IT WAS THE WORST OF TIMES.
“Hi, this is Mister Pistol. I’m calling from Patriot High School and I’m trying to reach the guardian of Laquana Simmons.”
“Is this the mother?”
I started off talking like a friendly salesman but I quickly transitioned into the grimace of someone delivering regrettable news. “Hi ma’am, I’m calling because I had an incident with Laquana in the halls todaaaay. Yeaaaah.”
I could already feel the hatred radiating through the phone.
I continued, “You see, I was clearing the halls – or trying to – and Laquana was standing with a group of friends right in front of the stairwell doors. It’s between periods so they’re supposed to be walking to class, so I asked the group to move, like I do every day. So they know me, and they know why I’m down there. But they just ignored me. I was right next them and they really acted like I just didn’t exist. So then I LIGHTLY tapped Laquana’s shoulder, and said ‘Excuse me, you guys need to walk to class.’ Laquana then screamed, “DON’T TOUCH ME!” and then she still didn’t move. So I asked her for her ID, and she yelled “Hell No!”, and walked away. I had to follow her halfway around the building asking for her ID and then it took two safety agents to finally stop her and she still refused to show an ID. She finally shoved something in my face that had her name scribbled on it and that was the only way I was able to find out who she was.”
“Sooooooo,” I continued, “she’s being suspended.”
“It’s for three days, and -”
The person on the other end finally spoke, interrupting me. “Jesus fucking Christ…” the voice trailed off, sounding she had put the phone down and walked away while she cursed, but I could hear her start the next sentence with, “This…”. I was expecting, or at least hoping, that the next word was going to be “GIRL!”. She should have said, “THIS GIRL!”
“THIS SCHOOL!” She yelled into the air.
She continued yelling, “This school be suspendin’ her for every little thing! Not giving an ID? Damn!”
I couldn’t tell if she was still on the phone, but I continued speaking anyway, “Umm.. the way the suspension works is that she comes to school for two hours, either in the morning or in the afternoon, and since I see that you live all the way in Gray Hills, maybe it’s easier for her to come in the afternoon.” I was trying to extend an olive branch.
“When is that?”
“That’s at two.”
“Well that’s not gonna work either because I work, and she has to pick her sister up from school.”
“Okay. Well I do see that the last time she was suspended she came in the morning, so-”
She interrupted me, “How she even suspended when she gave you the ID? You got the ID! And you still suspendin’ her? What kind of shit is that?”
She was really trying to butter me up.
“Ma’am, for her to yell in my face when I am just asking her to go to her class and then for her to walk away from me when I ask her name and to have to call two safety agents and spend ten minutes to get her to show me her ID, which all students are required to show upon request, is unacceptable.”
“Yes, it is unacceptable, but that’s when you call a parent! Fuckin’ suspendin’ her? What kind of shit is that?”
It was becoming clear where Laquanna got her manners from. “Well, for something a little less extreme, yes calling a parent would be in order, but once it gets that out of hand and she’s yelling at a dean and refusing his requests and refusing to identify herself and safety agents have to respond. That’s something we don’t tolerate and that needs consequences, frankly.”
“Okay, sooooo I guess that’ll be the morning then.”
IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES
“Hi this is Mr. Pistol calling from Patriot High School. I’m trying to reach the guardian of Ricky Persaud.”
The man on the other end spoke with a kind voice. “Hi Mr Pistol. How are you doing?”
“I’m good, thanks. I spoke with you last week, right?”
“Yes, how’s it going? How’s he doing?”
“Well, I really regret to inform you that I was handed Ricky’s file just now, and since I last spoke with you about his cutting, he’s been written up two more times for being in the halls late, and he’s still missing almost all of his classes.”
“Yep, and unfortunately his cutting has gotten him to a suspension at this point.”
“Ohhhh. It’s a suspension?”
“Yeah. At four hall-walking write-ups it’s an automatic suspension.”
“Phewww.. I just don’t know what I’m going to do with this kid. You know, Mr Pistol, I even drive over to the school and look for him around the neighborhood. I drive past the bodega. I drive all around, and I never see him. I- I- I don’t know what else to do.”
“I don’t know what to do.” I hear that from parents all the time. I don’t have children so I really shouldn’t be giving advice, but I still go through the regular schpeel about getting Jonny a job to teach him responsibility or taking away his privileges until he bring his grades up, or, as last resort, going to family court. But today I was exhausted and I had no more powder to toss into the wind.
“You’re doing all you can, sir,” I assured him. “It’s up to him now. The suspension works like this…and we do require you to come to school with him afterward to meet with us.”
“Okay, Mr. Pistol. I will take care of this. I promise you.”
“Alright sir. Thank you. And good luck.”
Ladies and gentlemen, you have before you one nasty-mannered woman with a disrespectful daughter, and one polite man with a son who cuts school. Tell me, who is to blame for their problems?
The common refrain is that it’s the schools, the parents, the system, or society. But none of that is true. No one is to blame. Because blame does not solve problems today. It inflames problems. Blame is a rope wrapped around our necks and staked at the other end to a primitive place. It’s an emotional appendix, the vestige of a starving group of mammoth hunters, for whom weakness meant death. The weak would feel the sting of blame from the others and he would then either shape up or ship out. It worked then. It kept the group strong. So the genetic urge to blame and shame was passed on.
This urge to blame is our inheritance. It is a part of who we are and why we are. But society is different now. We are less brutal, more analytical, more compassionate, and more inclusive. We want to understand and cure problems now, not just run them off a cliff. And curing problems requires scientific analysis through the gathering of evidence and experimentation. It’s a logical process in which blame has no part. After all, no one chooses their own parents. So who can we blame for what we are taught? Not our parents, because they were also taught by someone not of their own choosing. Blame simply doesn’t make sense. We just have to FIND the problem and FIX it. That is all. Fault plays no part in a problem. It’s the Cause that we need to understand.
As for the cause of Laquanna’s conflict with me, some would say that it was nothing more than a benign culture clash, to be handled with the padded gloves of understanding. Others might say that the cause was not a clash of cultures, but rather the symptoms of an ill culture. That Laquanna’s very psyche has been pulverized by the unjust forces of history and now requires an equally massive effort to put it back together again. Or maybe my pysche is the ones that is damaged, and a pristine and polished Laquanna is just reflecting my own broken bits back to me.
That some measure of a culture clash exists between the teachers and our at-risk students and their parents, there is no doubt. As for which side is suffering from the symptoms of illness and injury depends on what your particular goals and expectations for your children are. If you hope to see your children obtain higher degrees in education and join the ranks of employed professionals in a just and thriving society, then I can report quite confidently that many of our students are being led in the wrong direction. But if your goals for your children are to see them impoverished, illiterate, incarcerated, and the victims of violence and premature death, then those very same students are on the right track.
Obviously, even the worst parents do not consciously wish suffering on their children. Which is why I don’t use the words “fault” and “blame”. We all do the best we know how. But when parents aggressively and even violently (we receive death threats) resist the attempts of educators to shape their children into functional citizens, what they are in fact doing, is locking their children into a dismal cycle.
I was meeting with the mother of a boy one time and the boy was yelling at me and interrupting me as I tried to explain why he was in trouble. I noted to him and his mother that the behavior he was exhibiting was the same behavior that was getting him in trouble with his teachers, and I described it as “disrespectful”. His mother lashed into me. “That’s not disrespectful,” she told me. “That’s how we talk.” What do you say to that?
Well, this is what I wanted to say: Fine. You don’t think that yelling at and interrupting a teacher is disrespectful. I’ll chalk that up to a cultural difference. I don’t have a problem with that. But what do you want for your son, ma’am? Do you want him to follow your path in life? You married a drug dealer and a gang member who is now serving a long prison sentence, and you are not able to support your children or keep them out of trouble. Is that how you want your son to end up? Or, would you rather him get a college degree and enter the professional world? Because I have been there, and I am trying to teach your son how to do get there too. But here you are telling your son to ignore my advice and to continue acting the way you do. I understand that cultural pride plays a role here, and no one is immune to that. But if you don’t want your son to get an education, then just take him out of school.
But I didn’t say that. Because it’s a conversation that this society is not ready for. But I say it now because I want to see our problems solved and the suffering ended. Many people disagree with me though, and believe that the plight of these kids is brought on by primarily by oppressive outside forces (maliciously intended or not), and that if these forces were removed, then these children would be free to live happy, healthy, and successful lives. Of course history’s path is not a simple one. It is a mighty and complex river system with a hundred thousand tributaries that include slavery, Jim Crow, and more recently, the crack-cocaine epidemic that robbed an entire generation of their parents.
But none of us can fathom the river of history completely, and our view of it depends on where we sit on its banks. My own observations have led me to believe that, while outside forces have clearly caused major cultural traumas in poor and minority communities in this country in the past, the damage is now mostly passed on culturally from parent/guardian/community to child.
And I see no sign of the river shifting course by itself. Nor do I see it shifting solely by the influence of well-meaning community leaders or educators. In fact, from my observations, the influence of teachers on a kid’s behaviors/values/culture is so negligible in comparison to the influence of their home community, that it’s barely worth including teachers in the solution at all. This is especially true when parents actively encourage their children to disrespect and ignore their teachers, sometimes on the basis of race (I’ve suffered racial insults from parents and students alike).
So what are my suggestions? Here are my suggestions. They all involve widespread and intensive social services, which the new Congress has, of course, vowed to slash. How these services should be deployed, I don’t know. But the first things that come to mind are mandatory classes at the high school level on the topics listed below. Another method might be to offer tax incentives for parental education on the same topics, or even mandatory training for parents who receive any government subsidies.
What I do know, is that the following steps address what I see to be direct causes of the anger, misery and hopelessness I see every day. As for funding, I propose we use all the wasted dollars that are currently being spent on “educational reform” in an unscientific and futile attempt to address these exact same issues. Further funding will come from the money saved through reduced crime rates and the reduced demand for public assistance and increased tax revenue from a more productive workforce that will result.
Number One: Reduce Teen Pregnancy.
Having a baby while still a teenager instantly damages the lives of two generations, and probably many more generations to follow. The fact that many of the teen mothers at my school are not only immature but also habitually violent and astonishingly crudely behaved, only increases the damage done. Fighting to make sure that all kids have mature parents with at least a high school degree will solve a huge amount of our country’s education problems and many other social ills too — including crime — thereby saving the country more money that can then be used to pay for these initiatives.
Number Two: Increase Home Literacy Levels
I went to the very same public schools for kindergarten, first, second and third grade, as the kids from the projects where I grew up. We all had the same teachers and the same classroom facilities. But from the beginning, I could read and many of them could not. It wasn’t their fault or the fault of their parents that their parents weren’t college professors like mine were, and didn’t read novels to them before bed, but they certainly paid the price for it in the form of below-grade level school performance. My point is that the primary indicator of a kid’s literacy levels and academic achievement is not the school they go to or the teacher they have. It’s their home environment and the education levels of their parents, and there is little a teacher can do to overcome that.
Parents of at-risk kids should therefor receive training in how to nurture literacy and analytical thinking skills in their children from the earliest ages by learning how to read to them, and also how to speak to them in ways that encourage curiosity, creativity and thoughtful debate. I’m not a parent but I’m pretty sure that screaming at a toddler, “Stop talkin’ before I beat the shit out of you!” and then turning up the volume to your ipod, when your kid asks you what that sign says, is setting your child up for academic problems later on. And I witness that kind of parenting on a regular basis in this city.
Which brings me to Solution Number Three: Healthy Disciplining Methods
A study was done in such and such place in which parents of at risk children were trained in healthy disciplining methods, which included not only not physically abusing them, but setting clear and consistent expectations of behavior and, I think, letting them cry without responding negatively to it all the time. I don’t really remember the details, except that the children of the parents that received the training showed a drastic improvement in school behavior and test scores. I don’t need a study to tell me that the abuse that my students are exposed to and the behaviors that they see modeled by their parents result in severe developmental, psychological and academic problems, but to have hard evidence that at-risk children can dramatically benefit from training in disciplining methods provided to their parents is great news.
These interventions and services will obviously not solve all of the problems that my kids face. Unemployment, poverty, hiring discrimination, and neighborhoods beset with crime and violence do not instantly vanish. But if we start putting our minds, our money, our policies and our energies towards these three goals, we will eventually be able to, if not abolish poverty and outperform Japan on standardized tests without firing a single teacher, at least know that we are heading in a positive direction.
And to those who claim that the Teacher’s Union is the cause of the Education Gap in this country, I would politely say, don’t hold your breath because you’re not waiting for Superman, you’re waiting for a miracle. No tweaks you make to teacher contracts or teaching methods will make a lick of difference in the education of our kids. Those aren’t the causes of the problem, and the more you act like they are, the more unbearable Teaching will become as a profession, and then you’ll have made things even worse.
I cannot emphasize the importance of tackling and solving these issues at their source enough. The future of our society and country literally depend on it. We cannot afford to waste any more time, money and children. If we do, we won’t just be waiting for Superman. We’ll be waiting for a miracle.