Bishop Will Willimon is the resident bishop for the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. But before he was elected bishop in 2004, he was dean of the chapel at Duke University – one of the most prestigious universities in America. He tells this story from his days at Duke about the day the students received a representative from Teach America on campus. Teach America tries to recruit some of America’s most talented college graduates to go into some of America’s worst public schools. This is how Teach America tries to make America a better place.
This woman stood up in front of a large group of Duke students, a larger group than I would suppose would come out to this sort of thing, and said to them, “I can tell by looking at you that I have probably come to the wrong place. Somebody told me this was a BMW campus and I can believe it looking at you. Just looking at you, I can tell that all of you are a success. Why would you all be on this campus if you were not successful, if you were not going on to successful careers on Madison Avenue or Wall Street?
“And yet here I stand, hoping to talk one of you into giving away your life in the toughest job you will ever have. I am looking for people to go into the hollows of West Virginia, into the ghettos of South Los Angeles and teach in some of the most difficult schools in the world. Last year, two of our teachers were killed while on the job. And I can tell, just by looking at you, that none of you are interested in that. So go on to law school, or whatever successful thing you are planning on doing. But if by chance, some of you just happen to be interested, I’ve got these brochures here for you to tell about Teach America. Meeting’s over.”
With that, Willimon said, the whole group stood up, pushed into the aisles, shoved each other aside, ran down to the front, and fought over those brochures. That evening I learned an important insight, says Willimon: “People want something more out of life than even happiness. People want to be part of an adventure. People want to be part of a project greater than their lives.”