The Boy Next to Me Sings All the Time

A 12-year old girl I know has spent most of her years in parochial or public schools. This year, she’s got a full scholarship to a very expensive all girls’ school in Boston. After one day at this new school, she eloquently captured some differences in working-class vs. upper-class educations. “In my old school,” she told me, “I just needed to raise my hand and give the right answer. That’s all they wanted from me. But in my new school, they want … [and here she paused to give the word its full weight] my observations.”


She enunciated the word carefully, the way you would if you were speaking a second language, and the look on her face told me she was clearly marveling at the idea. “Tell me more,” I said.


“Well, the math teacher asked us to pick a shape out of a box. `Describe it,’ he said. So I said, `It’s a triangle.’


`Be more specific,’ he said.


So I said, `A plastic triangle?’


`Be more specific,’ he said.


`A blue plastic triangle?’ I said.


`Be more specific,’ he said again, and it went on like this. He asked me to be more specific about 10 times.”


There were other stories she told, too, of being pushed to think, to look more closely, and to observe relationships between things. She was a little lost, not having the structure of  clear “right” and “wrong” answers, like she did in her old schools. “In sixth grade,” she said, “It was all about the MCAS [the Massachusetts standardized test]. The teachers just drilled us and drilled us to prepare us for the MCAS. Then when it was finally over, they let us watch movies.”


She seemed rather fascinated by this idea that teachers could treat you as if you have a functioning mind rather than a rote-information regurgitation system.


But what really blew my young friend’s mind was the way students procure their school supplies in this new school. At her old school, the teacher sent home a supply list, and her family did what a lot of families do: recycled old binders; monitored back-to-school sales; saved coupons; counted pennies. But at the new school, the student simply takes the supply list to the school store, gets whatever she needs, and the school bills her parents!


My friend’s eyes were wide open, incredulous. Money doesn’t even appear to change hands. You don’t even say anything like, “Can you bill my mom for that?” It’s just understood. It’s taken care of. Don’t even think about it.


Meanwhile, in the same city, just a couple of miles away, my 14-year-old daughter is attending a Boston public high school. On her first day, the pep talk given to students went something like this: Using a hip hop affect and developing a call-and-response riff with the students, the teacher got the class to play into her pre-arranged script about their hopes and dreams for the future. And what is central to those hopes and dreams? To have money! “What do ya’ll want in your lives?” the teacher asked. “I know you want money, right?”


“Yes, we want money,” the students shouted back – maybe because (oh, I hate to be so frickin’ obvious) it sucks to be poor. Not to mention, it’s fun to be able to shout in school. Pretty soon the whole class was shouting back and forth to the teacher about money.


“Now how you gonna get it?” asks the teacher. This is the prelude to handing out a graph showing how much more high school graduates make than high school dropouts and how college graduates make even more than that.


The average salary for college graduates ($45,000) might indeed look high to 14-year-old 9th graders. “Dang, that’s a lot of money,” is how Sila (my daughter) said the kids responded to this large figure being dangled in front of them. For homework, they had to write true statements about what the data showed. “College graduates make on average $17,000 more than high school graduates.” This recitation of facts did not begin to penetrate some of the deeper issues that these kids will confront in the next ten years, including race and gender disparities that tend to be hidden in “average” salaries, an ongoing economic crisis, high unemployment rates, and the fact that even those who are able to earn $45,000 will have a hard time living on it – especially if they have families and assuming they have college debt.


Asking students to write these true statements barely gets at the truth. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the median income for men with Bachelor’s degrees was $60,000. For women, it was significantly less – only $40,000. Add the racial breakdown, and you are likely to find more disturbing disparities.


Still, some of these kids will win the education-and-better-salary lottery. They’ll have the right combination of stamina, support, obedience, hard work, scholarships, and pure luck. They’ll find a workable place in the system. But most will not. According to the NCES, almost half of the individuals who earned money in 2008, earned less than $35,000. About two thirds earned less than $50,000. The system is so rigged against underprivileged kids of color who come out of underperforming inner-city public schools that you can almost forgive the teachers for glossing over reality and acting like they really believe what they are saying. How would they persuade themselves to go to work otherwise?


But let’s be honest: Slot machines do sometimes deliver big bucks, but holding a pep rally outside the casino doesn’t really boost your chances. “We’re gaming the system,” says a friend of mine who is a Boston public school teacher. We know that if we work hard, a few of our kids will make it. But when we say that, we’re admitting that the majority won’t make it at all.”


In her study skills class, Sila learned that she should think of study skills as an umbrella against the coming storm. What is the storm? Oh, basically the daily life of school — homework, tests, and essays. “I looked around at the other kids,” she said, “to see how they were reacting to being told that their education was being likened to a tsunami hitting them.” But the kids were barely reacting at all. They were slumped in their chairs. This was not news. A tsunami was heading their way, and an enthusiastic adult was offering the “protective umbrella” of knowing how to take notes, fill out forms, and organize their binder.


You can almost feel the slump, the deflation, the disengagement that must come from such a bleak disconnect: a terrible storm is coming (aka your life; your education), but, here, this umbrella will help.


And…just to underscore the trivialization: they grade you on it! Sila received an A in lunch forms and a D in binder paper.


“The kid next to me sings all the time,” Sila mentioned to me one day. He keeps up a constant hum and he moves his body in rhythm. Sometimes he blurts out a well known refrain and others in the class will join in for the next line.


“What does the teacher do?” I asked.


She says, “Be quiet.”


The kids who make up the future ruling class at the upscale school are coaxed to observe the nuances of triangles but explicitly to take for granted the great river of services, resources, and privilege flowing in their direction. The world is at their fingertips. The poor kids, whose destiny it is to follow rules or go to prison, daily file into the casino, otherwise known as the school system, where they develop tricks for making it through the day, like singing to themselves or occasionally out loud.


Cynthia Peters is the editor of The Change Agent (www.nelrc.org/changeagent), a social justice publication for adult learners. She wrote a 3-part series on schooling and unschooling her older daughter, which you can find on her ZSpace page.






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