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January 25, 2013

The Message Not Heard

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Four years ago, this week, I was filled with mixed emotions. Though I didn’t vote for Barak Obama, I was proud that our nation had matured enough in its struggle to depart from its racist history and elect an African American to its highest public office. It was indeed an historical event. And though I had reservations (his campaign promises of ‘change’ were too vague on specifics to win me over), I was filled with hope – hope that he would succeed in bringing us together as a people, black, white, brown…you name it, and following in Dr. King’s footsteps, usher in a greater era of harmony between the races. And, finally, I was grateful. Grateful that, if nothing else, my students – young, impoverished African Americans – would have a positive modern-day African American role model to look to as they made their way through adolescence.

But in the intervening four years, my pride, hope and gratitude have been dashed against a cliff as big as that fiscal cliff we just drove past, on our way to national destruction. For, while en route to that terrible destination, President Obama has taken a detour and led this nation to a racial and social divide as deep as the Grand Canyon, and as far from Dr. King’s philosophy of love, strength of character, and equal freedom for all, as Pluto is from earth.

I loved teaching high school. And though I enjoyed teaching all ages (I’ve taught all grades, 1 through 12, with the exception of 7th), I especially enjoyed teaching the young adults. Watching them come into their own, seeing them struggle to find their voice in a sea of voices, and having the opportunity to assist and contribute in that struggle was both an honor and burden. An honor, because trust doesn’t come easily to kids who are among the most impoverished in our nation; a burden, because they are so destitute physically and academically, it is impossible to give them all that I wanted to give them in the short time we had together. The biggest barrier facing these kids is not a poor education system, bad teachers, or a lack of programs that ‘work’. The biggest road blocks to their success in school, and therefore in life, are a lack of discipline in the home, abysmal literacy rates, and a growing sense of entitlement.

Lack of personal responsibility and self-discipline in these children is at crisis levels. When 20 minutes of each 50 minute class is spent getting them quiet, seated where they won’t disrupt, pencil and paper in hand (they refuse to bring their own), and focused on the instructor/lesson, they’ve missed nearly half of their education for that day. Multiply that out over the course of the 10 month school year, and, voila! You have students who haven’t mastered the required skills to move on to the next level. But they do. The students aren’t held accountable for their failing grades, the teachers are. And for some reason teachers like hanging on to a job they love and a paycheck they need. Go figure. (I could go on about discipline and how teachers aren’t allowed to write all the referrals needed to kick disruptive kids out of class because it would make the campus ISS numbers look bad, but I won’t. That’s a story for another time.)

Today’s literacy rates among low income students are abysmal, not because a teacher failed to teach them to read, or failed to present grade level vocabulary, but because once the child learned to read, in elementary school, he STOPPED READING. They don’t continue to progress. Frustrated by the limited vocabulary of my high school students, year after year, I’d ask what the last book was that they read cover to cover; the collection of titles was from a 3rd-5th grade level reading list: The Boxcar Children, The Magic Tree House. You can’t teach Shakespeare to a third grader!! You can’t teach inference, metaphor, universal themes, and iambic pentameter to kids who don’t understand the words on the page. And when I’d exhort them to read, read, read, I was met with “But, Miss! We don’t want to go to college…. We don’t need to know these words…I’m gonna be a hair dresser (an auto-mechanic, an electrician)!” They don’t understand that in order to learn to think, to reason, to analyze, they must first be able to READ, to compare, to differentiate. Surrounded by big screen TV’s, cell phones, video games, computer games, and non-readers for parents, aunties and grandparents, what need or motivation have they to READ? Their heroes are movie stars, rappers and athletes, not the likes of Dr. King. For a brief moment their hard shell of protection from the need of an education was cracked when I asked, “And where are professional athletes recruited from??” HA! I’ve got them. “Uh, college.” “And how are you going to get into college with a middle school reading level?” The question was posed, not with ridicule, but with kindness and compassion. I wanted them to think. But all I got was, “Miss, that’s not fair!” and they quickly went to their fallback position. “Well, we don’t want to be like you…” There is little respect or desire for an education, today. (It’s free, so it must be worthless.) And little, to no reading going on after elementary school.

Finally, a growing sense of entitlement stands in the way of them reaching for the American dream that their own forefathers, along with Dr. King, fought so hard to give them. They have little desire to work for a better life, to walk through those doors that have been opened to them in the last 50 years. “Why, Miss?? I got all I need!” And they list the ‘safety net’ of government subsidized housing, Medicaid, food stamps, WIC, and TANIF (free breakfasts and lunches). Some, those whose guardians are on disability, even told me, “I get paid to fail [in school].” Huh??? I learned they’re right. For, as long as they have not graduated from high school, their disabled guardian continues to receive a monthly disability benefit for having an underage dependent; they can stay in school, disrupting class, until they’re 21 before the money stops coming. And year after year, I watched, as young girls got pregnant by their young class mates. Then, in both private conversations and class discussions, if ever the issue of birth control came up, they’d say, “We don’t have the money for that, Miss! It’s too expensive!” When I pointed out the expense of raising a child, they’d point again to Medicaid, food stamps, WIC and TANIF. “Oh, no Miss… we got Medicaid (food stamps, WIC, and TANIF).” Yes, they’ll be just fine! (Eventually, I became a fan of free birth control for all. It’s got to be cheaper than taxpayers raising their children.) One of the brightest young men I taught ended his high school career locked up in jail for failure to pay child support. At the age of 17, he was the father of four babies with four different teenage girls and unable to pay any of them. Their sense of entitlement and their complete lack of understanding of the term personal responsibility is losing the race for them, before they even get to the starting gate.

This week, I watched as our first African American president gave his second inaugural speech, and I was filled with the same pride I always am on inauguration day; pride that a country divided by different beliefs is once again engaging in the peaceful installation of a new government. But more than anything, I was filled with sadness. Sadness for our children and the message they did not hear from their greatest role model. Rather than continue Dr. King’s work of preaching love, strength of character and equality of opportunity for all, President Obama paid lip service to the first two and continued his efforts to re-define the latter. In crying out against his perceived “freedoms reserved for the lucky and happiness for the few”, he is in fact seeking to reform the very notion of the American dream itself. He raised a battle cry, not for freedom of equal opportunity to pursue one’s individual happiness, through strength of character and personal responsibility, lending aid to those who need it along the way, but instead sent out a call for equal happiness for all, through a life free from risk, free from want and free from hardship, by enslaving one half of our society to guarantee the basic needs of the other half of our society, at the peril of all. Would that it were fiscally possible.

In June, 1953, Dr. King gave a sermon on Atlanta radio, entitled Accepting Responsibility for Your Actions. It is a beautiful, simple, and moving message; one that I wish our nation’s children could hear, today. I urge you to take a moment and read it at the link provided below. 
Monday was a once in a generation opportunity to bring together a nation of differences, by acknowledging that, yes, a compassionate society needs safety nets and reforms for the poor and downtrodden among us, but a free society also needs strength of character, love, and personal responsibility from all, if we are to survive, as a people.

It was an opportunity missed by our first African American President.

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