Kindling the Flame — Anna Watson (’09)

This article is part of our series in which we invite BIC alumni to contribute articles connecting their own work, education, experiences, or interests to their BIC education. Today’s contribution is from Anna Watson (’09), Director of the Meridian Freedom Project in Meridian, Mississippi. We hope you enjoy, and if you are interested in contributing an article, email us at BIC@baylor.edu.

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After graduating from Baylor in 2009, I joined Teach for America and moved to Houston where I spent a summer trying to teach an impossibly confusing summer school course called ‘World Geography’ to a group of high school students at Davis High School. It was so bad I once had a student get up and run out of the classroom for home. (I decided not to chase him.) From there, being an English major, I was placed in the Arkansas Delta with a more suitable assignment teaching AP Literature and 10th – 12th grade English. I taught my required two years and loved my community and my students so much that I taught for two more. However, this work was incredibly hard, and while there were many rewarding moments, knowing how high the stakes were for my kids made it tough to feel true success. As a state-tested teacher, I was constantly torn between approaching my role as an educator in two ways: simply giving information that would turn into knowledge, or exciting an appreciation for knowledge that may not bear fruit for years to come. W.B. Yeats once wrote “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Long before Yeats, Socrates also said something very similar, “education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”

My students went to a school where seeing any kind of recruiter representing an academic institution was rare. We all felt that in some ways, they had been written off as too far behind for any kind of post-secondary success. Of course, my experience represents a tiny fraction of the landscape of public education in the United States, but after I moved to Mississippi in 2013 to found a non-profit that supports students outside of school (The Meridian Freedom Project), I realized that the problems that plagued my school in Arkansas are pervasive, and not unique. While I could write ad nauseam about the issues facing our public schools and the students being left behind, I’d rather share an invaluable lesson that BIC taught me: the most important thing we have to learn (and to pass on) is how to think. As a teacher, when I began to plan days in my classroom around what kids would be thinking, feeling, and wondering instead of what they would be doing and producing, I sought to kindle as many flames and light as many fires as I could. And I also quickly realized that my time as a BIC scholar prepared me for this in more ways than I realize, even today. At Baylor, I learned how to think, wonder, and most importantly, question the world around me. It was my work as a BIC scholar, listening to my classmates and professors, seeing the world through different lenses and reading and responding to some of the greatest works of writing in this world that planted more seeds and lit more flames in me than I could have possibly realized. In today’s polarized world, it is so easy to insulate ourselves within a silo of people who agree with us and think like us. Years ago, my college friends and I used to joke about the “Baylor bubble,” and I remember thinking that because I volunteered around Waco, had a few friends that didn’t look like me, and took advantage of opportunities to travel and serve around the world that I was an exception to this. But I realize now, I wasn’t. I set boundaries for myself that felt safe, then pushed them back a little, and grew comfortable. But that is not what the world, or Christianity calls us to do. It wasn’t until I began teaching and working with colleagues much smarter – and very different – than me that I realized the importance of practicing the most important truths BIC had impressed upon me: it’s not about what you know, it’s about wondering about what you don’t know; it’s not about understanding, it’s about asking questions. I am a better teacher, voter, leader, and Christian because of that.

In the last gathering of my BIC senior capstone course, which was thematically focused on the bildungsroman, we were discussing the use of antiquated language in literature and its place in the modern world, specifically referring to novels in the cannon and whether they should be replaced. One of my professors looked to me and said, “Anna, I know you are headed into a classroom next year, what do you think?” I remember feeling on the spot and incapable of contributing anything insightful that had not been said, so, I opened my mouth and said, “In about a week, I will be leaving here with a very expensive piece of paper and all it will say is that I can read and write really good, so what do I know?” While I applaud my ability to reach back into my first ‘Examined Life’ course and remember that humility was going to be the way to go here, I still cringe. The irony. Trust me, after that I sat down and engrained the proper use of “well” vs. “good” into my skull. But, while my in-depth knowledge of English grammar may have briefly failed me there, as does my memory of exactly what happened in The Epic of Gilgamesh, or the differences between Kierkegaard and those other guys we studied in my ‘Social World’ classes, I am proud and grateful for the ways my BIC experience has pushed me as a thinker and inspired me to pass that on to my students today.

Anna Watson (’09) is Director of the Meridian Freedom Project in Meridian, Mississippi.

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