I've been thinking lately about two students: both are bright and capable. Both come from disadvantaged backgrounds. One, Student A, spent four years of his life in an impoverished country far away, under dire conditions--we're talking not-even-money-for-shoes, conditions. The other, Student B, grew up "on the streets" as they say, in dire conditions of another sort. Both ended up, improbably you could say, in college. Student A, like Student B, was an underachiever all through school. He got into trouble, didn't care about his studies because, as he says now, he couldn't see the value of an education--couldn't see into the future to conceptualize the long-term investment that college is meant to be, so he let it all go--got into trouble with the law, kept his mother up at night scared and worried, let his grades slip further and further down until he almost hit rock bottom. In college, though, something happened to him. Some spark was ignited his freshman year and he realized that doing well in school actually felt good. He could do this! He studied hard, pulled himself together, and became an honors student with a 3.8 GPA and places to go. He has an 18-month old daughter and he desperately wants to be a role model for her because, he realizes, bringing a child into the world is a responsibility like none other.
Student B though hasn't been so successful. Every semester since I've known him (three now) he's barely made it through. He has poor classroom skills, and makes bad choices constantly even though all the while he sees the future he's letting slip between his fingers. He can't seem to change the course he's on. Why? I think about all those clichéd buzzwords: Is it lack of self-esteem? Lack of a support network at home? Or of strong male role models in his life? I watch him self-destruct all semester long. At the 11th hour always he rallies, and somehow pulls through, deathly afraid that this will be it: the semester he'll fail out, and end back on the streets, another lost young black man, another life snuffed out, and along with it his mother's dreams and hopes. But this semester was different--there was no 11th hour rally from him. He missed his final exam and came running to me one afternoon, when he saw me crossing campus. He held out his hands to show me knuckles split and bruised. He'd been kicked out of school, for fighting.
“I can’t go home,” he told me. “I can’t tell my mom.”
I watched him cross campus, into an even more uncertain future.
I felt sad and frustrated for him, and even a little disappointed in him, but my heart broke for his mother.
I think a lot about what divides Student A and Student B. My children are growing up so privileged, not just because of the material things they have access to, but because of those intangibles (parents who love each other, and try and model good communication and mutual respect, ready and open arms at all times, a strong extended family network, and the luxury of lots of family time) that can make such a difference in a young child’s life. I don’t know how you can ever ensure any child’s success in the world—not through money, or the best education in the world, or the strongest love, or the biggest house, and the most expensive shoes, and the best gadgets.
There’s a box on one of the first pages of the transition-to-middle-school IEP form that I also can't stop thinking about. It reads “Parent(s) Visions for Student’s Future.”I stared at this box, projected onto the screen in front of us, and at the blinking cursor at the top. L.'s IEP team waited politely for us to come up with the narrative for this box but I froze. How on earth is any parent supposed to provide such a summary? How on earth can an entire vision be reduced to a single box on a form? Shared in a room full of people who, while well-meaning, couldn’t possibly have the same vision? And, what is that box for, anyway, practically speaking? Who will be truly be around in one, or five, or ten, or even twenty years to help that vision come to life? I do know that no mother out there could ever limit the sum of all their hopes and dreams to that one box; I know, too, that no matter how beautifully articulate and love-filled and born-from-the-heart you make that vision just having it is never, ever any guarantee of what will truly come to pass.