Last Updated: Sunday, Jun 10 2007 10:08 PM
Make filet mignon from ground beef, she said.
Impossible? Maybe. But sometimes you just have to do it.
"If you handle life that way you always make it to the top," said Amethyst Phillips.
The starry-eyed Cal State Bakersfield grad should know. She landed a coveted job in a program for which about 19,000 people applied.
Phillips will be one of about 2,500 new "corps members" in Teach for America. The program trains and provides teachers for low-income schools with a goal of closing the education gap in the United States.
Like most Teach for America members, Phillips wasn't an education major. She double majored in physics and political science.
But Phillips' teachers saw in her the leadership skills, the patience, the infectious enthusiasm for knowledge. They knew she'd make a great teacher. Even before she did.
"She has a gift," said Kent Price, Phillips' political science professor and mentor. "People who teach can see that."
But Phillips imagined herself differently. For a while she was going to be a physicist. Then she considered behind-the-scenes policy work for children, poverty or African-American culture.
"I love working on a project to make things better," she said, "to improve society, to improve humanity, to improve people, to improve myself."
In Teach for America she found a venue to do just that.
After intensive training in Philadelphia and New York City, which includes teaching summer school, she'll relocate to Chicago and begin her two-year contract as a chemistry teacher in a low-income high school.
"It's a big job and somebody's got to be there to do it," Phillips said. She has "gusto," she said, the same thing that carries a climber up Everest. "If something's easy, why do it?" she said.
But beneath her enthusiasm lies a significant weight on her shoulders.
She's never been away from Bakersfield for this long and she's never had to endure a season of frigid winds blowing off of Lake Michigan. Add to that the new city, the new job, and the barriers she'll have to break through to impact her students' lives the way she hopes -- Phillips has a lot of ground beef.
"There's always the apprehension with any student who is going to move into a new teaching position," said Mark Martinez, who heads the political science department. "But if you know Amethyst, you know she's going to be more than prepared."
And that's what she's afraid of.
It's when she prepares, and has been trained and given all of the tools to succeed that she second guesses herself, she said. "It's weird but that is what makes doing a task sometimes the most difficult because you're so hypercritical of yourself."
But her desire to affect change outweighs her anxieties.
She wants to use chemistry as a tool to reach students, Phillips said. To help guide them to a positive path, to show them that they can have direction and rise above their circumstances the way others have done for her along the way.
She used to be a bully, she said, a bad student in elementary school. That was until her fourth-grade teacher showed her how to use the energy she spent being angry on positive things.
The encouragement from teachers, her parents and six brothers and sisters helped her become the dynamic, seemingly fearless woman she is today and she credits them profusely.
The impact is a two-way street.
When asked who will get the most from this experience, Phillips or her students, Kent Price said her students, no doubt about it.
Just look at what she has done for him.
"I may have gotten more out of teaching her than she got out of (his classes)," Price said. "When you get a student like Amethyst ... they begin to push you intellectually. Because of her curiosity, her desire, her motivation, it's difficult not to continue to perform at my best. You don't want to disappoint (her)."
If the sentiments of her mentor are true, her future chemistry students will soon be asked what temperature they want their filet.