This morning I read the headlines from the Chicago Suntimes posted on an activist friend's facebook page (the great Matt Farmer--if you haven't watched his recent talk about Penny Pritzker and public schools, watch it here) which read Five dead, 35 wounded — including boy, 16 — in weekend violence. I think if Matt hadn't posted this piece, I probably would've just skimmed over the headline and moved on. And I wondered, how is it that I have become so normalized to violence in my city? How have all of us become so used to the murder and maiming of young people, primarily young men of color, that it doesn't even register as a problem?
And I think back to my year teaching in a public school on the city's south side. I remember the two drive-bys that I witnessed during that year, just blocks from Obama's Chicago home, and just outside the affluent Hyde Park neighborhood "bubble". And it often hits me, while I was there ostensibly to teach my special education students, to get them up to grade-level in reading and math, it was my 9-12 year old students who told me what to do in those crisis situations. When the toy-like "pop pop" of actual bullet sounds echoed outside my classroom window, it was my little 4th grader who yelled "Ms. O, get down." He was the one who directed the other students to get away from the window. Yes, he could barely read, but my god he was prepared for those war-like conditions.
And I have had so many of these experiences where I was simply unequipped for the reality of children's lives. I remember a time at my current job working as a teacher on an inpatient psychiatric unit. I was teaching my group of adolescent girls, many of whom had significant emotional/behavior disorders or mental health issues like Bipolar Disorder or Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD is a "disorder" I have some problems with, but that's another story.). Suddenly, one of my sassier young women looked out the window and yelled, "that man is beating that girl." Before I knew what was happening, all the girls had rushed to the window and were shouting "we have to do something." Apparently, my fight or flight response is not nearly as developed, because I stood frozen. At first I ignored the situation and tried to redirect the girls back to their seats. I thought about going on with the lesson and pretending that nothing was going on outside. I even started snapping at the girls, something I never do, because the room was quickly getting out of control. But finally, after far too long, I realized that I had to act. I called down to the the nurses' station and told them to call the police to report the brutality. I ended up apologizing to the girls. Their instincts were right on. When a fellow human being was in danger, they knew what to do instantly.
Sometimes things like impulsivity, opposition, and anger are appropriate responses. But our kids are punished for these behaviors and then punished again for not learning the same way as their peers, especially peers from affluent, low-violence areas.
The studies have been done about how trauma and a constant heightened state of readiness can be detrimental to learning. We know that there will be many children who cannot take the anxiety and pain of a never-ending threat, and will end up in psychiatric facilities like mine. I have met children who have covered their house windows with newspaper because they are terrified of gang retaliation. I have had to walk students as young as 9 to the bus stop because there were rumors that they were going to "get jumped" that afternoon.
And this is why I get angry at education reformers who claim that "poverty is not destiny". Mayor Emanuel, Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, Bill Gates...what would you do in a drive-by? Stop belittling the students, community members, and educators who understand all too well the real obstacles to learning. How dare you talk about accountability, test scores, teacher evaluation, and merit pay in the face of the warlike conditions poverty and income inequality can create. And more than anything, how dare you judge the students, their teachers and their schools based on YOUR definition of what is important, by your silly test scores. My students brought so much to the table besides test scores. They had a compassion and an ability to act with a clear-head in the most difficult situations. Where is the test that measures THAT?
As long as reformers ignore reality, nothing will ever change. The status quo of absolutely frightening segregation, income inequality, poverty, and the violence that accompanies those ills will only get worse. I would like to see people from all neighborhoods rise up to say, "no more". The fight for schools is the call to end the violence caused by oppression and disenfranchisement. The fight for schools is the struggle for safe and healthy neighborhoods. The fight for better schools is the fight for living-wage jobs for all citizens of the globe.
Education reformers, quit whining about America's test scores, and start getting mad about the violence that has taken yet another teenager's life in my city.