What About the Children?

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. — Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

Every year, the members of the youth organization started by my husband and me have to select and organize a community service project on Dr. King’s Holiday. This year, they chose to sponsor a health fair for their peers at one of the local elementary schools with whom we partner. The health crisis here in the Delta is well-documented, and the lack of access to health care makes the acquisition of health information even more vital. It was encouraging to watch the young people salute Dr. King’s legacy by informing themselves on topics such as practicing dental hygiene and building safer communities.

While the young people took charge of the program, I had opportunity to talk with the parents, including some of my former students. One of the most profound and disturbing discussions was with a young mother I’ll call Debra. Fourteen years ago, Debra had been in my high school English class, and managed to graduate just a few days before her daughter was born. Debra’s life, which had never been easy, took a deeply tragic turn five years ago when that child was murdered.

Sitting next to me at the health program, we watched her other child, 9 year-old Donnell sit passively through what was otherwise a lively group discussion. She shared with me her concerns that he was growing increasingly frustrated with school, and more and more withdrawn. Donnell had serious learning disabilities that affected his language and reading skills. According to Debra, his Individual Education Plan (IEP) and previous tests indicated that he could handle the equivalent of first, maybe second grade work. But the newly enacted changes in special education placement and testing to meet NCLB required that he be moved to inclusion setting and tested with the fourth graders. She had tried, unsuccessfully to talk with the special education staff, even the superintendent, along with some other concerned mothers of special needs children, about giving him a more gradual transition.

“I don’t understand,” she said nearly in tears, “why they insist on giving him work and a test that they know he’s not ready for yet? He thinks he is stupid, and he’s ready to give up on school,” at nine years old.

She’s been to the school 15 times this year already. His new teacher, with an already overcrowded classroom is struggling to give Donnell the extra help he needs while not neglecting the others. Both women are frustrated and angry with the system.

A short while later, two high school seniors and one of them’s worried mother sought me out to ask if I could help tutor them before the English exit exam in March. They had both failed the test five times, and this was their last chance to obtain the right to graduate. After some discussion, I invited them to my house where I gave both girls some diagnostics and asked many questions. Neither girl could read above what we would consider 7th grade level. Their ninth grade year, the school had resorted to a full-time substitute for English because of the chronic teacher shortage in our area. This left the students poorly prepared for the state English test given at the tenth grade. Furthermore, they and their other classmates who had repeatedly failed the test, had been bluntly told by the person charged with providing them remediation that based on experience, if they hadn’t passed the test by now, they probably wouldn”t. I believe they could with coordinated and intensive interventions, but the bigger obstacle at this point is convincing them to try again. While their classmates are ordering rings and making plans for the senior trip, they are already talking about what they would have done in college.

Hope is valuable, even essential, to human life. The prolific African American poet, Langston Hughes asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?”  As Dr. King’s dream moves toward partial fulfillment on Jan. 20th, my prayer is that change will bring hope and renewed comittment to fulfill the promises we have made to our children; to give them back their dreams.