“They’ve been told a bunch of lies all their lives; that they’re dumb and black and poor, or dumb because they’re black and poor, and now they don’t think they can do anything.”

I have spent a very fulfilling, yet very disturbing few days helping young people from our small town deal with post-secondary preparations.

The fulfilling part was the kids’ eagerness to know what their options were and how to pursue them. We filled out college applications, FAFSA (Federal Financial Aid) forms, dorm applications, explored career options, did a campus tour, and practiced for the ACT.

The disturbing part was that these were mostly high school seniors and recent graduates. School has been out for the summer here since mid-May. What we did with them at our church should have started their junior year. Most of them didn’t even know what they needed to do or where to begin.

I was glad to be able to help them along their journeys, but I was more than a little disgruntled wondering how they had come to be in these varying stages of un-readiness. I know most of their families, and realize that they are first-generation college students (some are first generation high school graduates), so their parents/guardians may not even know what to ask or expect. But I had a hard time understanding how their senior teachers and counselors let this many kids slip through the cracks unprepared for next steps. One sad truth probably is that because these students were not in the top 10% of their class, they were pretty much overlooked or dismissed as “not going to do much anyway.”

However, I know first-hand that in our local schools, as in most schools that are labeled as failing, there are those teachers and staff who did try to help these students; who did make information available and offer to help.  So, I pressed the kids for answers. Some of them admitted that they had avoided questions about college or what they were going to do after high school because they didn’t believe they were going to make it through until the very end. Some of the boys (hate to say it) thought the coach was going to take care of everything for them, or that some college coach, impressed with their talent would. One boy was adamant that he wanted to play college basketball, but had never heard of NCAA eligibility requirements, and didn’t realize that grades and ACT scores were part of getting on the team.

Others said they knew they needed to go to college, but they didn’t know what that meant. College was a place they had heard about from teachers, mostly as a threat: “If you go to college, you better know how to do this or you won’t make it!” College was a place other kids went, smart kids.

My pastor/husband summed it up this way: “They’ve been told a bunch of lies all their lives; that they’re dumb and black and poor, or dumb because they’re black and poor, and now they don’t think they can do anything.”

If it were just the relatively few students our church program worked with, that would be sad enough. But as a teacher of community college freshmen, I know this problem is more widespread. What’s most frustrating is that this problem, unlike many others we face in the rural Delta, is fixable. This requires caring, knowledgeable adults speaking life and truth into young lives.  Adults—teachers, administrators, and community members–taking the time to ask, answer, and help young people make the right choices and point the way.

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