Sarah Sentilles went into teaching in Compton, California, with no experience. The Teach for America program she entered after college gave her only the most rudimentary training, and what she learned she mostly picked up from trial and error. For two years she worked in disintegrating facilities, with little administrative support and few supplies. Her story is heartbreaking, and yet she finds something to affirm in her experience: the resilient spirit of her young students.
The brief work of Taught By America: A Story of Struggle and Hope in Compton is filled with the horrors of the job: maggots in the floor, a playground of dirt and broken glass, the nearby streets disturbed by gunfire. The worst stories, however, are of human failure: the principals who fail to back their teachers under these conditions, the staff person in charge of supplies who refuses to give them out. Sentilles does not portray herself as a savior, and she bumbles her way from failure to mistake. She learns to be resourceful, however (at one point stealing supplies for her students), and grows in the job. Her job takes a terrible toll; she cries a lot, and at the end of her two-year commitment, instead of pursuing graduate work in comparative literature, which had been her plan, she applies to divinity school. The choice is a good one, because what her experience most demands of her is faith.
Taught by America is not about Compton, or even about its disintegrating educational facilities, as much as it is about the resilient spirit of the children, children who desire and deserve the same opportunities as others. In spite of classrooms with no books and falling ceilings, they persevere, and her memoir is full of them: the kids who tend the garden she creates, and who hug her every day; the kid who calls her at 6 a.m. on the day of a 2 p.m. field trip. “I’m ready,” he announces.