March 13, 2005 Wendy Diaz's world is centered on the seventh-grade students at Addelita Cancryn Junior High School. It is a world that is familiar to her, and a world where she believes she can make a difference.
Although born in Trinidad, Diaz refers to St. Thomas, and more particularly Cancryn, as home.
And Cancryn Junior High School is not only her place of employment; it is also her alma mater.
A little more than 30 years ago, Diaz herself walked the hallways of the school that was then called Wayne Aspinall School, and as she tells it, more commonly referred to by the students and some in the community as "The Vietnam."
"Back then we called it The Vietnam because of all the violence occurring at the school at the time," Diaz said, adding that, although things have changed some, the perception of Cancryn by some in the community is still negative. It is a perception she hopes to change.
"We do many good things here that are overlooked," the seventh grade, World Geography teacher said of herself and the other teachers working at Cancryn. "But when bad things happen, because of the negative view that is still held by some in the community about the school, it is usually blown out of proportion."
For Diaz, becoming a teacher in the territory, and at Cancryn, wasn't an easy journey.
After graduating from Charlotte Amalie High School in 1985, Diaz went on to Florida where she earned an associate of arts degree in general studies at the Tallahassee Community College. She then went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree at Florida State University in history and psychology in 1988.
"When I left school, I knew that I wanted to play a role in helping children in some way or the other," Diaz said.
Like many before and after her, Diaz came to the territory seeking employment. But it was a task that left her sad and frustrated. Try as she might, Diaz could not get a job, as she puts it, "within the system."
"I just couldn't get a job," Diaz said.
Diaz returned to Florida where she applied as a substitute teacher, but was then hired to teach full time at the Leonard Wesson Elementary School in Tallahassee. She served for five years at the school.
In the summer of 2000, during a trip home to St. Thomas, a friend encouraged Diaz to send in an application to the Education Department. Not thinking anything would come out of it; she heeded her friend's urging and sent in the application.
A few weeks later, after returning to Florida, Diaz received a call. It was a call that changed her life, a call to come home. Diaz packed her bags to return to teach at Cancryn, a school so familiar to her; a school she loved.
"In some ways I was torn because I had enjoyed teaching as well in Florida," Diaz said. "But I just knew that was what I had to do. I had to come home."
Diaz began teaching at her alma mater in August of 2000. For the most part, her experiences have been positive.
Diaz has done a lot of good during her nearly five years at Cancryn. She has taught, encouraged, inspired, motivated and showed love to hundreds of students who travel the halls of Cancryn, as she once did in her formative years.
Her favorite moments? Diaz said two years ago she was teaching her class about the Bill of Rights in particular the first amendment when unexpectedly she found the lesson had inspired her students.
"The children took that lesson in a way that I never thought they would," Diaz said. They told her they wanted to take advantage of their first amendment rights by staging a demonstration outside the school. And demonstrate they did. The students organized the event with help from Diaz and with picket signs in tow marched in front of the school for a half hour protesting the poor condition of the facility.
"That is a moment I will never forget," Diaz said. "It is little instances like these that make teaching worthwhile."
Diaz said out of that incident an organization, the Students School Improvement Committee, was formed. She serves as a mentor for the organization.
Last year, the students on the committee organized a hunger strike on campus to, once again, protest poor conditions at the school.
"It is giving the students a voice in their future," Diaz said of the committee.
Another good change Diaz has brought about is the founding of the Tshwane Program, geared towards the older Cancryn students. Diaz said the students in the program are 15 and older, and should already have been in high school but are stuck in the system for one reason or another. The program gives them a chance to get their diplomas.
"Tshwane" is an African word, Diaz said, meaning, "We are one" or "We are the same." She said it is a way of encouraging the students to take charge of their education.
"Many of them, to some extent, had given up," Diaz said. "When you see a child that has basically given up to see them change, knowing that in some small way you have contributed to that success, it's very rewarding."
Rewarding, yes, but Diaz has also had her downs, too.
One problem for Diaz, like many of her students and fellow teachers, is the physical condition of the school. Having to deal with deteriorating classrooms is not easy, she says, and to make it worse, her classroom was destroyed in a fire in November.
She now has to share a classroom with another teacher and has often taken it upon herself to purchase supplies for her students.
But the state of the school's physical plant is not Diaz's main problem. Her bigger frustration comes from seeing children who have the potential to succeed disregard the opportunities before them opportunities of learning and developing themselves.
This frustration has an up side, though; it has fueled her drive to write. Diaz is in the process of trying to get her first children's book published, "Claude's Adventures." It is the first of what she hopes will be a series. In the book she weaves a tale of a student with a "gangster mentality," who gives his teacher a "hard time." The student is transported in time and sees the hardships his ancestors had to go through to get an education. He sees them being "whipped" for trying to learn to read and write, Diaz says.
"The idea of this book came about because so many students don't like to read," she explains. "I was so frustrated at the time and was wondering what to do to get the students to value reading."
Diaz said she hopes by writing the book she will show students that it is a privilege to get an education, learn to read.
And as she sat behind her desk in her empty classroom Saturday morning, she looked around at the blue walls surrounding her and smiled, saying she was thankful that she had been given the opportunity to once again walk the halls of the school she calls home and to perhaps make a difference to the hundreds of children whose lives she has touched.
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