Saturday, February 19, 2011

We're the Same, You and Me

Over the past year and a half, I've had a hard time dealing with the idea that the bulk of my students don't value an education.

As outdated as our education system is, we are still much better off than most other countries. I forget that sometimes. I think my students often forget that in this country, a child born into poverty can jump into the middle or upper class simply by going to school everyday and doing what they're supposed to be doing. So why isn't the system built to effectively convey this incredible opportunity? [insert conspiracy theory here]

One of the more challenging questions I've asked myself this year is how the hell did I make it out of this system, given I grew up under some incredibly challenging circumstances? Most of my students and I share childhood trauma which has forced us to "grow up" a lot faster than others.

I think it all comes down to the coping mechanisms we create to deal with our shit.

One of my earliest childhood memories of room involves my mother sitting on a chair planted right against the bedroom door. My father, in his drunken rage, is trying his best to break through the door to get to her. He's yelling dirty, terrible things at the both of us. Meanwhile, my mother sits firmly in the chair, looking calm and stoic. She's sipping her cup of Lipton tea and tells me to put the TV on and turn up the volume. I do as I'm told and get back to playing pretend with my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Donatello is about to save the day because Raphael and Leonardo couldn't stop bickering with each other and now the Shredder has them hostage.

I only had a few, small requests from my mother growing up: be good, get rich, and save her from her terrible life. No pressure. I guess I decided at a very young age that school was something I not only needed in order to "get rich" but it was apparently good for me in another way as well.

School was my escape.

I went everyday. There was something extremely comforting about the bell schedule. I knew exactly when every period started and ended. I liked hallways by department. My notebooks were organized with incredible detail. I liked reading the syllabus of every class over and over again. There's an unusual warmth in knowing the exact dates for exams and projects well in advance. There were routines in place to make me feel at ease from beginning to end. School's safe, simple structure sedated the chaos that grew within me whenever it was time to go home.

How did I make it out alive? I got lucky in how I dealt with my surroundings. The bulk of the students my school takes in deal with problems a little differently than me. I confronted a student in my first period class about why he came to school stoned:
"Brian, what was so necessary about smoking up before coming to school? That can't be enjoyable. Wouldn't you rather be at home during your wake-and-bake?"
"Mista, it just be like that sometimes. Today was one of those days."
I get it now. I guess I always got it, but now I truly understand. We're not really that different, are we kids?


Maxiel Delossantos said...

No we're not!

I could relate to the whole school being the escape and how comforting it is to know when the bell rang and stuff. Have you seen my binder?! Oh man.

Great post today :).

Anonymous said...

In regards to your first paragraph. Maybe your students never really learned how much better off they might be compared to the rest of the world. I certainly never made that comparision in HS. It was not until college that I was able to recogize the U.S. v "The Rest" situation. Even now it can be hard to feel that difference, as those economic comparisons are largely made locally and not globally. The starving kids in China never made me want to finish my lima beans:)

Maybe this is something you could teach your students?

Otherwise, great post.

-David R.

Yo Mista said...

@ Maxiel:
Yes, I have seen your binder. I've also noticed that you are usually one of the first students in and last students out. Take advantage of everything the school throws at you...

@ David:
Thanks for your comment, dude. I'm trying, but the challenging thing about those who are forced to be resilient early is that they have a tendency to lack empathy. At least in my experiences anyway.

I hope it comes with time...

janelle said...

While in general, the opportunity is certainly there to earn a more comfortable living by going in school and just "doing what they're supposed to be doing," I think it's a misconception that people can just "jump" into a higher class as a result. You obviously see the kinds of circumstances people are coming from and can relate to them, but those circumstances and the larger systemic issues that perpetuate them and make that "jump" very elusive to realize. For some people, working hard (or even moderately hard) is all they need to do, but other people are (financially, emotionally, etc) burdened by their surroundings or coping mechanisms.

I don't want to sound like I'm preaching to the choir -- you obviously understand what's going on with these people, and much more intimately than I do. I guess I just take issue with how you seem to express that it's a largely individual concern. Of course, individual responsibility must be taken, and the lack of that is what frustrates you, but I guess focusing on that frustrates me. You (like my parents) were lucky to be able to have the strength of mind to work your way out of more "humble" beginnings. I think that pervasive psychological deficiency is as much a part of the larger socio-economic problems as the inequalities in the education system (among others) are.

I suppose that not being a teacher or someone who works with people in these impoverished situations first hand, I can't really relate to your experience, and my perspective is one from this detached, abstracted space.

My bottomline: the individual responsibility necessary to rise out of poverty is largely determined by systems and circumstances greater than the individual. But I trust that you already know that. Your comment above re: David's about empathy I guess is a part of this.

Either way, I do appreciate your perspective and that you take the time to document your teaching experience.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that post. I am so glad to be your colleague. Well, that is the trick, isn't it, to get our students to, for lack of a better term, "buy in" to the idea that education is both a right and a privilege that can help you advance intellectually and financially.

Yo Mista said...

@ Janelle:
Thanks for your comment. Yes, I guess I am biased in the sense that I think a large part of getting "out" has to do with individual effort. Working in inner-city public schools only strengthens my bias, I suppose. No matter how great a school system can be, I think it will always be up to the individual to use it to its fullest.

@ Anonymous:
Thanks for your comment. You're absolutely right: we have to dress education up because it's not cool enough. Bummer.