Left to right: Ariel Coronel, Alexander George, Tamara Sager, and Placido Gomez Caption: Teach for America corps members pose for the camera at last year's benefit concert. Courtesy photo.
Left to right: Ariel Coronel, Alexander George, Tamara Sager, and Placido Gomez Caption: Teach for America corps members pose for the camera at last year's benefit concert. Courtesy photo.

“I love you,” she uttered as the numerous machines and monitors slowed, revealing the last glimpses of my mother’s life as it ebbed away in tune with the morphine drips meant to keep away the pain. That she was able to overcome the myriad medicines to exclaim any last words was nothing short of miraculous. It was in this moment – her last moments – that I knew my life had been changed for good.

It wasn’t until a few years later when I found myself in Philadelphia sitting across from an amiable red-head at my formal interview with Teach for America that I realized just how much my life had changed, and in what direction.

SAISD FOUNDATION benefit concert 2014 flyer
Click here to view the Facebook event page.

Fast forward 4.5 years. On Nov. 14, a group of 2013 Teach for America corps members and me, led by Alexander George, will host the second annual San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) Benefit Concert. This concert, formed through a partnership with the SAISD Foundation, raises money for mini-grants that teachers in the district can apply for to fund after school programs – programs that help keep our kids invested in education and help keep our kids off the streets. This year’s concert will be held at Fitzgerald’s at 437 McCarty Rd. #101 and features artists such as Mindz of a Different Kind and Celebrate the Villain. 100% of the evening’s proceeds will be used to fund after school programs.

How did I get from Philadelphia to organizing concerts? Let’s go back to that interview.

I remember the redhead’s warm brown eyes sparkling in the light as she asked me what motivated me to become a teacher in an impoverished, inner-city school district in a rough neighborhood. I briefly shared with her the history of the relationship I had with my mother: alleged abuse and neglect at the hands of a mental illness she had been trying for years to get under control, her loss of custody, the death of my father, her struggle with lung cancer, and, ultimately, her untimely death at 44. I shared with her our tale of redemption and forgiveness. I remember looking her in the eyes, eyes that had become glossed over with tears, and telling her that I knew I wanted to be a teacher because I wanted to be there for my kids to help them start their lives the way that I had been there for my mother as hers ended.

Coming into the teaching profession, I was aware that not all of my students would have “normal” lives and that many would have stories rampant with heartache and grief. What I didn’t expect, however, was that the majority of my students would come from broken homes or with emotional baggage that I couldn’t even fathom – even with a background like mine.  It wasn’t until after my co-teacher and I did a narrative non-fiction project last year where students were able to compose their stories of self that I was able to fully grasp the gravity – and sometimes even the nightmares – of the situations my students faced. Even more incredible was their calm reactions to their own and each others’ stories, as if they didn’t know just how resilient and extraordinary they truly were.

As I got to know my kids and their stories, I began to see just how difficult it was for many of them to cope with their circumstances.  I had students who had witnessed siblings getting shot in drive bys, students whose parents had been deported, students who had been raped, who were homeless, or who were living without electricity or running water. I had students who sometimes called me mom and who cried about their parents who were now in jail. I had students who, in spite of all of this, came to school both to learn and to be loved – and often with smiles on their faces.

When I think about my past and how I learned how to cope with adversity, I find myself thinking about education and all of the lessons it afforded me. These lessons were not always learned in the typical 7.5 hour school day. Instead, I was lucky enough to have had several teachers who were dedicated and invested in their students enough to promote extra-curricular activities and I was lucky enough to participate in them. Staying after school for sports and clubs, both in high school and in college, helped me gain invaluable life skills that served as an extension to the learning that took place in the traditional instructional setting – an opportunity that all students should have readily available, but an opportunity that not all of them do.

Local band Mindz of a Different Kind will perform at the SAISD Benefit Concert on Nov. 17 at Fitzgerald's.
Local band Mindz of a Different Kind will perform at the SAISD Benefit Concert on Nov. 14 at Fitzgerald’s. Courtesy photo.

Participating in afterschool programs teaches our students about teamwork, about loyalty, about time management, about how to get motivated by failure, and also about discipline. As a former track and field member, one of my events was the 300 meter hurdles. Through the kind encouragement of Coach Hall, I was able to get up and finish the race despite falling almost every time at the ominous sixth hurdle. This experience taught me about tenacity and gave me an outlet for all of the emotions that as an adolescent I couldn’t and didn’t know how to handle, especially after the death of my father. As an English and special education teacher, I want my kids to see the metaphors in their experiences. We’ll all experience hurdles in our lives that we’ll have to overcome, some hurdles will even knock us down, but it’s how we finish the race with grace despite setbacks that matter. I want our kids to have the support of an extended family that teams and clubs afford because many of them have already learned the hard way that family isn’t always just about blood.

Unfortunately, many school districts lack enough funding to provide all of the sports and after school clubs and organizations that our students are interested in and so …

Can’t make the concert, but love the cause? You can also make a donation at our Go Fund Me campaign.

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Tamara Sager

Tamara Sager is a Teach for America Corps member and one of several organizers of the SAISD Benefit Concert.