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Lunch? What first-year teacher has time for it?

An unopened peanut butter granola bar sat on Zondwayo Mulwanda's desk at 3:15 p.m. Monday, more than an hour after the 17 second-grade students had left his Reid Park Elementary classroom on the first day of school.

“That was supposed to have been my lunch,” Mulwanda said with a smile. “I never got around to it. The first day was too exciting, I guess.”

Mulwanda, a May graduate of the University of Minnesota, is among 215 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools instructors who are part of the Teach for America program.

Teach for America is the Peace Corps of teaching. College seniors enlist for at least two years as teachers in schools across the U.S. that have large numbers of at-risk students.

CMS landed a grant last year to double the number of Teach for America instructors, so Mulwanda is among 144 first-year teachers in the system this year.

Few could have more enthusiasm.

“Doing this is everything I envisioned,” said Mulwanda, whose older brother, Chitamawe, is a Teach for America teacher in a Baltimore high school. “I want to contribute to the lives of young people, and this is the best way I can think of.”

Mulwanda, like other Teach for America recruits, had a choice of where he would work.

“I chose Charlotte,” he said. “It was my first choice. I heard that it was an up-and-coming place for young people.”

Mulwanda said his original college major was family social science. “But I realized that I could affect more people by teaching,” he said. “And for me, it is not just teaching. I'm trying to help these students have better lives.”

He said the example set by his mother, Vailes, who reared two children as a single mom and earned a doctorate while working two jobs, also played a big role in his decision.

Mulwanda said he hopes the presence of a young African American man in a classroom can have an impact on students.

“I want to be a role model for the African American community,” he said. “I want them to see a face – someone who is achieving something. It's not just basketball players who can achieve success.

“I want them to know that they can achieve something through education.”

Mulwanda, a smile almost always on his face, said he and his students will follow a motto this school year – a motto he posted on the wall of the mobile classroom where he works:

Work hard and learn is our phrase,

Around the world in 180 days.

“That's what we'll do: Become learners in a global society,” he said. “I want these students to learn everything they can, to see the big world out there.”

But on his first day, Mulwanda admitted his biggest achievement was a bit less than global.

“I got them out to recess and back in the classroom in an orderly manner,” he said, the smile flashing again. “That – that was a big accomplishment.”

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