In an excerpt from an interview with a “young adolescent in jail for selling drugs,” author Thomas J. Cottle lays bare the nuanced complexity of educating youth who have a fragile, if any, grip on hope. Two moments pulled from his post illustrate, at a minimum, problems with the lesson our system implicitly teaches students: “Smart” is defined by traditional subject area achievement.
“Truth is I see myself as pretty smart. Had a few teachers, not many, but they thought I was smart. They told me right to my face. I believed ‘em too. Turned out they was just lying. How you tell a kid he is smart when he’s failing every subject? Hey, I was cutting the gym classes there ‘fore I left. I think I can get most of the stuff, but it just comes on too slow. Or maybe my brain can’t slow down for it to come into it. See what I’m saying? But look there. If I can’t explain it to you, and you’re supposed to be smart, why I can’t learn, don’t that tell you all you need to know about just how smart I am. So I’m just lying to myself too. Just like those teachers I used to hope was telling me the truth.”
And then later in the interview, after comparing his life to living inside a body bag, the boy shares,
“Body bag, yeah. I got three things ended up destructing me. I am alone, I feel terrible about myself, that’s for two, and I can’t come up with nothing that’s going to make no difference. That’s for three. I’m helpless most of the time. Only time I’m not is when I sleep. Wind blows this way, that’s the way I stumble. Wind blows that way, I stumble off that way. That make sense? And no matter what way I go, I always end up deciding I’m no good and nothing’s going to make no difference on me.”
It is heartbreaking.
We wonder, “How can we interrupt this vicious cycle? What would it take to engage this student (and millions like him) BEFORE he loses faith in himself? And what sort of educational experiences will lead him to conclude, ‘I am not alone. I have value. And I’m smart and this (cites example) is how I know.’?”
It is stories like this that compel us to challenge how we deliver education and how we define “smart.” When students like this slip through the cracks (and far too many of them do) we see it as evidence that we need to disrupt the traditional model and support both the whole child and learning communities that personalize for each and every student. To do anything less is to systematically leave students behind.
Excerpt quotes pulled from: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 30, 2012
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16954, Date Accessed: 12/13/2012 9:50:16 AM