in baltimore, there's a general feeling that one of the best things about reaching the age of 16 is that the truant officers can't make you go to school anymore.
so what's happening here?
many folks who can remember segregation and the civil rights era are quick to frame this as "laziness" or "ingratitude", but i reject that analysis.
for generations, high school was enough. you could graduate, get a good factory or government job, and go from there. the bottom fell out with the exodus of industry, but many folks' mentalities stayed the same.*
and there are other factors. the first crack babies are reaching their 20s**. for some, teen pregnancy is in its 2nd or 3rd generation--meaning mothers in their teens, grandmothers in their 30s and great grandmothers in their 40s-50s. granny and big mama's wisdom has succumbed to stroke, breast cancer, diabetes and stress. many of us do not have the access to our histories--familial and cultural--that our elders did.
other cultural institutions have eroded, too. the activist preachers of 30 plus years ago have given way to today's megachurch pimpin' preachers. not that we didn't have them in the pulpit long before now, but pushing for the revolution--in spirit and/or deed--is the exception, not the rule.
black children today are immersed in a culture of apathy, disconnected from themselves, their families (due to stressful work schedules, financial hardship...) and their spirits.
they see the real world early and up close. abstract notions of what will be "good for them later" do not make sense; they know tomorrow isn't promised.
they know education is not a guaranteed way out because they see their mothers and fathers struggling to hold on to the jobs their college degrees guaranteed them 20 years ago. they may not know the name horatio alger, but they know his stories are lies.
they know college is a far off dream, even for some of the best and brightest of them. for those that do get that far, retention is an issue.
to keep these kids in school, a few things will probably have to happen:
- real world relevance. it might be time to do away with textbooks as much as humanly possible. use real world situations. discover teachable moments in their neighborhoods, with people who look like them--and get them out of those neighborhoods, too. highlight various careers and map clear, concrete strategies on how to achieve those goals--from artistic endeavors to engineering and computer science.
- emphasize financial literacy/economics. urban kids are well aware of how money works and how the lack of it affects them. there is plenty of business acumen in the 'hood. tap into it. every elementary school should have that project where they get interest-bearing checking accounts and balance their checkbooks. teach them about credit cards so they're not bamboozled when they get to college and see all those fancy giveaway tables. use articles like this and this to explode myths about money in the entertainment/sporting industries.
- community schools. if you're saying, "this is the parents' job...", consider this: the u.s. runs on a system whereby only the most privileged of parents can take time out from their job(s) to fully raise their children in the ways that would mold them into the productive citizens everyone claims to want***, and they hire nannies and boarding schools to do it for them. so, we can either (a) have all childbearing stop immediately except in, say, the top earning 10-15% of households, (b) give parents liberal family leave and adequate vacation/sick time, or (c) put it in the schools. readily available social workers, psychologists/psychiatrists, community leaders, and (multi)culturally competent teachers are essential. thankfully, these schools are popping up everywhere--and they include help and resources for parents.
we were not lazy or ungrateful, and neither are these kids. they probably just don't see how school makes sense. in the midst of a crumbling economy, skyrocketing debt, and mind-numbing, cube farm jobs that are killing their parents, i can't say i blame them.
the old school lines don't hold weight. it's time for a new paradigm.
*although you can argue the differences between the values of bourgeois black folks and their unsophisticated country (or urban hoodlum) cousins.
**admittedly, there are some nature/nurture issues here, but talk to any black teacher in an urban school and they'll tell you the signs. in addition, lead poisoning and other environmental racism issues that disproportionately affect blk folks and other poor people of color can also lead to educational difficulties.
***while ignoring this and this plus all the labor it takes to run both. that's not coming outta harvard. it's coming out of the streets.