Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How do you spell a "u"?

I am currently reading Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities. I suppose I was destined to read this book, as it haunted me for two years while I worked at Ben & Jerry's. Someone had once left a copy and it sat on our shelf waiting to be claimed. For all I know, it could still be there. I don't believe I ever really read more of the book than the author's name and the title, but later when people began to mention the work of Kozol, I had a vague sense of familiarity - 'oh right! Savage Inequalities!' Some time later, in a discussion with my friend Ian about the repercussions about names like Tanajaiqua and Queenasia versus names like Madison and Francis, he recommended (what else), as it deals with inequalities (clearly). I read this to fend off the bourgeois intruder persona that could creep up on a person who grew up in Saratoga and now would like to do community-based work (art projects) in three small cities. The book looks at equity from an education standpoint, seeing this as the seedling to society. As a teacher, this resonates with me.

I substitute teach nearly every day, in districts both urban and suburban. I usually do not consider the race of the students unless the majority is overwhelming (for being practically in Troy, the school in Green Island is awash in white). Kozol talks a lot about how poverty and race lines often break at the same point. He talks about urban schools a short distance from suburban schools, and about what a difference money makes. What a school in disrepair with not enough supplies speaks to children. About using rooms for purposes they were never designed for - such as a classroom in a urinal.

As a sub, I mostly notice the behavior differences within schools. More often than not, the suburban kids are more quick to bow to authority, and kids in the city schools will press this a little more. I never really considered the facilities unless it made my job more difficult; ie, a classroom without walls, in a 'cluster' with two or three other classrooms of this type, or perhaps subbing for the art teacher who did not have a room or even a cart. She was art in a milk crate.

Things like this make my job as a glorified babysitter (some days) a little more difficult. I never really considered the effect on the students.

I began to think. I felt a little weird reading this book in Schenectady High while fighting with students who I shouldn't even bother fighting with. I think - your facilities are beautiful! You have a DANCE STUDIO in your art WING for crying out loud. I shall feel no pity for you.

Then I think back to some schools in Troy. The things Kozol was talking about, I found there.

Some elementary schools have converted bathrooms and locker rooms into offices and remedial reading / math classrooms.

There are not enough supplies for the students. I know that the art teachers depend on the supplies each year, they do not have enough to last from the year before, and it might be October before they begin receiving anything.

For a few years I have done a lot of equating children's success with the involvement of the parents. While I still think this is important, I am beginning to understand what Kozol is talking about. We trap people into self-reproducing societies. We usher our middle class tax payers into the suburbs where their children will go to school in well maintained buildings with well funded programs. Many of the people still living in cities with the money to afford it will send their kids to private schools. The people who understand how to push for better conditions are pushing for those improvements in areas where the current standard is something that many in city schools only dream of.

There are many people who are fans of the notion of pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps. How is one to do this when one's old bootstraps have disintegrated and there isn't money for a new pair?

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