Going the Distance
A few things happened this week that reminded me of some of the reasons why I may call what I do–attempting to close the achievement gap by interrupting the pipeline to college at multiple access points–my passion.
1) Muhammed Ali was taken to the hospital for pneumonia. Of all the great quotables that he has provided the world, one of my favorites is “I hated every minute of training, but I said, don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.” He also said “I can’t get mad at what boxing did to me because all that it did for me.”
2) Two NYPD officers were shot, point blank in the head, while sitting in their police cruisers. And a good number of people, folks that we look to as authority figures, blamed protestors and supporters of #blacklivesmatter campaign for it. The shooter was a mentally-ill Black man: no mention of what sort of treatment he may have received for his illness; nothing about how he was able to attain a gun; no mention of whether he was even a part of the organized protests. He is Black, so there you go.
3) Azealia Banks broke my heart on Hot 97 when she talked about Iggy Azalea and cultural appropriation especially in light of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and Iggy Azalea’s response. I applauded when I read Q-Tip’s response. Where I get confused is in the Robin Thicke/Miley Cyrus/Iggy Azalea/Kim Kardashian world where cultural appropriation is just sort of okay, why Azalea would also think it okay to chime in on the greatest movements for Black people since the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of the 1960s? As Q-Tip said, we are okay to some degree if you are a white hip hop artist, but know what you are doing, know that you are doing more than rhyming over a beat, know that you are participating in a political movement.
4) Obama basically said our strategy with Cuba is hella wack, let’s do something else. I heard some Florida Cubans comment (as a Nicaraguan with most of my family in Florida that statement alone might cause some issues with fam), but one of the more interesting moments was in “Meet the Press” this week when Chuck Todd asked Sen. Marco Rubio essentially what has the current strategy done, and Sen. Rubio said something along the lines of making them a democratic country and Todd’s response was similar to mine–when did that happen, player?
So how in the world did I come combine all of these events into a cohesive thought other than to say stay up on current events?
I try to intentionally work with families who would not typically attend college. It’s a bit daunting because as human nature dictates, when we don’t do something, or don’t know something, we are quick to either blame someone else and deflect. So I hear a lot of excuses about college being for someone else or who actually needs that anyway. I believe there are a few givens that may seem obvious but are worth explaining here:
1) Education is a long term commitment that can be painful but has major outcomes for everyone around you and everyone descending from you. I was shocked to encounter this statement from a client: We can’t submit her college applications this week because she has a big Physics test. When I countered with all the data I could muster about how the odds are dramatically higher the earlier one submits applications, I was told they wouldn’t be interested in “that type of school.” While that stuck with me, I was more struck by the idea that one exam could outweigh the decision that impacts a family for generations. Literally, generations. I didn’t know what to do with the decision that would lead to one’s family being “alright” rather than having some guarantees at being more than okay for your kids, and their kids, and so forth.
I also think about something I read in a psychology course in college. When you ask someone about the best time of their life, or the most important thing they ever did, or any superlative, pay attention to the time period they go to; that’s the era of their life where they think they did their best. When you talk to people who seem especially reminiscent about high school, it’s because they feel like high school was the best they’ve ever done. I’ve challenged people on that a few times: you have a one-year old and own a small business but that game against whatever high school back in 1992 was the most important thing you’ve done? The same families that prioritize that one test, the prom, and homecoming, are the same ones who will say let’s not worry too much about those application deadlines or what college their child attends. So the trick for me is to get them to talk about their best whatever being something they did yesterday, or last week; it’s to help them understand that it’s your long term end game.
Don’t get me wrong, I do it sometimes too. I can tell you my best mile time to the minute and date back in 1998 but totally overlook the fact that today, only five months after surgery to remove five tumors I am running about five miles per day and probably healthier than I was back in 1998. I beat myself up about my son being spoiled and forget that he speaks two languages, loves dancing, and wants to make sure he tells me he loves me before he goes to bed each night.
Your best was what you did yesterday and it took a lot to get to yesterday.
2) Violence is cyclical; in order to break that cycle, you have to change the way you arrive at conclusions. But you also have to understand that everything is related to violence. One of my advisors in graduate school published this amazing book titledAgainst War. He writes, “The year 1492 is a crucial point for understanding the constitution of the episteme and social order that I define here as a paradigm of war. By a paradigm of war I mean a way of conceiving humanity, knowledge, and social relations that privileges conflict or polemos.” He writes about how we only know war, violence, and conflict because that was how the modern world was created, under the guise of war, violence, and conflict. Of course police officers and neighborhood watch and a middle-aged man at a gas station shoot anyone they deem to be dangerous or minutely threatening–that’s all we know. We kill each other, because that’s all we know, the paradigm that brought us to this hemisphere to be enslaved.
Where that translates in education is the idea of conflict. Being asked to compete for a slot in a university or in society is wrong. Another professor in graduate school listened to my colleagues and I discuss the problems in public education for about an hour before he interjected with, “You know, public schools are public, meaning in theory, they could operate like community colleges and accept everyone who applies. Same goes for private schools. They could just hire more professors too. But they don’t because their rank depends on how many students they reject and the higher one ranks, the more they can charge tuition.” By creating conflict, there is a financial benefit at the other end.
That statement alone blew my mind and it continues to blow my mind.
When I work with families, I really try to get across that they aren’t competing with the other kid in their class or affirmative action that doesn’t exist in public schools in California anymore. They are competing against the competition that the college created. They are trying to beat the admissions office at their own game.
Understand where the conflict is originating and address that rather than the conflict they want you to believe exists.
3) Education is a political movement. In undergrad, I took a course titled “Education as a Social Institution.” I don’t remember much about the course except for debates I got into with a fellow athlete about sports and a project on education in Cuba that I did for my final. I read tons of speeches by Castro and read all that he said to that point about the importance of education on the island and that everyone has access to it. While I understand where critics might say there is a difference between theory and practice, I liked the theory and I just sort of felt like if we think education is so important in this country, why don’t we put our money where our mouth is?
In addition to that, I realized soon into my teaching career, that as students, teachers, and administrators, we are participants in that movement regardless of if we want to be or not. While I hate being the authority on all things Black at the school where I teach in a small town, I realize that for most of the students, I will be their only interaction with a Black person or Black authority figure in their youth, quite possibly ever. So I come to work pretty fitted, try to limit the public “mistakes” I make, and always smile and greet the jackasses I work with when in public even when those same folks have said some of the most despicable stuff about me. When I worked at a private school with a pretty good number of wealthy students, I realized they probably didn’t encounter many Black Cal doctoral students in their day, so again, smile, nod, and use the words with extra syllables.
But every once in a while I had to remind those young people that they were part of that movement just by going to school in this country, just as I was by standing in front of them:
“When you say ‘society’ is to blame, you understand you are part of ‘society,’ right?”
“The media is a business, meaning it has consumers. What are you consuming?”
“While I appreciate that you feel comfortable enough to say that in front of me, realize that was racist. Fix it.”
“It’s not about the discomfort you feel in talking about this topic; you have to think and talk about it because it costs people their lives when you don’t.”
The larger issue with privilege is when you don’t recognize you have it and continue to operate in the world like things are just the way you think they are supposed to be.
4) What might be broken is your approach. I meet a lot of students who will say to me the reason they failed a course is because the teacher didn’t like him or her. And then I’ll ask about the number of failed courses and say, “That’s a lot of people who dislike you. I guess you should tell me what there is to like.” Once they get over being mad at me for saying that piece, I ask them, “Seriously, what are you going to do to change the routine you’ve established?”
I once worked as an administrator in a school that was nearly 100% students of color attempting to be the first in their families to graduate from college. One student was regularly absent so I made a point of catching up with his mother one day when she came to school to take him out early again. I asked why he was leaving early that day and she said because he needed his line-up fixed and this was the only time the barber had to see him. When I said she should possibly reconsider her priorities, she asked me what the teachers were doing that day anyway. “Each day couldn’t possibly be that important,” she challenged. “I didn’t go to high school every day but I turned out fine. I mean, I didn’t go to college but I have a job.” I stared at her for a moment and then nodded, turned, and walked away. I have never been the best at confrontation but when she pulled her son out of the school a few weeks later so he could go to a high school with a football team, I realized not saying anything more was probably the best decision at the time.
I’ve never quite understood our inability as people to be self-reflective and then unable to connect that to how we make changes in our lives. I was doing a little coaching in the long jump and watched a kid practically walk to the board and then attempt to jump. “You have to run faster, or actually run. Either one,” I said. “I don’t like running. That’s why I do long jump,” she replied. “But most of the long jump is running. Fast. That doesn’t make any sense,” I countered. She shrugged and went back in line to walk down the runway, attempt to jump again, and look at me for more advice. “I can’t. You’re barely running.” Damn if she didn’t keep trying to jump hella far walking up to the board each time. Had to give it up for persistence (although it bordered on insanity). Point is,
Change your approach.