I knew a little girl once who came from poverty and that odds predicted little chance of her ever escaping it, much less becoming a professional, middle-class teacher that would lead professional organizations and travel the world representing her country in the field of education.
The odds were exactly 7%.
That is how many students, then and now, are able to graduate from high school in East L.A., make it to college, graduate from college, and get a professional job that might land them in the middle class.
The little girls from poverty was me.
“Poverty is not destiny!” keep shouting these education reformers, many who tend to come from predominantly affluent and Caucasian backgrounds from the likes of Teach for America. I look around and wonder, “Are they talking to me? Seriously?”
I don’t recall them being around while poverty was kicking my ass, growing up in a community lacking in resources, safety, and investments. I don’t recall them shouting “stop!” when school budgets kept getting slashed and slashed and slashed. I don’t recall them giving me grants or scholarships when I worked three jobs to finish paying my way through college at UCLA (Remember that other recession in the 90’s? Yeah, it almost did me in.)
Graduating from college came from sheer will and determination, while battling all the problems that my middle class friends could not understand, only sympathize with. I remember my college roommate in sophomore year who is now a doctor who felt so sorry for me for leaving the dorms at 7:00 a.m. not to return until midnight on the days all three of my jobs were scheduled. “It’s okay,” I would say. “It’s got to get done.”
|The author, empowering students since 1995|
Fast forward to becoming a teacher in South Central L.A. And lo and behold: thousands of little boys and girls, just like me. I could only pray that I could instill the same inspiration in them that my teachers did in me throughout my K-12 schooling.
But suffering excuses and cries of poverty was not bound to happen in my classroom. Yes, you got the luck of a bad draw. Yes, your father left your family and your mom has to struggle alone. Yes, you sleep on the floor of the living room with your other siblings. Yes, your mom is strung out on drugs and you haven’t seen her in years. But no, I will not accept your lack of work and your lack of effort. We will get your mind right because you must succeed in spite of your circumstances. You have to.
My students have rarely seen me shed a tear, because how is that going to help build their resolve? They need confidence, not pity. They need a cheerleader, not a sympathizer. But while driving home or sitting at the bar with other teachers, those tears flowed. The sheer unfairness of the lives these children were born to made me want to commit acts of violence. We vented. We raged. And then we composed ourselves and planned. Planned lessons that we called “weapons of mass instruction” and told these kids that no one could ever take away their intelligence, and it behooved them to pay attention in class. The kids knew we cared, the parents supported every minute of it. And they still do.
But as my teaching career developed, my eyes started to really see the truth around me. That being in poverty is a condition that is perpetuated by a multitude of policies. That it could be mitigated by infusing schools with enough money and best practices, like those practiced at the Chicago Lab School and at the Sidwell Friends School. Maybe if we had a lower teacher to student ratio, teachers wouldn’t have as large of a burden as we have now. Maybe if my high poverty school had more teachers, counselors, and social workers we could get the students the real help they need to overcome poverty. It’s too late for my family that suffered many a microwave dinner when Mommy got home at 8:00 pm from parent meetings where I was trying to empower parents in the school system. But maybe future teachers could fulfill their passion of helping students and still keep a healthy family structure at home.
How dare you tell me poverty is not destiny while stripping schools of the weapons necessary to combat it?
My eyes now see that what’s good enough for rich children is deemed unnecessary for poor ones. My eyes now see that there are less spaces in college than when I went, less money to pay for it, and less chance of admission. My eyes now see that education reform policies are stripping kids of the ability to be critical thinkers to see for themselves when they are being robbed and cheated of a well-rounded education and a productive future.
And I now wonder if my weapons of mass instruction will be enough to give my students at least the 7% chance that I myself had.
So I say this to the education reformers who cry “poverty is not destiny”: why don’t you give away your excess prosperity to my school? I know of a student who needs intensive counseling. One who needs to get out a of a homeless shelter. And one who needs a dentist and a bed.
You can write a check C/O
Los Angeles Academy Middle School
644 E. 56th St.
Los Angeles, CA 90011
-Martha Infanteaka AvalonSensei