This summer, I have made an informal project of trying to track down as many of my first class of South Bronx students as possible. My 5th graders in the 2002-2003 school year should have graduated from high school in June, and I was curious to see how many of them had in fact done so. Plus, I simply wanted to see how they were doing.
The exercise has been a bit dispiriting but not entirely surprising. Too many of the girls in my first class are already mothers. One has two children and a “husband” (it’s unclear if there’s a legal marriage in place) at Riker’s Island. I’ve heard lots of talk of getting GEDs, not always attached to concrete plans for doing so. On the plus side, I’ve so far found three students – two boys and a girl – who were accepted into four-year colleges. In a small world coincidence one of the young men was accepted to SUNY Oswego, where I began my college career in 1980; the other to Pace University, where I taught grad school as an adjunct for a few years. The girl, I’ll confess, is a special case and one of my favorites. As a struggling first year teacher, this was the kid I could always count on. She was cheerful, eager to learn. I still have the pictures of my family she drew and presented to me when she was in my class. One of the nicest kids I ever had the pleasure to know, let alone teach, I was over the moon to learn this young lady had been accepted to Boston University.
An unexpected turn of events this week has left me even more depressed about the college-bound kids than the ones who dropped out. Both of my students who were going away to college decided at the last minute not to go. The Oswego-bound young man opted to stay home and enroll at a CUNY college. The young lady, however, is no longer headed for BU. She has no firm plans for September but is “thinking about going to Hostos,” a South Bronx community college.
In both cases, these two kids cited the same reason not for going away to school and in nearly identical words. There is “too much going on at home right now.” Both said they have sick relatives. The young lady said her mother was not well and that she was needed at home.
To those of us who grew up simply assuming we would go away to college and eagerly anticipating doing so–or as parents, looking forward to sending our children off to school–this failure to launch is perplexing and frustrating. Where are the parents? Why aren’t they insisting these children go?
A vexing mystery, but I’ve seen this enough to perceive it as a pattern and a problem. I worked for a time with an organization in New York City that identifies talented minority children, preparing and placing them in elite private schools. It’s a wildly successful program and harder to get into than Harvard, with dozens of applicants for each precious slot. When the organization launched a similar program for elite boarding schools some years ago, it was a much tougher sell. Boarding school was beyond the experience and comfort level of too many kids and families. Overcoming the resistance to separation is challenging–even if it means a life-changing educational opportunity.
I pressed my now non-BU student to rethink her decision. I explained the personal and economic upside to going away to school. For her sake and for her family, I all but begged her to reconsider. She made it clear she would not and didn’t want to discuss it any further. Finally, after promising not to try to persuade her, I asked her simply to help me understand her decision not to leave the Bronx. Why, I had to know, do I keep seeing the same thing over and over? She emailed me last night.
“Different kids base their decision on different situations, not all South Bronx kids want to stay here. I know A LOT of kids who would love to get out of this state and go to a college away from here and their families but I just can’t. I don’t feel right and I don’t feel ready. I don’t want to leave my parents and be on my own and my mom is the MOST important person in the world to me and if anything were to happen to her while I’m away, it would effect me and break me down and I’d end up leaving anyways.”
This has nothing to do with curriculum or teaching. This is not a story of how schools and teachers failed a student. If anything, it’s a story where against all odds everything goes right, but the outcome is still less than ideal, and far from satisfying. I want to find a lesson here, to make this make sense. So many of her classmates have already failed. So many have already repeated the mistakes of their parents—quitting school, becoming teen parents. Lives going nowhere fast. But here’s a terrific, sweet kid who grows up right, with a good family in a tough neighborhood. She has the brass ring not just in her sight but in her hand and decides, “I just can’t.”
“I don’t feel right,” she said. “I don’t feel ready.”
And I don’t have an answer.