Angels and Warriors

Since mentioning Angel, my almost was student at CCRI, I’ve gotten some interesting and poignant comments.  I guess we’ve all encountered our share of heartbreakers.  I ‘m not sure why I even chose to mention her, other than her having a resonant name and being waif-like enough for a Charles Dickens novel.  Then of course there were the waterworks, but  I’ve seen football players who could pick me up by the ankles and shake the change out of my pockets blubber even harder than Angel.  Young men and women with gang ink on their skin who disappeared before they had a chance to fail their first assignment.

What was riding on the education the Angels never got?  What doors never opened, and what dismal habits of calculated failure were too strong to overcome?  At least that time?  Or how do you resist wondering how someone who survived human atrocities of mythic proportions can walk into your classroom and say English is hard?  How much pathological rage has even shed the blood of students of all ages, spectacularly or otherwise, on public school and university campuses?  So when people pass off academia for existing in a protected ivory tower, I tend to get real suspicious.

There was no reason Angel or any of the others had to fail, other than they expected to.  It was neither in the cards nor inevitable.  Most often, it’s as simple as asking “Can I?” or “Could you?”  But those are expectations few people get past sitting in the kind of room designed to make you feel small.  Some of the ugliest rooms I’ve ever been in were classrooms.  It seems we go out of our way to build ugly schools and then cram them full of more students than we can properly tend to.  President after president calls himself “The Education President” and we gas on about the value of education, yet somehow we never seem to have any fresh ideas when it comes to creating schools that function as much more than warehouses.

One of the most interesting responses to Angel came in an email from one of the true angels of my life, my niece, Elena Barrett, who shared her impressions and experience with a few of her own Angels of failure.  Elena has just moved to Finland with her brand, spanking new husband, Rami, and is mired in the shallow end of the ocean of the language he speaks naturally.  I’ve asked Elena to write about her learning curve for this blog when she has the time, although she’s already begun to express some of her impressions here: http://alreadyelena.blogspot.com/

One thing in particular struck me — the thing about the young girl named Angel. Your description of her, her bravado, and her subsequent disappearance really reminded me of many of the middle school girls I used to teach at STRIVE, a New Britain after school program I worked for. They’re mired in a culture of failure, one which regards aggression and feigned confidence to be fundamental precepts. The tragic thing, though, is that it’s through no fault, inability, or flaw inherent in them as individuals, or even in the culture itself; it’s a result of economic and educational disadvantage. It was probably the saddest thing I’ve ever experienced — to see these bright and totally capable young women say they wanted to be lawyers and doctors, only to fall short of basic literacy. Of course, they’d fight with us bitterly when we’d try to help them learn, or encourage them to read more, or to write more, etc. They were deeply afraid of failure, and embarrassed of their skill levels. Plus, their role models had said and done the exact same things, probably with even less pitiful help of the kind we provided in the program.

Even still, I loved that job for the most part. There were a couple of occasions on which I came home to down an entire bottle of wine, like the time I had to call DCF on a girl with a suicidal mother, but it was the best thing I’ve ever done, save what I’m doing now, I guess. I’d had enough after three years due to the program being incredibly understaffed (a few of us got hurt while trying to break up fights and the like) and to some of my own medical issues. I miss those girls all the time.

Aggression and failure.  Which one’s heads and which one’s tails?  Education is supposed to make us think of wise teachers and curious students.  It’s supposed to be Plato sorting out the mess of existence in endless conversations with Aristotle.  Between then and now, there and here, sometimes it feels like education is a war of attitude and suspicion.  When I think of the real warriors, like Elena, or Tyla McCaffrey of Amos House, Donna Chambers of the National External Diploma Program or Nancy Fritz of The East Bay Family Literacy Center, I just want to retreat back to my kitchen table where a small group of patiently determined Cambodians teach me a little more every week about walking on the ground.

It’s only right to mention the above warriors for their inspiration, and because they’ve all helped this group of students in more ways than they understand.  Jumping to what’s happening now, it’s a pleasure to be able to say Sophi and Raksmey, two of the real stalwart Saturday kitchen warriors, have just finished the work required to earn their high school diplomas in the NEDP.  The previous four months has been a new experience in commitment and determination.  Back in April, Raksmey said she wanted to be able to finish the program before her baby was born, and last night, she sent a message from her bed in the hospital to say her 6 pound 10 ounce daughter had been born.

Raksmey once joked that if she could finish her work in the program in time, her baby would be born with a high school diploma.  And now, apparently, she has.

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