Every day my heart gets broken.
The hurt starts before I step foot onto my campus. I live six blocks from my work site in a diverse, middle-class neighborhood called Mar Vista where two bedroom homes sell for $700,000 and the gentrified two-story jobs go for over a million.
On my walk to work, I observe the morning rush to school. Kids, in uniforms, hurry toward waiting cars to be whisked away to private schools.
The kids who attend our local elementary school walk south from the apartment complexes that line Washington Boulevard holding their mothers' hands or riding skateboards or bikes alongside buddies. They are almost all Hispanic.
I usually stop at the halfway point, Rainbow Acres, an organic grocery store, where I wait behind women in workout gear knocking back shots of wheat grass as I wait for my morning smoothie.
I cross the boulevard and join a wave of teenagers disembarking from LA and Culver City buses and head toward the LAUSD high school where I teach English.
As I pass the student parking lot I note that there are a handful of late-model VWs and Hondas, but most of these rides have little or no resale value.
And then I turn onto campus where every wall is newly painted typing paper white with royal blue trim. The vast lawn, almost the size of a football field, is a deep green and leaves have changed colors, giving us a mini-New England autumn.
I take in one last breath of ocean air then enter a long, narrow corridor. That's when the depression hits. The wall of bodies, the faded yellow walls, the natural light replaced by florescent bulbs.
It seems as if the school's dress code demand that students wear thrift shop t-shirts advertising bands that broke up years ago, alcoholic beverages and unpopular baseball teams. Most every male face lurks behind a black or gray hood. It's as if color has been banned. Were it not for liberal helpings of green eye liner and pink lipstick, I might think I had stepped into a black and white movie.
Then I read my students' essays. All are seniors. Most are smart. All are street smart. Many are shy. Most read and write below grade level. Of the 42 students on my Period 1 Expository Composition roster only three are applying to universities.
I read their personal essays which will be published this spring in an anthology of student writing thanks to a grant from PEN in the Classroom.
These are the stories my 17- and 18-year-old students have shared with me under the tutelage of PEN mentor Amy Friedman:
A 3-year-old watches from his front porch as his uncle shoots himself in the head.
A mother dumps her 15-year-old son at a police station and tells the cops they can have him.
A father goes downstairs and is shot by a car thief. He leaves behind three daughters.
A four-year-old girl is fondled by her uncle while her father is out on the town, cheating on the girl's mother. The girl holds this secret inside for ten years.
A boy visits his father in jail.
A six-year-old receives a brutal, daily beating from his kindergarten teacher.
A dad walks in on his daughter as she kisses her girlfriend. He beats his daughter and kicks her out of the house.
Two of my students reveal that they were crack babies.
Another, with an addicted mother, goes home every day and takes care of her autistic brother.
An innocent teen is cuffed and interrogated by the LAPD because he looks like a gang-banger though he is not one and has never been in trouble.
A 17-year-old girl buries her boyfriend who is shot in the back after leaving an art class at a local recreation center.
A brother gives mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to his 16-year-old brother who overdosed and died.
What I love about my students' writing is its honesty. What I admire about most of my students is that despite the hurt they've felt, the fear that follows them, they keep showing up. They work hard in class. They know they're behind, but they continue to push, to struggle on. Most of my students hold after school and weekend jobs. They help pay the rent. They hang in. They write. They re-write. They listen. They do whatever is necessary to earn their credits, so that they will graduate and make themselves and their parents proud.
I keep hearing the politicians and the pundits talk about the problems in public education. About Race to the Top. If we only could fire the lousy teachers. If we could only institute merit pay. If we could only establish more charter schools. Or give vouchers. Or break the teacher unions. That would solve it all.
And when I read these columns and hear their speeches, these people who have all the answers, I wonder what world they live in.
They certainly don't live in mine.