Three weeks ago, on what felt like the first cool Saturday morning of the fall, I was pulled out of that early morning light sleep by my buzzing phone. It was just before 7am, and on the other end of the text message was a frantic senior at my high school.
“Boll! Just wanted to let you know I’m gonna bomb this test because I don’t have a calculator!!!”
I knew she was taking the SATs, an overdue necessity for this particular student. A student who has a world of ability, and a little less motivation. Though if she read this she would tell me the "less motivation" line is an oversimplification.
My first reaction was to think of all the reasons why I shouldn’t help her which included the conversation we had just 20 hours before that reminded her to make sure her calculator was in her bag.
But my second reaction was a little more helpful.
“I’ll see what I can do,” I said. And I rolled out of bed apologizing to my wife for leaving the house on a Saturday morning.
How I finally got the calculator is not important. But it took a lot of phone calls, some help, and all the speed my Civic could muster to get across the city and back to the testing location with a TI-80-whatever and 2 minutes to spare.
I sprinted one full circle around the Catholic high school that had been assigned for the tests. There were no signs. No tables set up for sign-in. And there was no information to tell me where to find the 100 high school students lining up for a test. All the doors I could find were locked and the person I was looking for had a cell phone that only worked with WiFi because her service was suspended. I was going to give up entirely until I saw some freckle-faced, awkward 16 year old walking into a door tucked around the back of the campus.
I yelled and he stopped and answered my questions to help me find the actual place where I would find the student who needed the calculator.
I walked into a lobby and looked around. The faces were mostly white and relaxed as students talked to friends in groups that looked like almost any high school lobby. Everybody seemed to know each other, which made sense because most of them were wearing sweatshirts with the name of the catholic school where they were taking the test.
Most of the kids in the room had woke up on a Saturday morning, went to the door that they had heard about on Friday afternoon in the announcements, and took a test with most of their friends. It was comfortable.
However, the student I was meeting was the only one from her high school, she needed luck to even find the place, and she probably felt a little less comfortable. She was playing on the road, while most of the room had home field advantage.
She had choices. But it is worth noting that when students from the neighborhood high schools in Pittsburgh choose their SAT testing location, they will inevitably leave their neighborhood. They will go to one of the better city high schools, or to a university, or to a suburban high school.
It is one way we give students with the toughest road to college success another road block. But it is just one way, and there are thousands more.
That week, after the great calculator chase, I got a call from one of last year’s graduating seniors at my high school. She is not just any graduating senior, she had overcome all kinds of challenges to walk across the stage as valedictorian of her class. She is getting all “A’s” and “B’s” at Temple University and tells me each time we talk how great it has been. She is making the most of her opportunity, as she always does.
But this call was different. She told me that she was afraid that she would have to come home in December. There was $3500 dollars that her aid and scholarships didn’t cover, and she needed to get a loan to stay in school. Unfortunately, no one will give her that loan without a cosigner with decent credit. Since her parents have credit that has taken a hit over the years, she doesn’t have that co-signer.
I went in to ignorant white savior mode thinking there is no way she had all the facts. I called everyone, unwilling to believe that we don’t have an answer for this situation. I made the assumption that no one would make a good student give up their dream over $3500. But the student was right. She had spent countless hours in the financial aid office, on the telephone, and asking questions just to find out that there was no happy ending.
Again, we give another road block to the student who already had the toughest climb.
On Monday of last week I got another call. This time it was from a Freshman at Duquesne University who also graduated last year. He told me he was doing pretty well, and he shared with pride about how he was writing a contrarian essay on cultural appropriation. But then, with a raw honesty, he told me he had just spent the last hour crying. He is a BioChem Major and feels like he is going to fail out of his Chemistry course. It’s not for lack of effort, but he thinks he is missing some of the algebraic foundations required. I told him that Chemistry would make me cry too, but that wasn’t immediately helpful. He approached his professor multiple times and her answer was rather blunt.
“If you don’t get this, I’m not sure how to help you.”
Again, a roadblock. Not a bridge. I could spend the next 12 blog posts that I write arguing for demise of blowhard academics who can’t teach, but that seems like just yelling at her for not buying into my flawed starfish ideology. If the only student you can teach is the one who got a 5 on the AP Chem exam, we are going to end up with a privileged lot of chemists who only come from elite high schools. But that is for another day.
The point is more that these stories aren’t just preachy anecdotes, they are the kind of thing that I notice every day, if not every hour of each day. Our system has consistently built walls instead of bridges, making the road for many of our most vulnerable students that much harder.
We’ve set up a system that gives some of our young people wide open paths to a promising future. That same system gives others a complicated maze, full of hazards and roadblocks to slow them down. We give them ample reason to give up.
The whole thing can start to feel kind of hopeless. It feels like we are banking on the few starfish that find water rather than trying to fix the messed up currants that pushed them all ashore.
But then I came to work this week. I did the only thing that feels hopeful to me, which is to go into room 375, turn on my lamps, and try to teach. I usually land somewhere between stuttering failure and barely adequate, but kids keep battling through to surprise me and give me hope. It's a horribly unjust system that requires some students to break through walls while others float over them, but if I focus on the system I find no hope at all. However, if I focus on the students who push through, like the girl with the calculator, I find hope.
That student got her SAT score back today.
She was smiling.
Her best friend was frustrated because he got an 1140 and he wanted the steak dinner I promised for the kids who got a 1200.
I might just have to budge on my promise. A steak is small price to pay for hope.