She should be worried about finals. They are coming next week. She should have been thinking about her boyfriend, whether they can make plans to spend time together this weekend. She should have been thinking about cars. At only 16, she’s about to get her learner’s permit.
Instead, she’s worried about how she was going to live through tomorrow.
The situation started with a combination of he-said, she-said rumor-mongering. Add to the mix a dose of mistaken identity; top off with a dash of inner-city gang affiliation. It soon evolves into a deadly concoction.
The most bizarre part of the tale was how my student does not even know the 19-year-old Crip who plans to get onto our campus tomorrow to kill her. “How could I have said the things she thinks I said about her?” she asks in despair. “I don’t even know her!”
My white, suburban-raised self wants to go immediately to our administration and the police. For my student, however, it’s been only a few weeks since a fellow student was gunned down by our local law enforcement in circumstances that the community is still trying to understand and deal with. The other student, the one who was killed–he was one of mine also.
The 16-year-old girl I‘m talking with, the one in fear for her life, doesn’t share my faith in the police. “What can they do?” she asks. “If this b!+@* wants to get me, she will!”
Bottom line: We’re all going to do the best we can to get through today. My administration, our school security, and the police all know about the situation. We have all got our eyes peeled for unusual visitors to campus. The girl is working with the cousin of the Crip to try to sort out the misunderstanding before it turns tragic.
“This is my life!” she tells me. “You don’t get it, Mr. Orphal. In my neighborhood, we have to deal with $h!t like this every day!”
She’s right, of course. I don’t get it.
I guess this is just one more reason why it drives me so crazy when I hear self-styled education reformers tell me, “Poverty isn’t an excuse.”
They’re also right, of course.
Poverty isn’t an excuse. I’m going to watch hundreds of students graduate from high school next week, despite the poverty their families live with. Scores of those graduates have their college acceptance letters. Many of them are about to become the first in their families to go to college.
The fact that most of my students live in poor and violent neighbors does not excuse me from doing my very best to help educate them today. The fact that they live in poor and violent neighborhoods does not excuse my students from doing their very best to get the education they need to try for a better future than their parents had. The fact that they live in poor and violent neighborhoods does not excuse parents from doing their utmost to support their children’s education and dreams.
However, let me share with you a little secret. This is something that my students, their parents, and I desperately want those self-styled reformers to know:
We don’t think poverty is an excuse, either.
Instead, we see the violence and poverty in our neighborhoods as a problem we need help to solve. We see it as a barrier for our children that we need help with, if we, in turn, are going to help our children over that barrier.
We also need a little compassion and empathy. My student is in fear for her life. She is not going to be able to focus on her mathematics or language arts today.
We would be crazy to expect her to.