June 13, 2011

No Pictures Today.

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 11:22 pm by a care in the world

I come from a privileged world where the law, the judicial system, and the education system are protective and supportive forces in my life, not threatening ones. In my year in New York City, so many of my privileged-world blinders have been torn off, and I find it exhilarating and breath-taking and scary all at once. It makes me feel lucky and guilty at the same time– I can’t believe it took me this long to learn (really, to acknowledge) the innumerable hurts and threats that many Americans– children– deal with every day. The fact that half of my students come to school without breakfast or lunch money is stunning to me. I went to a school with a cafeteria that rivaled college dining halls at the time, and that was included in tuition. Though I consider myself a sensitive person, I have also been a very ignorant and sheltered person, and each new injustice and hurt shocks and hurts me. More and more, I am determining that my job as a teacher is so much more than a career choice– it is a vocation that will both force and allow me the privilege of working with people– children and parents– from all walks of life. The books I have read and the children I have taught this year have opened my eyes to the desperate situation that is public education.

I had a student this spring who, at age 16, is his own legal guardian. He has no one to go home to and, for that matter, none of us know what home he has at all. The foster system has all but given up on this boy. He is loud and rambunctious and never does any homework, yet he comes to class every day, participates, and is miles ahead of his peers in his insight into and analysis of the books we were reading. I don’t know if he is desperate for attention or if he just has nowhere else to go, but he continues to show up at a school that is about to fail him for the second time. What 16-year-old boy shows up for a third year of 10th grade? I hate to see him drop out, because he has a brilliant mind and is inspiringly curious (he won’t stop bugging me to bring him more Kurt Vonnegut books), but he won’t follow the rules or do the work. So who is failing here– my student or the system?
There was also an incident today that hits even closer to home for me. My little sister just graduated from college and works in healthcare, and she was called for jury duty today. Terrible luck, huh? Anyway, she was passed along through a couple of rounds until she got to the point of this scene: 47 people sit in a room. They are told that they are being considered for a murder trial in which a couple is accused of beating their two young children to death. The children were both under 5 years old. The officials demand that each of the 47 potential jurors stand and confess whether they or a close family member have ever been a victim of a violent crime. If they don’t tell the truth, they will be held in contempt of court. For privacy’s sake, I won’t go beyond that, but I was STUNNED that 47 innocent strangers were forced to confess traumatic and emotional incidents in their lives to each other so that 12 of them could be chosen for the jury on this already upsetting case. Is that justice?? What about victims’ rights? What about privacy rights? What about all the people who went home traumatized tonight because they were forced to dredge up and confess painful memories and experiences in front of dozens of complete strangers? I don’t think that’s what the founding fathers meant when they said everyone has a right to a fair trial.
The other upsetting thing for me is this– I have never in my life worried that the police or the judicial system was out to get me, or posed a threat to me in any way. And yet, millions of young black and Hispanic men live with that fear and reality every day. Who am I to be (usually) above these worries? What makes me any more worthy of respect and protection than them? And on another level, how can I teach young people who face threats and fears that it took me a couple of decades to even learn about? This is the hardest question for me as I complete my Masters in Education. I understand what to teach, and I understand how to teach a lesson. But how to teach and reach students on a personal, essential level? All I can do is pray for the grace to do my best and not screw up too badly. I have SO much to learn.