Because underneath my adorably dressed Stanford veneer is still the 14 year old who thought it was highly amusing to torture stupid teachers and who has seen every episode of South Park, I spent most of STEP getting myself into trouble and thinking it was fun to summarize every single class with a smart alleck remark. In my defense, one of my great strengths is synthesizing. That is my story and I am sticking to it. Anyway, after just about every class a comic was made or I whispered to someone that what we were learning could easily be summed up with the statement: Don’t be a Dick to Kids. I still firmly believe that, and it sounds really simple in theory but is apparently the great challenge of our time.
I went to poor schools where I got the message that I either didn’t belong or would amount to nothing and I am white and female, so you can imagine how terrible things are for the boys of color. For a lot of my friends, school was another site where they were alienated and cast out of the mainstream and unless you are insane and relentless like I am, if someone tell s you that you are unwanted enough times you are going to stop trying to win their affection. This is the fundamental underlying principal for why most poor kids don’t want to participate in school. They don’t have resources, are told that it is their fault, or given the impression that even if they work hard they will be undervalued and then are told, sometimes directly, that there is no reason to expect them to succeed in school. Given that this is the situation it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that perhaps they will stop performing in school. The thing we forget about our schools is that they are not isolated institutions; they are in fact reflective of the society which built them (which is of course true about all institutions). Context matters, social structure matters, and nothing exists in a vacuum. We talk often in America about students as if they exist in a vacuum with completely free choice. They do not. We talk about schools as if they exist in a vacuum with completely free choice. They do not. And we talk about communities as if they exist in a vacuum. They do not.
The weird thing about all of this is that when privileged people have children they seem to understand this and use it to advocate for their own kids. If they truly didn’t believe resources matter then how come they spend so much money on giving their kids an edge? If they truly believe that culture and context doesn’t matter, then how come they work so hard to make sure schools are not integrated? If they truly believe in personal responsibility how come when it is one of their kids it is literally everyone’s responsibility but the child’s? Now obviously, not all well-educated and well-resourced people believe this, but enough of them believe that our school system is designed to reflect that reality, in that the schools of privilege get additional funding from parents who didn’t want to even out funding with taxes, and schools are zoned in such a way to keep other kids from benefitting from those resources. In the poor schools we have zero tolerance policies because apparently when a poor child makes a mistake it is because they are adults with perfect decision making abilities, but when a rich child makes a mistake it should be a learning opportunity wherein they are praised for learning and growing. Zero tolerance policies and their disproportionate existence in the poor schools is just one example of how this all plays out. You can also look at the discipline policies at some of these charters they keep acting like are the answer to the situation, and when you look closely at the data what you see is extremely high attrition and discipline policies that are only fit for preparing kids for prison, not for being full members of society. I am optimistic that it is not the intention of charter operators to do this, but that is the end result, and I am not so naïve as to say that these practices don’t reflect a fundamental belief about how poor children should be treated.
My philosophy on education is really simple. What was good for my privileged friends at Stanford would have been good for me. None of those parents question what is good. They know what is good. You can walk into any well-resourced school in America and you will see a community that provides students with a rich education that involves art, music, critical thinking, lots of practice with writing and reading, access to lots of extracurricular activities, support services (including mental health services) and on and on. Teachers speak to students with respect and love and students receive the message that they are full human beings who have rights. No one worries about test scores and kids receive individualized educations wherein their strengths are validated and supported. If we were really serious about equity the only discussion we would be having is the discussion of how to make our poorest schools look like our richest schools. And how to train a teaching force that is not only as well-qualified as the teachers at the best public schools but also has a firm commitment to treating students like they are in fact part of American society.
This is really simple, but the game becomes complicated when people try to hide the underlying assumptions that build our system. Then we get on the road to distraction, and instead of correcting the fundamental inequities we play around with little details. When poor kids don’t perform we change the tests, or prep the tests, or punish the kids or punish the teachers, or punish the community, instead of doing what we need to heal the community. In the best case scenario this distraction stems either form a misunderstanding of the problem or an attempt to tweak what little details we feel like are in our control. We’ve abandoned the dreams of Brown v. Board of Ed. The ruling to enforce integration based on race was destroyed by the ruling that says schools didn’t have to equalize funding based on class. I can’t tell if that is because we don’t realize that or because people have lost faith in our ability to actually correct these problems and enforce that dream. But separate and equal is still inherently unequal. In the worst case scenario this is happening because the people with power are racist and are trying to hide it. Reading and my own sense tells me that the vast majority fall into the “idealistic but misinformed”, the next largest group is the folks who understand what is going on but have given up on grand change, and the smaller percentage is the racists. I refuse to give up on that dream. Brown v. Board of Ed was paid for, literally, in blood. Is our generation scared of getting dirty, of sacrificing? I don’t think so. I think our generation just doesn’t have clarity of mission. We can do this. There are even more of us who believe in these ideals than there were in the 50s and 60s.
But there is no app for that. That is blood, sweat and tears. That is hard labor and dedication. That is an overwhelming sense of love and justice. We can have that, we just need to turn off some of the noise of the people older than us who are having arguments about things that don’t really matter and insist that we have the only discussion that does matter. That discussion is: “How do we ensure our education system reflects a fundamental belief in the rights of people to pursue happiness and to embody their full humanity?” Anyone who tells you the fight is about something else is either wrong or lying to you. We know this, in our hearts, but we have to trust this fundamental belief, and believe in it so fiercely that there is nothing that will distract us. We can do it. But more importantly, we have to do this, because there is no other way forward.
I often refer to myself as a foot soldier for a cause without naming the cause. This is because I usually hang out with other foot soldiers and we know at some implicit level what we are doing. But I never see this cause named in the reform movement or anywhere else. This fight isn’t about test scores. This fight isn’t about who controls our schools. This fight is not about pedagogy. I hate it when people talk about poor kids like they are a problem we have to solve, if we just tweak a few variables perhaps they will learn to love being at an institution that has been a site of society’s hate for decades. Those kids don’t want that. What they want to is to be given their full humanity. The want the same things the privileged kids have, the choice to live their life and be fulfilled, happy, functioning members of society. They want to be human beings in the most liberal, highest order sense of the word. Is that not what the entire Civil Right’s battle is always about? Expanding our definitions to be more inclusive, to recognize every human beings rights’ to humanity? The battles aren’t happening in the courtroom anymore. They are in our streets, our homes, our schools. That is the cause I am fighting for, the rights of my people and people everywhere to realize their full humanity in a nation that promised them that. In a nation that uses their bodies so that someone else can have that. That is what this is about, and I will settle for nothing less. I will settle for nothing less than my students being treated like full human beings. The whole of human history is the story of that fight. Everything else is details and distraction, and I pay attention to those in so far as they get the job done, but fundamentally, at the end of the day all of my energy goes into fighting the bigger fight. That is what, after all these years, gets me up in the morning. It is, by my estimation, the only fight worth having and it is something I will spend the rest of my life striving for, because we aren’t even close to that goal, but everyday people make the choice to get a little bit closer. It is a choice. I made mine long time ago and I will live and die by that choice. And that is ultimately what will be my realization of humanity, so if I can do just that, I will do what I what I was supposed to do. I will be fully human too. If you want to liberate yourself, liberate others. So long as one of us is in chains we will all be in chains.