Earlier this year, a student told me a story. She said that when she was younger, maybe 4 years old, her mother asked her to run to a neighbor’s house for some flour. It was one of her first times being allowed to run out of her mother’s sight. She had to run down her own block, cut through a vacant lot, and cross the next street over. I imagine, because my own daughter is four, the mother watched for a long as she could. Maybe only leaving a short space that her daughter would have to manage on her own. Maybe she even called her neighbor to set up some receiving eyes on the other end.
The girl told me she sprinted with vigor on her assignment, savoring the new feeling of freedom. That was, until the 8 inch curb was higher than she expected and she fell painfully to the sidewalk a few feet shy of her destination. She arrived for the flour with tears in her eyes and blood dripping from her knee. Her attempt at independence left her feeling like a failure, her tears coming more from embarrassment than from the scraped knee.
In her mind, that fall was forgivable. Who can blame an overzealous four year old for misjudging the height of a curb, or underestimating her speed and not slowing enough for the jump. What was not forgivable, in her own memory, was that she did the exact same thing the next time her mom gave her the assignment. She said she remembered the fall before she started, but something about the run down the hill and the taste of the freedom produced the exact same result.
Skinned knee. Tear-filled face. Embarrassment.
I knew where she was going with her anecdote, but I wanted to hear her deliver the weighty punch of her argument. I had the student the previous year in AP Language, and my pride in her persuasive ability was probably bubbling out of my annoying large face in some nerdy, but hopefully endearing, teacher laugh. Finally, she dropped the punch that I saw coming.
She told me that the way we do school in America, at least for black children, reminds her of her skinned knee. She continued to explain that for her 13 years in education, she has watched us start out every September with the knowledge that whatever we did last year didn’t work that well, and then we usually go about doing exactly the same thing and acting shocked when that thing doesn’t work again.
I asked her what she would do if she had to go get flour now. She laughed, understanding my point, and said that she would probably still run on the hill, but she would allow for enough time to slow down before the curb to avoid the bruise.
In other words, she is an adult now, so she knows better than to keep failing in the same way.
That student is graduating from high school in a week, and we as the adults in her life charged with giving her a “free and public education” keep tripping over similar sidewalks. In some cruel twist of victimization, our knees are fine. It is the students caught in this system we have made that are often in need of the band-aids, stitches, or, God-forbid, surgery. That metaphor can quickly fall into more dreary territory, but it may be suffice to say that while some of American schools are launching their students into hopeful futures, other schools should be offering a sincere apology with their diplomas. And maybe, in our highly-crafted and segregated system of inequity, both the good and the bad schools are complicit in the same evil.
It seems to me, and to that student, that there are a lot of ways that adults simply aren’t doing a very good job. This post isn’t meant to demonize anybody, teachers or administrators, public or charter advocates, policy-makers or union bosses, but to call all of us to look in our mirrors and ask if we are comfortable with the results. We are responsible for an education system that has produced similar results for years and we have done very little to change that.
It is a system that is carefully constructed, and fearlessly protected, in which you can decently predict student outcomes based on their race, gender, and zip code, and those outcomes have bordered on genocide. Then, we have made little effort to change that tragedy for the last 100 years. I have spent my 9 years in education trying to create positive and challenging experiences for my students, but that may not have much value if the whole system is a trap.
When the girl was telling me the story about her skinned knee, it was tempting for me to try to personalize the whole thing. I wanted to take her biting social critique and validate my own existence as some shining star. I wanted to show her that kids are growing, and ask her about her experience in my own classroom. I wanted her to tell me that I was not part of the problem, cementing my place as some tone-deaf white guy who just can’t seem to get it. It’s a pretty standard guilt laden response, and I imagine some folks reading this may jump to a similar reaction. But I challenge you to move past that for a moment. The high school that she experienced gave her three different principals, a revolving door of new teachers, upper level math and science classes that were often filled with substitutes. Sure, I may be tempted to point to her decent English teacher in an effort to save face, but that seems to miss the point. We are often tempted to blame poverty, or parenting, or “things we can’t control,” but that also seems like it misses her point. We are failing over and over again in the same ways, and our students are noticing.
There are now, and have been forever, places that we can point to that same to offer some kind of hope that things are getting better. We can talk about Chicago and growth rates, positive trends in DC, new and innovative schools, and even the great things that happen in our own classrooms. But it all feels like ways to justify the machine that is at least partly responsible for killing whole generations of people. These are good and positive things that can amount to a grand distraction.
It seems that in all of this she was asking me to be an adult. She wanted me to realize that the curb is a little higher and the hill is a little steeper than we expected, so we should make some changes. When we skin the same knee twice in the exact same way, somebody should be held accountable. When we keep failing and throwing up our hands in confusion, we should have to answer for that.
Our system has not done the work of providing tangible and realistic pathways into the post-high school world. This means we have to re-imagine our early college approach, create more authentic experiences with work, shift and localize our leadership models, and generally hit the reset button on how we are preparing young our students. In so many cases, we are trying to work at this, but there are still so many students in our schools who need band-aids. Our greatest attempts are still falling dreadfully short. And too often, we aren't doing anything about it.
In the case of American education, it feels like we need to find a different way to get the flour from the neighbor’s house. Maybe more kids could get there without skinned knees.