Thursday, October 27, 2011

Determination, Education,Courage, and Mediocrity ( a lengthy rant)

Determination, Education, and Mediocrity - such a title could be for many different posts of mine. So here is version #1.

Why do we have such a high drop-out rate, achievement gap, low test scores, etc? Many, myself included,
blame our antiquated and broken education system. I
look at my favorite organization, Shanti Bhavan in India, which schools the dredges of population, worse than our worst, the Untouchables, and turns them into scholars and then doctors, engineers,
teachers. See, I tell myself, teachers and education can make a difference.

But then I see all the demands placed on teachers, and all the blame. We do work some miracles but we're no magic genie. To blame us for the ails of society is ludicrous. As is blaming home life. See, education is a gray area. Teachers cannot fix home life and culture, and so we must make do with what we can do. I am not going to blabber on and on on what teachers can do. I am going to speak about our lackadaisical culture.

I just finished reading a remarkable memoir by Cupcake Brown, "Piece of Cake" about a worse-than-worse life of major drug addition, homelessness, prostitution, abuse, and how the woman who did all this- Cupcake, is now a lawyer, all on her own volition. I hear of these stories often, and think of The Freedom Writers and other similar examples of people overc
oming strife. Some say you have to "have it in you" to overcome adversity. I've been called racist, privileg
ed, ignorant, and not compassionate because I don't understand why people, about to join a gang, don't reach in, find some courage, and say F%^# this life, I'm bettering myself. Well, Cupcake did it. The Freedom Writer kids did it. The kids at Shanti Bhavan did it.

Courage. Yes it is quite easy to have grown up in poverty, drugs, violence, to want to just continue the cycle. "It's all I know" they say, and they often mean it. I have a friend who grew up like that and thought her family was first. But she opened her eyes and realized, nope, her family was not normal. After swearing she'd never make it past her 16th birthday alive, she did. She finished high school via alternative ed, got cl
ean, and went to college. She only knew the "ghetto" life yet she knew she did not want to continue it. She knew violence and drugs were not what she wanted in life.

Kids know right from wrong (unless there is serious mental illness involved). They might not know 100%, but they know. They know going hungry because mommy sold the food stamps for drugs is silly and hurtful. They know eviction sucks. They know a car ridden with bullets,
meant for their brother, is scary. They know t
he white stuff daddy snorts makes him all weird. Therefore, they can choose to go either way. The "straight edge", get out of this life way is NOT easy. But everyone can do it if they stop wimping out and start forcing themselves to do better.

The problem is, society glorifies mediocrity. Pop culture and the media make get-rich-quick schemes seem like a great idea and who blames them? Why go to school, work hard, get good grades, to go to college and do the same, get up at 6am daily to don a suit and drive to work....when you can earn just as much in none of the time, hustling, dealing, selling your body, your soul, thieving, smuggling, etc? I in a way don't blame kids who
choose the "easy" criminal route. But it is the weak way and really makes less, with more risk, than that silly suit and tie job. But since it is fast money with little to no perceived effort, it is seen as ideal (see pdf link at end for proof). I've talked to students who say things like, "my boyfrien
d got a nice car and cell and big screen and he never been caught. Ima be a dealer soon too. It makes more money than some job and school. And you get all the drug you want." Or "I don't care that you say I'm smart. Ima use those smarts to be a border coyote, and 'cause I'm smart I won't get caught. Makes good money." Or worse, "no offense, but why go to college for 6 years to become, say, a teacher? We all know teachers work hard and make so little, I'll make more as (welfare scam, drug dealer, stripper, etc.)." Or even "wow, Mrs ____, you got a nice car. Your hubby must deal drugs or be in the mob or something."
Yep. They do not recognize hard work ethic and income. My husband works terrible hours, rivaling an ER doctor, managing Fortune 500 clients and so he makes a decent amount. No "we are the 1%" amount, but nice enough to afford a new car. My students literally could not and did not believe we earned the car...legally. They had no concept.
They also had no concept of education. Most of my students were on free/reduced lunch, meaning a family of four earns less than 40,000 a year. Few had parents that had gone to college. So one day when I begin talking about college (since we were supposedly a everyone-goes-to-college school, albeit in reality only about 20% did...) they just...shut off. I was told things like, "College? I got bad grades. I'm dumb. I'm black or Mexican. I'm too poor." Endless excuses. They really truly thought only wealthy, smart white kids went to even community college. I began explaining scholarships to them and they were amazed- you mean, there are scholarships for Blacks? For kids with a deceased parent? For us kids on food stamps? They had no clue. Society, pop culture, school, their parents- someone had told them, and ingrained in them, that they could not and would not go to college.
Many facets of our culture penalize education. If you try and get good grades, you're s
upposedly uppity and a danger to your peers. If you try and better yourself, then you're, well, trying to better yourself which makes you think you're better than the rest of the group and thus, a risk. You're also considered "white" (even if you are, well, white) if you try and conduct yourself properly, study, and want to be someone. A culture that glorifies crime, drugs, get-rich-quick, and penalizes anyone trying to improve their lives, "get courage, get out, and better themselves" is, well, dumb. I'm sorry. Call me ignorant or racist or cruel or what have you. But a society or culture that does this is stupid and is keeping themselves down, fueling, promoting, the circle of poverty, crime, destitution.
This, my friends, is the problem with education. We will continue to have masses of children failing, dropping out, not giving it their full potential because... becoming "less than" is easy, desirable, encouraged. Us teachers and educators can try as we might to work miracles and save kids and yes, some will be saved. Our kind words of encouragement will reach some ears, but fall deaf upon others. The kids who have had it with "less than" and have the courage, the st
rength, the determination to face adversity, to face family, friends, culture nearly disowning them, to get a piece of the American dream, who know that this courage, this dream, this education is truly what is best for them, and that they CAN succeed, will. But they are far and few between. I think every child has it in them, but it is beaten, coaxed, subconsciously drawn out of them. I have had many students that tell me to stop pep talking them, they are dumb criminals and that is that. That they are not special. That they don't want to succeed. That the get-rich-quick ghetto life is the way and that I'm the one with messed up priorities and world views.
But... that does not stop me. I keep pep talking, showing students other worlds and views and ways. I might work just one miracle in my life, save but one starfish in an ocean of millions, but I won't let it stop me. I hope this drive is seen and that another student follows in my footsteps, seeing the odds I'm against, and the perseverance I hold, is hopefully an inspiration.

However, culture still reigns king. Why do the children at Shanti Bhavan become who they become? Well, as I've said and believe, everyone can better themselves. But that is not all. If they fail school, they will likely be prostitutes, hustlers, begging on the streets for money. Just like some of our kids, yes, but their fate is worse. They face, directly, in front of them, murder, famine, death, disease, and a culture which ostracizes them automatically, without question. Their poverty and destitution is real, it is thisclose to death. They can't be "poor" and own a cell phone, tv, a dozen outfits, a rented trailer home, and food (albeit ramen, white bread, and hot dogs) on the table. Diseases aren't just some pneumonia, oops, walk into the ER for free and get treated, disease is malaria, aids, dysentery, with no cure, no clinic or ER. The alternative to education is a life no one wants. It may include drugs, prostitution, crime, yes, but there is no glory to it. It is a fight to survive and they yearn for survival.
America has lost this fight. I do not propose we "go all 3rd world" and thus gain a fight for survival. But..I do not know what I propose.
We as teachers, parents, community members, students, need to rise up and say, E
nough!!! We value education, we need a better education, and education is the way.

Until then, I will continue to be baffled by the life of gang members, their choices, and by my student's yearning to not get an education. I will continue my pep talks, my encouragements, my heart-felt one on ones. I will save one, maybe more, starfish. Many will be lost. But if we all try and save a starfish, our world will improve. And I vow to raise my son, my own little starfish, to be a successful leader, motivator, game changer. He is all he wants to be in life and more.

Here's what I mean by starfish, and then the link to the economics of drug dealing.

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