The Road Less Traveled . . . Back Home
The road he travels to and from school each day is not easy. As the sun rises, he walks past run-down homes, graffiti-filled walls, and boarded-up buildings. The backpack he carries holds his AP United States history notebook, a dog-eared copy of The Great Gatsby, and calculus practice problems for the upcoming exam. Also tucked away are his khaki pants and blue polo shirt. He has learned some lessons the hard way. After suffering from hard thrown punches and a black eye at the hands of neighborhood bullies, the school uniform stays hidden away until the bus doors close and he is safely seated.
As he enters my classroom about twenty minutes before our morning class starts, I can tell immediately it has already been a tough day. Besides the deep circles under his eyes, the usual boisterous greeting that announces his arrival – “Mornin’ Ms. Kovacic!” – is subdued. His hard mornings are starting to outnumber the good. The last few months have been difficult. His older brother was fatally shot late last year in a gang related drive-by-shooting. His younger brother was arrested a few weeks ago for drug possession and attempted robbery. His mother lost her job last month. And the electricity in their one bedroom apartment was finally turned-off for non-payment.
Today, I simply ask, “Hanging in there?”
“Doin’ the best I can,” he says quietly, “I just want to get out of there and escape. I need to make it through one more year here, then it’s college and I’m gone. I want to be as far away from that run-down ‘hood as possible.” As teachers, we often talk about “teachable moments,” those unplanned opportunities to reach a student in an unexpected way. One of those moments has just filled the room.
In class, we have been talking recently about civic virtue and responsibility. Using individuals such as Andrew Carnegie and Thurgood Marshall as case studies, students analyzed the roles and responsibilities citizens have in a democracy. We also connected it to the personal. What should our role be in our own communities? Should our educational journey be about creating an escape plan? Or, is it about acquiring skills and knowledge to help solve some of the problems at home?
The founding mission of our school – offering a rigorous preparatory curriculum to students living below the poverty line so that they will become the first generation of their families to be college educated – was not about enabling those same students to abandon their neighborhoods in need. Rather, it was about creating a generation of empowered participants capable of transitioning their own communities from poverty to self-sufficiency. But, how do you teach such a seemingly selfless message?
Alexis de Tocqueville, in his book Democracy in America, talked about “enlightened self-interest,” the idea that when you join together to promote the interests of a group, you ultimately promote your own interests as well. And, that’s a good place to start, especially in an AP US History class. My frustrated student who is having another bad day needs some immediate teacher triage, so I counsel against feeling like a helpless victim or thinking that his neighborhood’s condition is a helpless cause. History is such a great course of study because it involves volumes of stories about legions of characters who have faced and conquered daunting challenges for the good of a greater community. While a tough unforgiving barrio in San Diego may not look like Omaha Beach on D-Day or a lunch counter in Selma, it shares the same opportunity with these historic venues for individuals to make a real difference.
Another long-term way we expand this message to students at our school is the annual Service Learning Program where senior-year students spend 12 weeks identifying a need in their own neighborhoods and then, working with either existing organizations or creating their own group, implement a specific program to address the need. Lessons learned in the classroom return home.
Of course, the lessons should not bypass our own community of educators. We all feel frustrated and overwhelmed at times by the challenges facing our profession. Cynicism, blame, helplessness, and apathy often punctuate the discussion about our education system. While it may be easier to accept the status quo or leave for a different career, shouldn’t we expect the same from ourselves as we do our students? Throughout history, individuals have chosen whether to lead, follow, or get out of the way. Now is the time for all of us who really care about the future of our students and our education system to take the lead in bringing about positive changes in our own “neighborhood.”
In upcoming posts, I hope to initiate a discussion about our role as leaders in education.