Collecting Apples and Polishing Chestnuts: If Only...

03/20/2017 03:44 pm ET

Imagine for a moment growing up in a location where there are abundant apple trees and chestnut trees. They offer invaluable lessons for children and adults as described momentarily but sadly, many kids are not so fortunate as to have that exposure. They grow up apple-less and chestnut-less. Here’s why this absence worries me.

I appreciate the well-publicized concerns about the importance of a post-secondary education in today’s economy. The data are undeniable: a college education is needed to insure employment, to maximize wages and to further our nation’s economic development. Indeed, the college degree or post-secondary certificate currently is what the high school degree was decades ago: a necessity.

But, I think we make a mistake when we focus so much attention on college degree attainment – as if achieving that goal for all who want it (or who don’t realize they need it) is simply a matter of will and desire. We assume that if we point out the value of a degree and open pathways to college (including fiscally), that is enough to get more and more individuals to pursue and succeed in post-secondary education.

Would that it were that easy. It isn’t. That’s because of the absence of apples and chestnuts, so to speak – symbolic representations of a happy childhood.

Today, too large a number of kids and adults have grown up in poverty. Some are homeless. Some are hungry. Some have attended sub-optimal schools, where the guidance counselor/student ratio in high school is over 400 to 1. Way too many have high scores on the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) score, evidence of having experienced abuse or toxic stress or other negative childhood encounters. Mental health needs often go unattended in today’s world too. For our nation’s veterans, many of whom entered the military with “only” a high school diploma, college access and progress is not a given and even those eager to obtain a degree, struggle with the transition from military life to civilian life. For many adults who could benefit from added education or re-training, school brings back bad memories and a host of anxieties.

I recently read my children’s book, Lady Lucy’s Quest, to students at an elementary school in Anacostia, D.C. I could not help but notice that in each of the six classes where I was, a child was sleeping. Really. Wee boys and girls who did not get enough sleep the night before had their heads on their desks or on the shoulders of a teacher or teacher’s aide. It was way safer to sleep in school: it is not noisy, there is no violence, there is no chaos, there is no tension, there is no fear. Hard to learn, though, when one is fast asleep. As the Maslow hierarchy teaches us again and again, no amount of learning can occur if very basic needs are not met.

Would that America’s children could grow up near to apple trees, so they could pick apples in the fall season. Then, they can help cook the apples into pies or even toss the apples against a wall to see them go squish or play toss with them or throw them into a bucket or even throw them at friends in a friendly fight. Would that America’s children could grow up near chestnut trees from which they can collect those magnificent nuts that one can polish on one’s shirt --- mahogany colored gems. Then, they could smell the roasting of chestnuts and they could collect them and trade them and even just admire them. And, they would see the joy in lifting a chestnut out of its spiny, sharp casing – just waiting for a child’s hands to discover it. And, the apples and chestnuts teach life lessons about nature, engagement, civility, beauty, friendship, collaboration, safety, fighting without weapons and physical damage.

But, this is not the experience of America’s youth. Apples and chestnuts are reserved largely for kids in high SES categories for whom youth is oft-times (not always though) filled with pleasure. If we want to close the equity and achievement gap between high and low SES kids and if we want to enable both college access and success, we need the equivalent of more apple and chestnut trees and the fruit and nuts they bear. We need to find ways to help all our kids (to use Robert Putnam’s phrase and the title of his newest book) have better childhoods and to garner the many missed lessons that many higher SES kids experience daily.

There aren’t enough apple trees or chestnuts trees to plant in the near term to make this happen. But we can create equivalent experiences. I have recently given several speeches about “backing up the train” – the education train. We need to focus on early childhood education. We need to find ways for kids to eat and sleep and learn and grow and flourish early.

Yes, college preparation matters. For me, that preparation actually begins in infancy, if not before.

Note: A childhood filled with apples and chestnuts was inspired by MW’s stories about his childhood; these stories always inspire and make me wish all children (me included) had early growing up years they remember with fondness not anxiety.

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