Reflections on giving our kids a fighting chance

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Julie, a warm-hearted lady if ever there was one, is on the phone, telling me they are enrolling at, we’ll call it Faith Academy, and am I interested in having my 12-year old daughter, who’s enrolled in the Minneapolis Public School system, apply for one a very few, soon-to-disappear openings?

Brochures from The Blake School and De La Salle come to mind and I’m a bit sick at heart. A private school education is mighty attractive. And damned expensive. After talking to an administrative snot at Blake who, without bothering to ask how smart my kid is, gave her two chances – slim and none – of earning a scholarship, I was still trying to screw up the guts to risk such out-of-hand rejection at De La Salle.

“Julie”, I fairly sigh, “I don’t have that kind of bread.” She assures me that my daughter can test for a scholarship and that, bright as she is, even if the school doesn’t foot the whole bill, they’ll cover enough of it for me to manage the balance. On top of which, Julie’s a friend of the principal and can swing a test for my child and an interview for me by week’s end. And can’t say enough about what a great place it is (in addition to being one of the most giving people I’ve ever met, Julie’s an intelligent gal who home-schools her kids and, accordingly, is knowledgeable about worthwhile curriculums). You gotta be pretty self-sorry not to at least go through the motions of reaching for that kind of opportunity. So, I ask her for the number, hang up and hope there’s more than a snowball’s chance of this working out.

This can make a big difference in my kid’s life. Seeing as how the Minneapolis system is doing its damnedest to live up to America’s general public school history of warehousing black students and educating them only by accident: it’s a year or so from today, when the board has got away with closing a slew of schools with black students, enlarging classes to the point of over-crowding and, basically, shoveling these kids in a lump like shit onto a stink-pile. Hell, the only perceptible reason my child’s school escaped the chopping block it was headed for is that Mexican parents showed up at public meetings and raised sand – in support both of their youngsters and the Mexican principal (good for them, can’t say the same for my fellow black parents who, ever since my daughter was in kindergarten, have stayed away in droves from any and all meetings about MPS policy).

As the state of things there steadily deteriorates, so do her chances of getting the quality of attention to which any student reasonably is entitled. I’ve already seen it. She’s spoken of, among other things, trouble in math. More to the point, contending with the teacher. “Dad, it’s not fair”, she told me, one afternoon. “[Ms. Smith] got mad and said she won’t call on me anymore, when I raise my hand. Because, I ask too many questions. I have to ask questions when I don’t understand.” While I’m working on how to respond, she follows up, “Dad, the kids who only ask one question, get their answer and still don’t understand. But, they don’t say anything else. So she won’t get mad. It’s like our teacher just wants to get through the period.” The kid consistently makes the honor roll and brings home certificate after certificate in other subjects, but stands to be saddled with this Achilles Heel. And it is, by no means, trumping up the race card to tell you black kids, period, let alone those stigmatized for coming through a system characterized by social promotion (graduating bodies that don’t pass muster, in order to make room for more), need every documented strength possible.

There also is, of course, the accustomed trial by bullying. She cited an instance of bigger kids, at recess, throwing volleyballs at her, for the pure hell of laughing as she flinched, recoiled and backed away in tears. What’d supervising teachers do about it? “I told them and all they said was I should throw the ball back.” You don’t have enough fingers to count the number of times I complained about that math teacher, the bullies and, for that matter, kids stealing from my daughter, only to be told, in effect, these things happen.

I go to the interview. And am informed that she aced the exam. Then get cordially grilled. About what I’m prepared to commit to, in writing, about holding up my end in supporting her academic standing: will I see to it she spends at least so many hours bent over the books and does her homework; am I going to show up for required parent participation, including conferences and seminars; can he trust that she’ll attend every day that illness or emergency don’t preclude. Fine. I go in my shoulder bag for a pen, glad to sign on the dotted line. Not so fast, though. He wants to know whether I have any reservations about the school being, as the name connotes, a faith-based institution. I never make a big deal about it and, for that matter, most people who run into me wouldn’t readily arrive at the conclusion, but, fact is, I am a Christian. And state, point blank, “The only thing I see wrong with faith is there ain’t enough of it in the world.” He looks me square in the eye (which, actually, he’s kept doing since I sat down at the table) and nods. Then, I sign. And, yes, do thank God on my way out the door.

I’m yet more thankful down the road. About halfway through the first term, the little brainiac is knocking ‘em dead in English, history, science, Latin – just killing, at the head of the class – except for them damned numbers. Must be genetic (I failed algebra and had to take it three times in college). Only this time around, she comes home with a letter from the teacher asking if she can stay after school for extra help. Pursuant to which she spent the rest of the year ascending from a public school “D” to raising her grade at Faith Academy from a “C” to waffling between “B” and “B-”.

Works for me: all I’ve ever told her, so far as accomplishing anything she set out to do, is that she honestly attest that she’d done her best. Damned good thing she got the chance.

I’ll always remember – but would just as soon forget – a day when parents had to come in and take class right along side the students. Just my luck, an algebraic equation was on the blackboard. May as well have been Greek. Sitting there in this tiny seat, I stared with all the comprehension of money trying to figure out how a wheel works. “Dad, it’s simple”, I heard from the next chair.” And my daughter went on to explain something her college graduate father will, to this day, never make heads or tails of. By divine providence, the period ended just as I had to account for myself. But, at the end of the day, after we got back home, I called Julie back. And thanked her.

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