I was recently contacted, from prison, by a former student, a brilliant young man according to the state standardized tests we were giving a decade ago on which he scored in the 99th percentile in math and not far below that in English. Michael (not his real name) expected to do well in school with little effort. He'd done that for most of his life -- and didn't seem interested in being challenged. He and I had some battles. I made him earn his grade by demanding more than he believed anyone had a right to demand of him. Like many students I've encountered in two decades of inner-city public school teaching, he didn't value the free education he was receiving (free to him, at least).
Now, ten years after he graduated, Michael thanks me when I send him an article to read and we exchange ideas about it. I send him books and he reads them in his prison cell and appreciates the time and money I spend and the education he's now getting with my assistance (budget cuts have for now eliminated post secondary educational opportunities for inmates where he is currently housed and the library has also been shut down).
Fortunately Michael isn't the only student of mine who appreciates his education. But mostly the children I teach take these opportunities for granted -- as Michael did when he was in high school. Take school for granted and even believe themselves oppressed by it.
To be fair, public schools can be oppressive. Too much prison architecture -- though Michael might now challenge that assertion -- and overcrowding and bells and regimentation, rules enforced with the precision of a cluster bomb; too much attention to mischief and mayhem and not enough attention to quiet excellence; too much institutional indifference and alienation.
Still, I am always a little disheartened whenever students in my class read about children denied an education -- like the African American children Grant teaches in Ernest Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying, for example, or an account of child widows in India -- and fail to be moved by such accounts to cherish the learning they are being afforded.
Perhaps there is just something in the restlessness of youth that makes such appreciation hard to experience. And perhaps the children of this generation -- or at least many among it -- have been hardened by the general oppressiveness and hostility toward young people in our society (that I sometimes think is at least in part an expression of adult envy and resentment, in a culture that worships and even fetishizes youth).
I suppose also that the various campaigns against public schools and teachers haven't exactly inspired appreciation on the part of our students. But I'm not interested in excuses. I think we -- educators and parents -- could do better; and I think that if our children appreciated their education they would do more with it. They shouldn't have to be locked up in a real prison to appreciate school.
Insanely, I sometimes wonder if we shouldn't replace one grade level -- somewhere between fourth and eigth -- with a year of hard labor in factory or field. I do think that a year of such sweat and toil might help cultivate a stronger appreciation for the luxury of being able to think and write and calculate and create (along with the memorization and recitation some educators still believe in).
But I don't think we're ever going to write such an exemption into our child labor laws -- and that is probably a good thing. Our world already has enough toiling misery and our courts have enough law-suits.
But then what?
Explaining to children how fortunate they are never seems to go very far, does it? But what else do we have besides our own love of learning, our infectious passion for knowledge and understanding? Enlightenment is one of the great gifts of being human and we ought never feel embarrassed to remind children of that truth. Or to believe in the power of ideas or the transformative opportunity of each generation -- however polluted their minds may seem with all the noise of the popular and street cultures.
If knowledge is power, if the search for meaning and the practice of reasoning are human needs, let's make sure that it isn't us -- teachers, administrators, parents -- who have failed to appreciate those values.
I don't know where Michael's reading and our discussions will take him (he's got quite a few more years to go before he'll be eligible for parole) but I know where it is taking me -- to a deeper grasp of how important we are to our students whether they ever show it or not.