Features

Teacher on a mission

"Teacher on a mission" Continued...

Issue: "2013 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 14, 2013

Over the years, the workload and teacher expectations have gotten heavier, and some 60-hour weeks are draining. “I really enjoy teaching,” she says. “And then there are times when I’m really burned out and I don’t know how much longer I can do this job.”

Rhames knows teachers who are overwhelmed or burnt out, physically or spiritually, won’t be much help to broken students. From the moment Rhames stood in front of her first class of “bright-eyed third-graders,” she knew “I was doomed to fail them without prayer.”

That’s why she founded Teachers Who Pray, a network meant to encourage teachers to pray together weekly. There are 29 U.S. chapters so far. Although participants don’t have to be Christians to join a group, they must be seeking God and agree to pray to Jesus Christ. Rhames says the prayer groups are great evangelism tools.

“My mom passed away … and Marilyn prayed for her so many times,” said Rocio Tovalin, a fellow teacher at Rhames’ school. “My mom was a woman of faith, and I wasn’t,” but Teachers Who Pray acted as a support system when she needed “patience and love.”

Rhames says her city upbringing by “two country parents” has influenced her perspective on students and education. Her parents came from Mississippi but met at a Chicago church. They married and had eight children, raising them to “fear the Lord, or else.” Although her mother worked as a nanny for wealthy Jewish families and her father worked odd jobs (as an auto body shop owner, a custodian, a truck driver), they still sometimes had to rely on welfare.

Rhames remembers what that was like: “You can get cornflakes. You can’t get Cap’n Crunch. You can get canned vegetables. You can’t get fresh vegetables.” She and her siblings wore hand-me-downs and sometimes got new clothes at Christmas or before the start of school. Family vacations occurred when they stuffed 10 people in a hot station wagon—with the air conditioning turned off to save gas—and drove to Mississippi for a funeral.

Some of Rhames’ outspokenness might come from her father, who didn’t like others telling him what to do, and rode a bus out of the segregated South when he was 17. He was adamant about owning a home and moved his family into a neighborhood rather than an apartment complex. Rhames’ older sister had many white classmates, but by the time Rhames was in school, they were all African-American—a symptom of “white flight.”

Today, Chicago remains the most racially segregated city in America, according to a study last year by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Rhames says she sees evidence of racism every day, in the form of the Dominick’s grocery store in a black neighborhood that never gets remodeled, or in the occasional racial bullying at her school, which is 10-15 percent African-American (many others are Hispanic). After six years working there, Rhames remains the only African-American teacher: “We don’t have a single black man working in our building. … I think that’s bad.”

The lack of a role model is worse for kids without a father in the home. Rhames, too, knows what that feels like: Her parents divorced when she was in high school. Her father, years later, asked the family to forgive him. He died from cancer in January.

Above Rhames’ classroom door hangs a fish-shaped wooden wind chime she brought home from a missions trip to Cameroon. With her faith and her firsthand knowledge of adversity, Rhames feels as if she’s “on a mission field right at school.” She doesn’t witness directly to students, but works to help them improve their futures. She’s formed bonds with their parents and shares the gospel with them.

Asked for the solution to the problems of American public education, Rhames replies the problem is too multilayered for man’s wisdom. She thinks the solution is divine intervention and prayer—and hopes her nonprofit will play a role.

On Nov. 20 the Chicago teacher and blogger gave birth by cesarean section to a 7-pound, 10-ounce boy. Looking to her future with a newborn, and to the future of U.S. school kids, she’s considering whether to end her own teaching career to build prayer networks and write about education full time.

For now, with Chicago’s new school closings in effect, “I’m just praying no child gets hurt, gets hit by a car, or gets shot walking to school.”

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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