Looking for Treasures in the Tall Grass
Time Magazine’s recent edition revealed the victims of Malaysian Airline Flight 17 strewn across the field in the Ukraine like discarded rag-dolls. One still strapped in his seat, lies in the tall grass rotting in the hot summer sun. Another woman sprawled across a shanty floor next to a bed where she fell through the roof. No one would deny the tragedy: the loss of brilliant minds fighting the AIDS virus, the loss of infants and children and entire families. No one would deny the loss of the futures of all of all of these people.. Yet, the loss of opportunities and futures for many children living in the inner cities of the United States goes unnoticed.
I have taught in inner city schools where I have heard other faculty members say, “Ninety percent of these students will never to college and of those who go, maybe five percent will last longer than one year, so why bother offering an academic curriculum of any substance?" I have heard these same faculty members claim that by third grade, schools can identify students who will be imprisoned for felonies. I attended a school just like this. Although the teachers may not have communicated their apprehension for the students overtly, the message was received. It sickens me to hear teachers label students as failures. Teachers need to act as student advocates. Teachers need to be looking for treasures even in the tall grass.
I have also taught in upper-middle class schools in the affluent suburbs where all of the children, even the special education students, are expected to go to college. In these neighborhoods, parents are advocates for their children. There is no difference in the intellectual ability of the students in the lower-social economic neighborhoods, but there is a difference in the expectations of the students and the demands of the parents. The parents in the more affluent neighborhood demand that their child receives all of the services he is entitled to. They pay for outside tutors, voice lessons, dance classes, and athletic programs. The students in these schools are often over-worked and anxious from their parents’ demands and scheduling, but they achieve and they achieve at high levels.
Children become what they are expected to become. The students in the inner-cities need advocates too. Often both parents of these students are busy working two jobs to support their families or they are single-parent families. Some of these parents do not speak English or fear deportation if they make demands on the schools. There are a myriad of real reasons that becoming involved in their child’s education is difficult for them. Being economically disadvantaged and culturally different creates huge obstacles for most of these students. Their families do not have the resources to provide tutoring or voice lessons. Some of these students work part-time or full-time jobs to help support the family. Some of these students care for younger siblings while their parents work. Some of these students have parents who cannot read or write and cannot help their child. These are the parents who are embarrassed about their own lack of education and do not attend parent-teacher meetings least someone discovers. Some of these students have families that have been involved in gangs for four generations, but it is the teacher’s obligations to find the treasures even in the tall grass. Look hard for them. Help these students discover their treasures. Teach them to be ready for college and show them how to get there. For me, it was my high school counselor, Dee Anderson who showed me how to apply for scholarships and colleges. He took the time to walk me through the procedures and when I hesitated (because it is difficult to be the first in your family) he did not give up on me. Students who live in the tall grass need an educator to be their advocate.
These students will surprise you. When I was teaching in California at an alternative high school, I had a 300 pound fourth-generation gang member who could paint the most delicate watercolor landscapes. I had another student whose parents could not afford to pay for his A.P. exams, so all of his teachers chipped in and paid for them and the principal helped them find a legal counselor to help the family stay in the country legally. Educators are greatest asset these families have. Give them hope for the future.
Those of us who have taught in the inner-city schools have known the seventeen year old girl pregnant with her second child who misses school to care for her children working eight to ten hours a day in the fast food industry. Those of us who have taught in the inner-city schools have known the teenage boy who is running drugs to support his siblings because his only parent is incarcerated. We have heard him rationalize that even if he does graduate, he is unlikely to find any job and if he does find a job, it will probably be a minimum wage job in fast food. Could he really feed is family on that? Our children are rotting in the tall grass too and no one seems concerned. As a country we cannot afford to waste the futures of these children. As a teacher, you can make a difference. Be an advocate for a child wasting in the tall grass.