Tag Archives: urban education

Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child

Back in September, we had a week of orientation for the new students.  In one of the final activities, students contributed to “awards” for each other, writing bits of praise or positive qualities on pieces of paper with each student’s name on it.  I and another teacher circulated during the activity, trying to make sure that each student had at least three three things written on their piece of paper.  It was all a bit chaotic, and the task was made more difficult by the fact that while we’d had a week of orientation, due to the way the groups were divided, we’d only interacted with most of the students for about two subjective days.

At the end of the activity, when people were coming back to their seats, one student walked up to me with a woebegone expression on his face — the future Mr. Articulate.  We were a bit pressed for space, and he’d been sitting in a corner.  His paper must have been obscured somehow, because it had only one word on it, and not a particularly good word, at that, but the sort of thing you say about someone when you don’t know them very well and don’t have anything better to say.  “Nice,” or something along similar lines.  Not the sort of word you want to be the best thing a room full of people can think of to say about you.

“Here,” I took the paper from him and looked at him for a while, trying to come up with something I knew about him that could compensate for and overpower the milquetoast “nice.”  I knew him to be quiet.  Respectful.  Reasonably well-spoken.  Slight.  Polite.  He seemed like a good kid, but none of the well-substantiated things I knew about him had much, if any, more weight than “nice.”  And then, as I peered into his face, inspiration struck me in a white-hot flash, and I bent my head and wrote:


and gave him back the paper.

As he read the word, a smile broke across his face like sunlight sinking into deep water, and he uttered a soft, “Awww,” like someone who has just been handed a warm and snuggly kitten.  When he looked up again, his face was filled with . . . hope.  . . . pride.  . . . determination.  As if it was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to him.  As if I’d looked into his soul and seen a person he knew was there, but no one else had ever noticed.

It’s not a big word.  But we all want other people to see and appreciate our talents.  And a lot of urban young people see talent — at sports, in music — as one of the few things that will lift them out of the narrow little worlds they find themselves in.

Later, Articulate seemed particularly comfortable opening up to me or asking me for help.  Maybe he’s just a good kid.  Maybe our personalities meshed well.  Or maybe something happened in that moment when I looked in his face and called him talented.

I firmly believe that young people will meet the level of expectation set for them (note that this is in reference to groups, not necessarily individuals in specific situations.  Case by case, the mileage can vary widely).  If their community holds them to high expectations, they will meet those expectations, or at least come close.  If they are held to low expectations, well, they’ll meet those, too.

There is a lot of discussion about the failure of urban youth, about the incarceration epidemic, about unemployment and hoodlums and teen mothers.  We’re happy to blame the teachers, or the parents, or the churches, or the “bad crowd,” or the drug dealers on the corners.  Even if they do succeed, many of our young people have very few options and nowhere to go, which is certainly a contributing factor.  But sometimes, I think that if we want someone to blame, we should look at ourselves, because as a society, we have bought into the lie that if we are successful, we are successful purely on the basis of our own merit, and so accept the corollary that anyone who isn’t successful doesn’t deserve to be so.  We are so ready to interpret the effects of centuries of racial, economic, and social oppression as the fault of their individual inheritors.

We look at our young people and we are afraid of what they may become, and they become what we fear.

It’s complicated, of course.  It’s always complicated.  We believe the things that we have been told because sometimes, in some cases, they are true.  But I want to know how we, as a society, can begin to change our narrative.  How do we look at our young people, particularly our young African-American men, and see, not dropouts and failures and criminals, but talent and potential and possibility?  How can we make that our self-fulfilling prophecy?


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My job finished about three weeks ago.  There were a lot of things I wanted to say about that time, none of which got posted, partly because I was busy, and partly because everything was very complicated, and the ethics and professionalism of using one’s daily interactions as blog fodder seem very different on this side of the Atlantic, somehow.  But I do want to say something; I don’t want to let that year of my life pass and disappear without so much as a salute.

Here are some thoughts.  It’s a start.

Toward the end, I spent a lot of time sitting on the windowsill and knitting.  I find this funny, because that’s what I did when I first got there — sat on the wide windowsill overlooking Broad Street, or on a chair in the corner, and knit, and watched my new coworkers teach, and tried to get my feet under me.  It’s a very different feeling, though.  As my boss said when I mentioned this, “This is different.  Then, you didn’t really know where you fit, and you were sitting there because you didn’t have something to do.  Now, you have your own class to teach, and you’re sitting there because it’s not your time to be in charge of the class, and you can help out if somebody needs it, but you don’t have to.”

With the new batch of students, I taught Professional and Postsecondary skills.  It’s mostly a good class, incorporating the best bits of Business Writing along with things that are more fun, like presentation skills and group work and deep conversations.  One week we worked on cover letters and talked about time management; another, the students presented skits on good and bad interview skills.

One day, a student broke down in tears.  Typically, this is not something I would be proud of, but this time it was.

One of the projects I assigned is “Student and Term Association.”  I gave each student a word, a personality trait, something picked specifically for them as a skill that they have demonstrated but need to work on further.  I tried to explain the project to my mother, struggling to explain why it’s such a positive experience.  Partly, it’s the framing of the project, that I don’t say, “This is a thing you’re bad at.”  But it’s more than that: I eventually realized that this word is a positive trait that a figure of authority has picked for them and told them that they can excel in.  Many of them have never been given something like a word before, and that makes it special.  The students were proud of those words, even those who acknowledged that they weren’t there yet, and the Student and Term Association presentations were some of the best I saw in my last session of teaching.

I gave the young woman in question the word “Confident.”  I see within her a lot of talent and ability, really strong group skills, and a very fragile sense of self that occasionally expands to encompass the breadth of her personality.  Come her presentation, she stood up, defined her word, and explained to the class that she didn’t consider herself at all confident; she’d been struggling with an eating disorder and with her sense of self-worth.  I was as floored as the rest of the class — while a lot of the homework (a written exercise to guide the presentation) had been emailed, I’d also allowed hand-ins at the beginning of class, and I hadn’t read hers yet.  She promptly started sobbing so hard she could barely talk, much less finish the presentation.

I was astounded by her vulnerability, by the piece of herself that she had pulled out and laid bare before her peers.  As I stood to usher her back to her seat, Mr. Articulate also jumped to his feet.

“Group hug,” he declared, and the whole group surged forward to enfold Ms. Confident until she got herself under control.

Mr. Unflappable, a young man who has a lot of self-control and ability to take anything we throw at him at school, but who I knew really struggles in his home life, refused to identify with his word.  “That’s not me.  I don’t do that.  I let stuff get to me.”

“Excuse me.”  Ms. Perspicacious raised a hand and looked at him tartly.  “Can I say something?  Because, Unflappable, I think that is you.  You have all this stuff going on at home, but you come in to school, and you don’t let it show.  Maybe it affects you, but we can’t see it in the way you act.  You’re always respectful, and you help anyone who needs it.”

Or Mr. Exemplary, who took his word in a direction I never imagined: “I look at the two meanings of my word, and I see two options laid before me.  I can be that shining example, or I can be a warning to others, a sign post showing which way not to go.  And my decisions determine which I will be.”

I was so proud of them.  I was proud of the work they did with their words, and their degree of self-reflection.  I was proud of what they saw in themselves as a result of the project, and on the whole very pleased with my choice of words.  But above all, I was proud of the space they created together, of the safety and community and trust they had in each other.  I won’t say that there haven’t been rough patches, and that they didn’t get frustrated and disagree.  But any group has its difficulties, and a group like my students, who have been out of formal schools for so long, perhaps has more than most.  But despite the flaws, I saw them BECOMING, even when they couldn’t always see it themselves, and what they can be together is so much more than the sum of its parts.  No one else can take that away from them.  And I sincerely hope that as they grow and change over the rest of this year, they will not take it away from themselves.

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