Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

The Sound of the Starting Gun

with 3 comments

So, here we are, at the start of another term. 

And I’m happy about that, mostly.  I get bored at home.  I get bored without sufficient to do.  I can only write so much before I start doing it badly.

But there is something else on the table, and four months of trying to think about it has not helped.

Some people teach what I teach because they need the money, or because they can’t get hired to teach anywhere else. 

I got into this in an attempt to put my money where my mouth was, so to speak.  I’d spent a long time telling myself and anybody else who would listen that we all had a real obligation to do something to alleviate the situation of people who are blocked from any ability to participate in the wider culture through circumstances that they did not create.

That was put badly. 

I deal, by and large, with people who have grown up in rural poverty or the poverty of our small cities in Northern Connecticut.  In a way, they’re even worse off than the residents of big city inner cities.  If you grow up on Harlem or the Bronx, you can always take the subway down to the Metropolitan Museum, and even your neighborhood will probably have a very decent branch library.

My kids come from places where the nearest library can be twenty miles away, and then often have nothing in it but the latest best sellers and a few stray ancient “facts” books that were added for local school projects decades ago.  Of course, Connecticut has universal interlibrary loan.  Books can be ordered from any library in the system to be taken out from your home library.  I love interlibrary loan.  But before you can use it, you’ve got to know what books you want, and before that you have to know that you want books.

 Most of my kids came from homes that didn’t contain a single book–not even Mike Fisher’s encyclopedias–or, if they did, it was the Bible.  Neither their parents nor their neighbors read the newspapers.  Their houses and apartments do not have computers. 

If they come from out in the country, they usually have something to drive, although it will be old and very unreliable.    If they come from town, they will not have anything to drive, and getting to class will be a matter of getting public transport (where available), or walking (often a long way), or finding a ride. 

Our campus, of course, is out in the country, close to absolutely nothing.  The one local college or university that is downtown–and therefore easily accessible to kids living on East Main or any of the neighborhoods branching off it–is the local UConn branch, the most difficult of the bunch to get into.  My kids would love to go there if they could, but most of them couldn’t qualify if their lives depended on it.

A significant number of my kids are not in fact able to read.  They can sound out words if they work at it.  They have brothers and sisters at home who cannot do even that.  That is, in fact, a good deal of the reason why they’re my kids.  Most of them can’t meet the basic requirements for any school.  Even the local community college will only allow them to take non-credit remedial classes.

We require a high school diploma.  That’s it.  All my kids have high school diplomas, and most of them have actually made their way through highs schools.  For one thing, the requirements to pass the Connecticut GED are much higher than the requirements to get through our inner city and poor rural schools. 

If you go to the right Connecticut schools–in Wilton, maybe, or Westport–you can get an education in a public school that will outdo what most high-end prep schools offer. 

If you go to the wrong Connecticut schools–in Waterbury, say, or Bridgeport–you can graduate from high school without being able to read and understand a paragraph in an article from People Magazine, without being able to add and subtract well enough to figure out the change you’ll get back from your dollar if you take the bus, and without knowing anything at all.

And I do mean anything.

My black kids know who Martin Luther King is, but not what the Jim Crow laws were.  They know there was slavery in the South, but not that there was ever slavery anywhere else.   They are fascinated by Obama, but have no idea what the requirements are to run for President, or even if there are any.

Black or white, they don’t know the name of the mayor or the governor, they don’t know how many senators and representatives the state has, they don’t know that there is a difference between state and federal law.  Most of them get all their news from MTV, VH-1, and Fuse.    They know a lot of things I don’t know.  Most of them aren’t useful.

The big thing, though, and I’ve said this before, is the passivity.  Most of them aren’t openly defiant.   This is good, because some of them are very large male people.  Although not many.   Women outnumber men by a good three to one.

And a good segment of the men are on probation or parole, but that’s something else. 

The passivity is very pleasant, but it is what it is.  “You need to get this paper in,” I say.  “Oh, I will,” the student says.  And that’s it.  The paper never arrives.  You can have one on one conferences that go on for hours, and nothing ever arrives. You have them write things in class and hand them in at the end–and they don’t hand them in.  They don’t do them.

Mike Fisher pointed out that the pasivity might be due to depression, and it might be, but it doesn’t matter.  I’m not equipped to fix it, and I don’t know if anybody is.

I do know that the usual approach to trying to fix it–dumbing down the high schools to the point where anybody can pass, then to where anybody can get an A, on the assumption that to do otherwise will only discourage students more–not only doesn’t work, but may very well be counterproductive. 

A lot of my kids think school is a waste of time, a set of arbitrary hoops they have to jump through in order to get stuff–and they’re not wrong, except that the hoops they’ve been made to jump through are so low the jumping won’t even get them stuff.

Like everybody else, I go on doing this because every couple of years I have somebody who uses the system and makes it work for them, and the people who do that can get very far indeed.

But the question, the one I keep running through my head, is:  does it make any sense for me to do this?  Am I helping anybody at all besides those one or two every second year?  Does helping those one or two make up for months upon months of slog trying to work with people who don’t want to be there, don’t want to hear from me, and resent the whole thing?

And what can be done, after all, about the things that create this situation in the first place? 

It’s not the poverty that’s the real issue.  Poverty sucks, but lots of people have overcome childhood poverty.  Right now, as we speak, there are dozens of Korean and Chinese families within screaming distance of this office who are just as poor (and sometimes poorer) than my kids’ families, but none of their kids ever ends up in my program.

What do we do about kids whose mothers drink all the time or stay high on heroin (in the city) or crystal meth (in the country) and who drop them off on streets or porches to fend for themselves at four or seven or twelve?   Theoretically, this is what Child Protective Services are for, but there’s an awful lot of it going around that isn’t being taken care of.  Or even noticed.

And even if DCF does come in and try to do something–what exactly gets done?  The majority of foster families in my state are in it for the money.  When the local newspapers or television stations decide to notice, they find that child rape and battering in endemic in foster homes, that children are left without adequate clothing or food, that the places are often filthy.

 I suppose it’s better than living on the street, or being left alone in a trailer for a week with nothing to eat but crackers, but it’s hardly a solution to the problem.

And it doesn’t solve the contextual deficit, either–the difference in what kids bring to school when their families talk about politics and books at the dinner table and go to see plays as well as movies and listen to classical as well as the local rock station, next to what kids bring to school when the television would be on 24/7  if the cable company hadn’t cut off the feed for lack of payment.

The worst about all of this, though, is my increasingly strong feeling that if the kids don’t want to help themselves, then nothing I can do will matter.

And it doesn’t matter if the kids don’t want to help themselves because they’ve been through hell and back, or because they’re just lazy, or whatever–the reason doesn’t matter.  The fact reigns supreme.  

Life isn’t fair, President Kennedy said–and that’s true.

But there’s a part of me that says it ought to be fixable.

Written by janeh

September 2nd, 2010 at 10:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'The Sound of the Starting Gun'

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  1. It’s heartbreaking. As you say, not the kids’ fault, but certainly the kids’ problem. The lack of school standards may actually contribute. The kids who think they can promise you work and not deliver probably believe that because they’ve been promising and not delivering for years and nothing’s come of it.

    And if I remember correctly, you have students in the class who are there because of benefits awarded because they’re students. That makes the problem worse. For those students, you’re another hoop to jump through. They want the benefits to continue, and, logically, to do the least work which won’t result in the benefits being cut off. A student who needs or wants to learn what the class teaches can be exasperating in other ways, but won’t be passive.

    How you cure that passivity in a society, I don’t know. You cure it in individuals by small steps. Something good happens, but only if you do something–or something bad happens when you don’t do something–with the stakes and the degree of initiative expected escalating until you reach “normal” levels. The military tends to be very good at this sort of thing, even when dealing with draftees, so it can be fixed.

    And we need to fix it. Americans used to be said to have “a genius for practical living.” The way of living you describe isn’t practical.


    2 Sep 10 at 3:57 pm

  2. I think that none of us do anything we are not compelled to do and that folks like your students are living in a society which does not compel them to be more than what they already are.
    I live in the midwest where you can work for a car company on the factory line and have better pay and benefits than someone with PhD or masters degree. Being a good student or being well read is not valued because it does not seem to better the lives of someone who plans to live his or her whole life in a town where the best job is a factory job(or was now that manufacturing jobs are disappearing.) (Altho, I will say, I live in a place where reading for fun is valued. Lots of genre book lovers here in Indiana.)

    And as far as not keeping up with the news. I suppose MTV is the source of news for these people because that is a socially a wiser move for them. If they make an effort towards education, they step outside the safety of their social circle. I am a geek and I listen to NPR and read the Christian Science Monitor online but most people I work with do not. There are more people at the lunch table at work who can discuss pop culture than who can discuss current events. It is isolating and perhaps not a smart move to go against grain of those around you.

    On a more practical note, if they don’t hand in their work, stop requiring them to hand in work. I had a professor who let students sing or put on plays or write essays, whatever we felt most comfortable doing. He pretty much gave anyone who showed up to class and talked a C. If you wanted more than a C you had to perform or write. It is a bit fruity and you can’t teach everything that way, but shaking up expectations might light a fire under some butts.


    2 Sep 10 at 6:05 pm

  3. I have a cousin who was a foster mom in Connecticut for a while. (She ended up adopting a couple of the little ones she fostered, and doesn’t foster any more because the separation was too hard are her own kids.) But she is still heavily involved in the lives of 3 kids she used to foster who were returned to their mom under the “family reunification” mantra. And I get updates from her frequently about how the kids are doing. The kids are in Bridgeport, so of course the schools suck. But the real issue is the mom, who does *nothing*. One of the girls is in second grade (after repeating first twice) and still can’t read. Worked with someone at school (because Karen, my cousin, pushed it), and when she moved up a reading level, told the teacher, “Call Karen and tell her. My mom don’t care ’bout my reading levels.” Her older sister isn’t in school yet this year because mom didn’t register her–the girl, to her credit, called Karen to complain–so Karen took her and her mom to the school to register her–oops, she can’t, because she hasn’t had a physical. The mom’s passivity drives me nuts–and I’ve never even met her!

    Can we fix it if we start with the kids? Maybe. But when mom doesn’t even have a notion that one should wake up at a certain time so as to be able to go to school…it’s an uphill battle.



    3 Sep 10 at 2:49 pm

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