rent or putting food on the table? Many of the families I worked with faced so much poverty that their capacities to nurture their children’s education were very different from my parents’. Besides the difference in income levels, my mom helped us with our homework and we ate dinner as a family most nights. On the other hand, some of my students were in foster care and they would only see their parents on scheduled dates. Other students didn’t see their parents at dinner time because their parents worked two jobs.

In the years that I volunteered and worked in the D.C. school system, all of the schools where I worked provided free lunch to the entire student body based on the student demographics. In the job that followed Gameday, I would see many similarities in the systemic barriers faced by both low-income Americans and Latino immigrant communities.

Not having found any solutions from my time at Gameday that I could apply to a career in education policy, I started thinking about other career options. My parents had said for years that I would be a good lawyer, and so when my now-husband Paul started studying for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), so did I.

Augustine said, “Peace in society depends upon peace in the family.” At the same time that I was seeing the importance of the family unit in the school and community in which I coached, I was also feeling pressure from my own parents to follow a more traditional line of work. It was easier to follow their dreams for me than to figure out what my dream for myself was.

“I’m going to apply to law school,” I told my parents.

“Really?!” they asked in tandem on speaker phone. “That is so exciting, good for you!! Are you going to take a test prep course? We’ll help you out if you need some money!”

It felt so good to be doing something that my parents were excited about. The small voice inside me kept waving a red flag and asking, Are you sure about this? But I ignored it. It felt better to make my parents happy and to go with the clear path of applying to and attending law school than to let them down and figure out the big, Then what are you going to do now? question.

In the meantime, I was nearing the end of my ten-month Americorps commitment as a Gameday sports coach, and my mixed feelings about the job had morphed into a resolute dislike. I didn’t feel mentally stimulated in the job and I was ready to never play dodgeball again. For weeks, I blasted the pop song “Ghost” on my head phones during my ten-minute walk from my house to work. The lyrics had a spiritual bend that went, “I keep going to the river to pray.” I would listen and pray/plead, please God help me be patient with the kids. And please GOD help me find a new job.

My Americorps commitment ended and I retired as Coach Mel, but I felt compelled by the immigrant families in the community where I lived and worked. Based on my interactions with students and my conversations with Washington Elementary teachers and social workers, I saw that many immigrant families there lacked access to community resources. I knew my ability to speak Spanish would help me work with the families, and I found immigration and community-based work interesting and stimulating. I didn’t want to be in the education field, but I still wanted to be “on the ground” in the community, to see where I fit in and how I could make a meaningful contribution. I job searched and studied for the LSAT.

I interviewed for a Bilingual Community Support Worker position at Grace House. Grace House is a nonprofit organization that provides medical, social, and educational services to individuals in D.C. and Maryland. As a Community Support Worker, I would help clients access basic resources including food, shelter, career services, and education.

The interview started off well. Two managers from the mental health team interviewed me. I was nervous, and waited for them to test my Spanish. I can do this, I can do this, I can do this, I told myself. Even though I minored in Spanish in college, I had doubts about whether my Spanish was good enough for everyday communication. But the language test never came, and I got the job. You’ll do fine with the Spanish, I told myself. Direct immersion is the best way to get better at the language, anyways. I didn’t know it at the time, but direct immersion would not only improve my Spanish — it would also force me to question my stance on immigration and see immigrants in a way that I never had before.

In this article series, I share excerpts and stories from my book, Hola Miss. I hope you enjoyed this post — if you enjoyed it and want to connect you can reach me via email at mellienapolitano@gmail.com. Also, you can also find my book on Amazon — here is the link to buy it.

[1] “2019 Demographics,” DC Health Matters, January 2019.

[2] Alana Semuels, “Good School, Rich School; Bad School, Poor School,” The Atlantic, August 25, 2016.

[3] Amy Hegedus, Ed.D, “Evaluating the Relationships Between Poverty and School Performance,” NWEA, October 2018.

Catholic author; Public servant; Wife, mom, and middle-child peacemaker