by Dana R. Casey 7/14/15
A young man whom I have taught in tenth grade and now twelfth was chatting with some friends before senior English class. I overheard him say, “I haven’t decided on Princeton or Harvard.” I choked on my water. This particular young man, though polite and personally engaging has never put any effort into his academic education. He relies on his IEP and his gentle personality to make it to twelfth grade. This combination is often enough to move from one grade level to the next in my school system, but it is not enough to get one to Harvard.
Today, I had a similar experience with another student named Dantrell. He is also a rather personable and good-looking young man who has given academics only passing attention. In any fully functioning school system neither of these students would be sitting so easily in twelfth grade given their past academic habits, but my system constantly lowers standards while touting increased expectations through Common Core. Mostly, they threaten teachers to pass students; play the game or else.
Dantrell came after school attempting to turn in an essay which was not only two weeks past due, but also a week after grades for the quarter had closed. Such deadlines are often amorphous around these parts, but quarter grades had been closed on the computer system and it would take an administrator to change it. He seemed devastated.
I began to wonder why this student, who previously seemed to give his grades only superficial attention, was suddenly so concerned about one essay. Did he have a scholarship or a college admission riding on a borderline grade? I asked him, but he said no. I investigated further:
“What college do you want to go to?”
“Marshall University to play football.”
“Oh, really! Have you been scouted?”
“Have you been accepted to the university?”
“Well, then let me ask you. Are you on our school football team?”
At this point I was perplexed, so I challenged him saying, “How do you think that you are going to end up on their football team under those circumstances?” He responded that he was going to just go to school there and try out for the team. “So,” I said, “You are just going to go to Marshall with no acceptance, no scholarship…I am assuming you would need a scholarship…and no team experience and just ask them to let you on the team through open tryouts. Don’t you know that schools scout for athletes and they expect their athletes to be scholars too?” He looked at me as if he had no idea of what I was saying.
I tried another approach. “Do you know what the average acceptance stats are for Marshall?” Again, the answer was, “No.” Thank God these answers are quickly found on the internet. When I showed him that the average SAT score for the smallest chance of getting into Marshall is 1400+ (his scores are around 700) and the grade point average is 3.25 (his are below 2.0 from a below average school), I could see the wound it caused his soul. He had a dream, but the dream was built on air under which there was no foundation.
I did not leave him in this dejected state, but talked to him about community college and the opportunity to start there, to eventually move upward to maybe a state university. In all honesty, a good post-secondary training program might be a better choice for this young man. He has a good mind, but not an academically inclined mind, at least not yet. However, there are those in this city who would rather deny this young man every chance for a successful future than to offer him an auto mechanics course.
Why does this little narrative matter? Because it illustrates the lies our society tells the most vulnerable children. This young man, like so many of my students, has been told from the first day of school that he too can go to college. That seems like a good thing to say except for two facts.
First, not everyone is made for college, which is not a bad thing. The country needs store managers and chefs, plumbers and carpenters, cable installers and auto mechanics many of whom make more money than I ever will as a teacher. These same people become small business owners, the life-blood of our nation. There are countless types of intelligence aside from academic intelligence and a multitude of ways to create a successful fulfilling life of self-reliance, but all my students are told about is college.
Second, all students are told that if they can dream it, they can make it happen, but no one tells them the whole story. No one includes the hard work that must provide the foundation of such dreams. Students have told me of their dreams to become doctors, but then admit that they have no talent in science or math. Students have bragged about their future law degrees, but then profess that reading and writing are a thing that they have no interest in…EVER! Since everyone tells them that they could go to college with little effort or capabilities, why not take it further? Many of my students claim their future life plan is in the NBA or NFL regardless of the fact that they are not yet on the high school team in senior year.
The system encourages failure as student after student is passed through the system without doing a thing. In my school system there are indeed many students who want to work hard, who want to excel, but their success is hindered by the disorder and mediocrity that daily surrounds them, mediocrity that results from a form of misguided compassion for the “underprivileged”.
The root cause of these unrealistic expectations and accepted mediocrity is a foolish compassion offered by sympathetic do-gooders who may wish to help those that they consider less fortunate than themselves. In fact, they often cause irreparable damage to people who have fewer resources to recover, poor students who end up with no degree and student loans that they have no ability to pay back. Why would these do-gooders do this? Because they have been fed a fictitious vision of a utopian world. It is built on the foundation of partial truths — all really good lies are.
I once had a conversation with a fellow teacher about our students. I said that we needed to bring manufacturing back to this country so that our students could get jobs that would provide them a living. She was horrified. Not only did she accuse me of wanting to destroy the earth by causing climate change as a result of the evil pollution such capitalistic factories would cause, she also accused me of wanting to keep our urban students out of the “power structure”. In her mind, only those with college degrees have any voice in this country. I said that having a paycheck and being able to feed your family was far more powerful. She started to turn red and sputter. I suggested that we end the conversation before we hurt our friendship.
In my school system, and in many school systems around this country, there are no more wood shops or auto mechanics studies or home economics or electrics studies. These were often the places were students who were not honors students felt successful, where they found their calling. But those well-meaning do-gooders like my fellow teacher are one of those reasons that the shops are locked and why my students don’t know the difference between a Phillips and a flat head screw driver.
Instead, my students feel like complete failures. They buy the lie that everyone should go to college. Some of them can, and those academically capable students should be encouraged and supported, but the remaining students know that they can’t. They are shown no alternative. Many of these students manage to get into college, but don’t survive the first semester or find themselves having to take so many remedial courses that their scholarships are not carried into the next semester. They leave school saddled with student loans and burdened with an overwhelming sense of failure. They see no path forward.
Last year the heating system in my school was having serious problems, the radiator in my room was loud and failing. A very nice young man in his early thirties came to fix the radiator during my planning period. He told me that he got a full scholarship to a six month HVAC repairs training program. He needed no student loans. With overtime, he earns around 150K a year, three times my salary in a lot less stressful job.
What is more powerful? Leaving generations of students in the dirt after lying to them about their chances at college or giving a student a skill that allows him to build a life where he can support his family well?
It is true that we should tell students in poor neighborhoods and other struggling people that in America they too could go to college with hard work, a commitment to study, and an academic aptitude. I have helped students move from some of the meanest circumstances to Ivy League schools. I myself am a high school dropout who never dreamed of a college education until my sister convinced me otherwise. My obsession with reading made that transition possible. But to keep telling high school students who have barely skated by their whole school career or to tell juniors with 2nd grade reading levels (Yes, second grade!) that they too can go to a university without also telling them about the hard work and academic acumen that is required to be successful is an unforgivable sin.
Dana R. Casey is a veteran high school English teacher of more than two decades in an East-coast urban system.