Students’ lives a distant world for most of us

A young black woman asks to speak to me after class. I don’t know her. We’re just a few weeks into a pre-college English class.

We had been discussing the in-class writing assignment: “Write about a family legend.” Before that, we had been talking about root words in the English language. I hadn’t thought of it before; we were talking about word roots and family roots.

“I really like what we were talking about. I feel myself opening up,” she said.

I thanked and encouraged her, but I’m taken aback.

Yes, of course this is what education should do and sometimes does, but I’m a bit shocked that something so mundane could be so stirring and, it seems, memorable. That is, after all, why I’m a teacher. But I’m still a bit stunned when I see it.

For years Washington’s public schools have had a graduation rate of about 70 percent – far lower for black, Hispanic, low-income and Native American students. These groups have a dropout rate closer to 40 to 45 percent.

These kids get the clear and consistent message; school is not for them. They eventually get the message that marriage, home ownership, rewarding careers, political engagement (voting and running for office) are also not for them.

Think about the sheer math of it; 30 percent of our young people, year after year, don’t graduate from high school. This quickly adds up to many thousands of young adults.

Where do they go? What do they do?

They don’t go far, and we know what they do. Research shows that dropouts roam our streets, fill our jails, pack our welfare system and, most of all, waste their most productive years and don’t contribute their passion and resourcefulness to our community.

I see many of them as students. Most never expected to complete secondary school, let alone post-high school or vocational training. They are veterans, single parents or displaced workers.

We have many solid and successful students, but many have siblings, parents, perhaps even grandparents who have established the pattern of dropping out, committing petty crime, and abusing drugs and alcohol. They experience unexpected pregnancy, official intervention, incarceration, minimum wage jobs and the constant threat of homelessness.

For most of us, this is a distant world. But it is a parallel world alongside ours.

Few of these kids will read a newspaper, buy a home, run for office or start a business. At least that’s what most of them – and many of us – believe.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Couldn’t we imagine a school district, a neighborhood, a community, stepping up to guide and protect these kids?

How is a 30 percent dropout rate tolerable? It’s only tolerable because they are not our kids. Except that they are.

I have an occasional hand in the local political and arts scene. When I speak of this to my students, I get the blank stare of someone who has not the slightest idea (or interest) in what I am talking about.

There is one lesson they have learned well, in and out of school: They do not belong, and they do not matter.

I know it cannot be true, but sometimes I get the feeling that I am the only voice they hear that goes against these messages.

I know that most politicians, teachers and agencies write them off, even as they rely on them. They are the ultimate “job creators.” Consider how many social services case workers, corrections officers, guidance counselors, drug and alcohol agencies, welfare and remedial education programs they keep busy.

The creation of our rapidly diminishing middle class was no accident; it was the direct (and deliberate) result of government investment in education, interstate transportation, affordable housing and education.

Poverty costs us vastly more than our middle-class investments. It’s a math problem with a social cost and a human face. How have we forgotten this?

Sometimes all it takes is a simple observation from a young black woman to remind us who we are.

M. (Morf) Morford is a former reader columnist. Email him at mmorf@mail.com.