For the past few weeks, I’ve had a sort of mental dialogue with myself over and over – much like a song playing on repeat. Interestingly, this dialogue actually began as a real conversation in a hotel room in Asheville, North Carolina with my boyfriend and a few of our very dear friends. It very quickly became a heated debate which lasted until 4:00 AM. I’ll share the ridiculously abridged version (that makes everyone on my side of the debate sound awesome and super rational).
What is your solution for solving the education crisis? More money? Higher taxes?
No, it requires a much more complex answer than simply asking tax payers for more money.
Well, then what do you propose?
Students need more access to opportunities.
Bullshit! They need to take advantage of the opportunities afforded them. They already get too much. I didn’t have anyone helping me. No one paid for my college or gave me an extra shot because I’m white!
Whoa, whoa, whoa! I would challenge you to take a look at what you were given, and I know it’s hard to understand, but there is such a thing as white privilege. You definitely benefited in one way or another. We definitely need to take a step back – look at the numbers. How is it that the numbers don’t add up? Why don’t the college campus demographics add up to America’s?
Because they’re not taking advantage of what they’re being offered. I guarantee you, if I applied for a job, and a minority applied for a job, they would get it. They would get it even if they weren’t as qualified!
Now, this is where I call bullshit. That is hateful rhetoric and just not true. I find it disgusting that you assume immediately that this person is less qualified than you, and why… because they’re a minority?
That’s not what I said. I’m simply saying they have plenty of opportunities. I went to public school, and I’m very successful. I had to work my ass off – without handouts.
Needless to say, we had to go to bed without coming to an agreement. However, I could not sleep. I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. How did the pronoun “they” change from students in low-income and poorly performing schools to minority students? Why did this become a race issue? And for god’s sake, why are my friends so angry and unreasonable? At what point in the conversation did I lose them? I pondered these questions and more for a very long time that night. I was angry, confused, and crying… which made me even more angry.
I slowly began to see that whatever I thought I was saying, that is not what my friends were hearing. I’m going to credit the phenomenon known as “white guilt” for that issue. My friends were hearing me say that they weren’t doing enough, and they didn’t deserve the opportunities they had in life. Of course they were angry, and of course, I don’t believe that at all. I know they are honest, intelligent, hard-working, dedicated, and professional people. They deserve everything they have. My issue is that these students in the schools I’ve been in for the last 5 years deserve success too. Yes, there are opportunities, and for every 1 opportunity, I would say there are about 10 students jumping on it. The issue is that there isn’t enough opportunity to go around. What I couldn’t get my friends to hear was that we had access to a multitude of opportunities in our middle class schools – whether or not we were actually middle class. In this marathon called life, we started off with the advantage. I want to ensure all our students begin at the same starting line. This brings me to another truth that my friends could not fathom: all public schools are not equal. They kept saying my public school, when I was in a public school, etc… and I kept thinking, that was more than 10 years ago. You just mentioned your school had a student government, honors society, extracurricular classes… not to mention a library and computers. “Your school” is not the reality many students face today. I kept thinking… why don’t they get it – why can’t they see?
The realization hit my like a ton of bricks. Well, it was more like a huge weight was lifted off my chest, and I could breathe again. It was such a physical realization that I sprung straight up in bed. The truth was hidden in the pronouns… they, their, them… me, my. My friends did not view students in the public school system as their community or their responsibility. I guess, at the most basic level of reason, these students are not their responsibility. However, I was pushing for a different level of reasoning in regard to social responsibility and reform. One of my friends, who played mediator and conflict resolution expert, said it best: Sure, you can keep thinking like that. Keep telling yourself you don’t owe these kids or this community anything. It’s their fault they’re unsuccessful. You got where you are now on your own… they would be successful if they weren’t so lazy. If they would just try or put in some effort they would make it. Sure, you can keep thinking like that. And if you do, we are going to have the same shitty world we have today.
I am still kept up at night thinking about – how we can level the playing field… how we can provide the necessary resources… how we can provide access to our students in America’s public education system. The answer I would provide is strengthening the community. Involve big business in the public school system. Invite volunteers from professional fields to teach and work with students. Build those partnerships and those bridges. The children of doctors and engineers are not more likely to become doctors and engineers because they are smarter or more driven. They are more likely to reach that career because they have access to the world of doctors and engineers. They have access to those opportunities.