life is NOT fair
One of my part time gigs is helping high school students prepare for the ACT and SAT. I actually enjoy it–I’m geeky like that. It’s a good mental challenge for me, and while I’m not a big fan of standardized testing, I do enjoy helping kids beat that stupid test and open doors to their future.
Most of the kids I work with already have a wealth of resources at their disposal. Some attend expensive private schools, enjoy the support of dedicated guidance counselors, and hire a cadre of private tutors to make sure they excel. Others go to regular public schools and invest in a test prep course to make the best of their chances.
Sometimes I feel guilty for helping kids with plenty while others don’t have that advantage. It isn’t fair. But the kids I work with have the same confidence issues and test anxiety as any other teen, and it really feels good to help them do their best. I feel all mixed up about that.
A couple of months ago I had an opportunity to tutor a couple of students from inner city Detroit. As you may know, the Detroit Public Schools are in desperate straits after decades of financial corruption . The problems in that city are huge, and thousands of children are caught in the crossfire of politics, poverty, racism and so many things outside their control.
But in this case, a handful of caring adults found some motivated high school students and took them under their wings. They channeled their passions into advocacy and service. Within this group, they identified kids with promise and committed to helping them get into a great college. That’s where I entered the picture.
Two kids I tutored, D and B, seem just like any high schoolers you might meet. They’re fashionable and funny. They’re also respectful, highly motivated, and engaged in their community. They do many projects helping underpriviledged kids and hungry folks in Detroit.
I noticed that D and B had their own hurdles that most kids I know don’t face. They rode public buses or hitched rides to our meeting location–no parents drove them. They didn’t have easy internet access, so they borrowed the computer at the office where we met. They couldn’t afford the expensive graphing calculator most high schoolers use, so they passed one around for homework and tests. These little things required time, planning and energy that most of us take for granted. I was pleased to meet some kids in Detroit who overcame these hurdles and showed leadership potential.
Then I learned more about their stories.
B’s father died suddenly in the middle of her junior year. Her family relocated, and she had trouble getting to school, due to both transportation logistics and difficulty coping with her father’s death. Her grades plummeted, but an inspiring summer school teacher sparked her interest in school again. In short order, she turned her grades around and hopes to make it into a good university.
D has lived in poverty his entire life. He admires his mother who attends school and works temporary jobs to support her family. Last January they hit hard times, and his lights and gas were shut off for three weeks. He coped with the bitter cold by wearing extra layers of clothing and doing homework by candlelight. D wants a good education so he can break his own cycle of poverty. He describes school as his escape, salvation and source of self-esteem.
I keep wrestling with a couple of things: 1) the stark contrast between D and B’s experiences and the advantages my family enjoys; and 2) the striking similarities between these charming teens and the others I know.
We’re all subject to the same tests, but the playing field is not level.
Life isn’t fair, that’s for sure. For now, I just hope my roundabout path through the wealthier suburbs might give D and B a boost that makes a difference.