The stats are grim. If you are Black and a high school dropout, at the age of 21 you have a less than 25% chance of being a full-time employee. Let’s say you graduate from high school but decide not to go to college. Well, the chance of full-time employment only rises a small bit, to 46%. Now here is the scary part. 25% of high school graduates not in college had no job at all (Darling-Hammond, 2010). Did anyone tell you this yet? As you went from school to school, interacted with different teachers and school staff, did anyone tell you these overwhelming facts? As the mayor of the city spoke to your school that one time, did she reference these numbers? Maybe. Maybe they told you that if you don’t get your act together in school, you were going to be a nobody. Maybe they spewed out hatefully that the next time you interrupted class, even though your ‘interruption’ was an attempt to ask a question about the content being taught, you would be sent to the principal’s office, in-school suspension, the ‘time-out’ room, anywhere but right there in the classroom, anywhere so that there would have to be no interaction. And if it negatively affected how you performed in school, and if it drove you further from enjoying school to beginning to build a resentment, if it set in motion a bubbling frustration, if you became invisible…well, tough luck. So maybe they shared those stats. Maybe they followed it with affirmation that this is where you were headed – just another Black man taking money from the government, sitting around waiting to get into trouble. Yeah, maybe they shared these stats matter of factly, condemning you to its death grip, watching as you internalized the negativity, the hopelessness, waiting impatiently to become a statistic.
So I apologize. I am sorry that no one cared enough to work at ensuring you would not be a statistic instead of doing their part within an educational system that confirmed their pre-conceived notions and perceptions and clearly marked the path they believed was your only option. I am sorry you have gone through a system that is supposed to educate you, empower you, prepare you for success in life yet marked you as less than, incapable, a drop-out as soon as you walked through the kindergarten doors. I am sorry I wasn’t there earlier in your educational experiences, way before you turned 19 and still are well short of having the appropriate Regents for the appropriate HS diploma; way before you were told to go to the ‘3-5’ program after school in place of your regular school day and when you attended just sitting there, waiting for promised school work that never came, looking at an adult in the front of the room as he, she, checked Facebook, played Angry Birds, graded papers, and occasionally looked at the clock on the wall, the time flashing on their cell phone, anywhere and everywhere, yet not at you; way before you stopped going, stayed home, confused, not sure who to speak to, what to do; way before no one called to see where you were, how you were doing, offer you advice, figure it all with you; way before you went to one place to begin taking your GED course work, saw a couple of gang members that were looking for one of your friends but didn’t mind venting by targeting you, so you left, signing up to take GED courses further away, but the distance causing you to only go occasionally; way before you sat there, once again, confused, not sure what to do, contemplating your future but not even sure how to do that. I am so sorry I was not there to affirm who you are, instill self-confidence, assist you in targeting your academic interests and helping you succeed academically, advocate for you every step of the way, protect you from the messages of hopelessness being hurled at you from school, society. I am so sorry that public education failed you, judged you, spit you out broken, turned its back on you. I am so sorry that it is not only you, that this was done to your neighbor, your friends, and many others that look like you, live in the same type of neighborhood as you. I am truly, and deeply sorry, that I could not do more.
Yet I promise that I will work for you now, navigate the GED process with you, contact community colleges and ensure that you are given an opportunity. I promise to stick by your side as you become the first in your family to attend college, as you work hard to complete community college and head forth to a 4-year college. I promise to have high expectations, counsel you through those difficult transitions, and help you develop a picture of your future, filling in the empty space that has been there for too long. And throughout, I will continue to provide you with any knowledge I gained from my own experiences as a poor, urban, student of color and that I continue to gain in my studies today, help you name the insufficiencies and inequalities you experienced during your interaction with urban public schooling, help you articulate your frustrations, and hopefully, one day, you can go back, stare down those demons, and engage future urban public school students of color in righteous, empowering, rewarding, fair, just, equal experiences with schools end education.
Sincerely, and there for you,
This letter is written to my mentee’s closest friend, a student my wife and I work with as he tries to navigate the GED process in attempts to get into college. Some of what is included here comes from conversations we have about his experiences with urban public schools and the frustrations that he has. Taking this class, and navigating this confusing path towards college entry with Quel, I have had many conversations with him where I share much of what I learned and ask him (and my mentee) what they think. It is amazing to see how animated they get as they begin to connect the material to some of their experiences and the realization that comes in knowing that they were not off to think that many of their experiences were indeed not fair, not right, not just. It is also amazing to see their motivation in doing whatever it takes to, as they say to me, ‘do something about it’ and teach the younger kids that they don’t have to sit there and accept unequal education as the only way. I chose to focus on the stats mentioned in the beginning of the letter because when shared with my mentee, he stated that he felt his teachers always made it clear that he would be a part of that group that would not go to college and not have a job and how he felt it was important to prove them wrong by going to college and not being another negative statistic. So with that in mind, I thought it important to write to my mentee’s closest friend, and I felt it important to apologize for what he received as an ‘education’ and make it clear that I wanted to be a positive part of his journey going forth.
Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). The flat world of education: How America’s commitment to equity will determine our future. NY, NY: Teachers College Press.