Wednesday, November 19, 2003

QUESTIONING THE UNQUESTIONABLE


I was talking last Monday to some fellow educators, and we were pondering the questioning of why "ethnic racial minority students" failed in school. (That phrase, BTW, is not mine - it was part of the written question set). The first answer, as you have probably already figured out, was, according to my fellow grad students, was poverty.

I questioned that assumption, and found myself on the receiving end of an intense re-education session. I think, from their arguments, they thought of me as the sort who's had no brush with poverty, and has risen from comfortable surroundings, unable to understand the truly heartbreaking plight of the poor. Nothing could be further from the truth.

True, I was privileged to have both my parents present (and married) at my birth. I was privileged by seeing the example of two people working together to raise their children, instilling morality by insisting on a religious education, as well as setting an example of decent behavior, in public and in private. My father worked for a living. When money ran tight, both parents said, "We can't afford it," without shame or apology. Although money was often tight, my parents managed to provide books for themselves and the children.

For my first 7 years, I lived in public housing. After the war, the government converted some no-longer needed Army barracks into housing for the many people who were locked out of affordable options. They were small, but otherwise OK.

Many of he other children came from much more exciting families. They partied at night. They used bad language. The mothers slept most of the day, leaving children to roam the projects. Fortunately, there were sufficient numbers of families who provided those children with structure and guidance to offset those wayward parents. My mother told me of children left alone during the famous Ohio tornado of the early 50s, while their parents partied.

My mother was a housewife. In addition to cleaning and cooking, she also raised four children. I remember sitting on the couch (a hand-me-down from a more affluent brother) while she ironed, reading aloud to her. When I struggled with a word, she said, "Sound it out." (Although I don't remember it, I apparently had sufficient phonics instruction to manage it). I was probably in Kindergarten at the time, as I seem to recall it being afternoon, just before my brother would return from school.

We finally left public housing when the units were scheduled for demolition. The neighborhood we moved to was similiar, many families with little money and many children. I saw some of the children later in life - few had moved beyond their upbringing. Few had excelled academically. Why did we?

I have come to believe that the difference was complex, involving moral guidance, marriage, expectations that we would all eventually work for a living, and parents who were literate. Many of the other children were missing one or more of those factors.

But an even bigger factor was the belief that when we didn't succeed, it was our fault. We didn't work hard enough. When my father, an 8th grade graduate, wanted to move ahead on the job, he worked to be in the group to be trained on new equipment. He went to class during the day, and studied at night and on weekends. Some of the men he worked with laughed at him, since the company didn't pay him more to learn than he could get by just doing the same thing. He had the last laugh. His classification and pay grade rose as he added more training. He eventually retired from Ohio Bell, a few years before the Bell monopoly broke up into the Baby Bells.

My father didn't just say that education was important, he proved it, by his example. As a teacher, I often ran into parents who would say, "I don't have much education, but my kid will." My answer was, "Probably not. Your kids will do what you do, not what you say." Some of those parents listened, and went back to school. Their kids generally did well.

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