Critical Lessons & Educational Change

A Letter to Middle School Students

Reba Y. Hodge

May, 2012

An Open Letter to the Students at          Middle School

How will I address you? How should I address you? You are so much more than simply young men and women. Your identity extends beyond student. You are a gift and a promise to the world. There is a resiliency in each of you that keep you persevering despite the circumstances that surround you. I wanted to pen this letter to you because I’ve enjoyed being around you. I’ve enjoyed the conversations we have had and the experiences we have shared. I have enjoyed seeing me in and through you.

There are times that I watch you, just simply watch you and I learn so much from this simple act of observation about what it means to educate and school students of color, students that look just like me. I see the desire to learn and engage, but I also see reluctance. There is a weariness behind your gazes and I know it derives from being let down too often, dismissed too regularly, and yelled at too readily. But this does not have to be the totality of your experience in this educational system. In fact, I would urge you to make sure that it is not!

I want success to be the only option for you just as it is for thousands of children attending suburban schools. Suburban schools with electronic speed signs signaling to drivers, slow down, there is precious cargo nearby. There are no electronic signs gauging the speed of the drivers through your school zone, yet you too are precious! You too have worth and your presence as well is valued!

 You are each and every one of you, beautiful and talented. Your hopes and dreams are what keep me both passionate and eager to systematically transform an unjust, uncaring, and viciously cyclical educational system that eats you up, spits you out or serves as your mode of transport along the school-prison pipeline. You are not children to be saved by SUPERMAN, but young advocates capable of voicing your own concerns regarding disparities in educational opportunities, innovative curriculum, and qualified teachers. The voice is within all of you, waiting for the moment to be echoed from hallway to hallway.

 Am I placing the responsibility of educating yourselves solely on your shoulders? No! However, I am asking you to make it impossible for any teacher not to take the task of educating you seriously or placing your education as their primary concern when they step into your school building. You have a right to an education that prepares you to contribute equitably to this world. An education that teaches you how to examine, reflect on, and address dysfunction that is often present in your schools. Dysfunction that is maintained by ineffective teaching practices, lack of demonstrable understanding about your cultures and norms and an inability and resistance towards self-reflection on “positionality”. Do not be afraid to ask the tough questions of the adults around you. That is what adults are there for. Do not let your teachers off the hook by shrinking away from the greatness that is within you. Declare to your teachers, recommendations over referrals are what you wish for most. Shift their conversations about you from sagging pants to soaring scores, and demonstrate to them that sagging pants do not absolve them of their responsibility to facilitate your learning and development. Show them that it is simply of no benefit for any of you, for them to come unprepared and unmotivated to provide you with what is granted to you by law, the right to a quality education!

I want you empowered! I do not desire to see you passively lounging as the world around you becomes more critical of your ability to contribute to society in a meaningful way. I want you all to be conscious of the reality that you hold power and are in turn empowered through this conviction. An empowered student develops an understanding of the economic, political, and social realities that affect their lives. They are qualified and prepared to locate their current position in the larger context of oppression and injustice, and set hope into action that will change their lives. This is what I hope for you! I want you engaged and able to construct and participate in the discourse on issues that would indeed transform your lives. You are not passive recipients of reform developed by others but young people who can put forth their own agency. You know what you need! You know what you want! Why is being empowered vastly important? It is crucial because no one listens to the powerless. Powerless groups lack the authority and status that command the respect of others. No one hears the powerless or, in some cases when they are granted permission to speak, they are rarely understood by others. Misunderstandings by adults in your life  at this point in your life can no longer be an option!

I acknowledge that you are up against a system that regularly shortchanges you as resources for schools are inequitably distributed furthering the negative affect of poverty in your communities and consequently continued marginalization of poor and minority groups, but you have to grab this injustice with a vigorous and unyielding grip and say, “No More!” No more will we allow you to treat us as other! No more will we allow you to continue to place unqualified adults as well as those incapable of displaying empathy (not pity) in front of us and have us call them teacher! No more will it be acceptable to limit our educational opportunities and access to quality education for the sake of keeping us from truly reaching the pinnacle of what we have yet to become. No More! And when you shout this with a voice of divine purpose and self-assuredness, you will be all that I envision for you.

Yours truly,

Reba Y. Hodge

Author’s Statement

This letter was written for various reasons to students attending a middle school in an urban city school district. It was written in view of the fact that schools in predominantly low-income and minority rich environments are consistently and continuously failing to school the children in these neighborhoods, consequently contributing to the furthering of diminishing opportunities for success.  It was written because I was disheartened to witness 13 year olds pregnant with the realization of what this could mean for not only their futures but that of their children as well. It was written because the sight of black boys, hoodies up and disengaged in school filled me with fear for what might become. It was written because I seek to encourage and motivate these children and young adults to become empowered and take their futures into their own hands.  The letter was written because the time spent around these students reified the reality of resegregation and the consequences of unequal schools. This letter was also written because I was reminded that I am only where I am because of a support system of family and caring educators whom would not let me fail. This letter was written as my way of becoming that support system for students that look like me and who experience the same hardships I did as a young adult. This letter was written because it simply and for no other reason needed to be shared.