Chicago is one heart- and mind-numbing community. During this past holiday weekend, Chicago experienced horrific human-on-human violence: 82 shot, 14 killed.
Whether living in Chicago or outside it, one way that many of us understand and cope with a rate of violence that can feel so overwhelming is to draw implicit boundaries around Chicago’s more violent, and impoverished, areas. “Most of the violence and poverty is not here — it’s over there.”
And, in one way that many don’t understand, public education draws much the same boundaries. These boundaries have become profound and consequential. I should know: I have loved teaching in a remarkable selective enrollment (test-based admissions) high school on Chicago’s north side where if ten discipline reports were written in the entire school for an entire year, I’d be surprised; and I have loved teaching in a remarkable college prep high school on Chicago’s west side whose community has been ravaged by the effects of poverty and violence. To me, the “raw intelligence” of the student populations at both schools has seemed much the same, just infused and surrounded by wildly different life circumstances.
So what is this big boundary that public education in Chicago and so many other communities draws for their schools?
Critical and creative thinking.
No matter where one lives, there is an almost palpable relationship between the critical and creative thinking skills taught in schools and the students’/graduates’ ability to understand and wage peace, I believe. Strong critical and creative thinking nurture a rich humanism, the relevance of each of us to one another. Strong critical and creative thinking often teach a greater resourcefulness when dealing with conflict, both in the theoretical ways that conflict and violence can be understood and in practical, productive ways that a human can engage conflict. And most importantly, strong critical and creative thinking help a young person learn how to more richly imagine: to imagine, among other things, so many previously unimagined possibilities to his or her life path.
The critical and creative thinking boundaries.
Selective enrollment and magnet school students are forever engaging big and consequential questions and ideas (like why some communities experience more poverty and violence) while lower test scoring schools (almost always synonymous with higher poverty and violence statistics) are forever forced to chase smaller skills like subject-verb agreement, testing and testing and testing, until a whole school community has become numb, unable to see the bigger picture of what learning is all about. What develops is a poverty of critical and creative thinking.
The poverty of critical and creative thinking in lower test scoring schools is perpetrated by the violence of public education today, with test numbers mattering more than the development of a young human’s critical and creative richness. My experience has taught me that to so many teens subject-verb agreement has little explicit relevance to the realism of poverty and violence. And, understandable to me, young males are often the first to turn away from this test, test, test smaller skills game, with a refrain that goes something like this, “If this is school, fuck it. How is this related to anything?” Most developing hearts and minds want relevance before grammar.
With all of this in mind and such an inert sadness in my heart, reproduced below is a piece written in March, 2012.
She scrunches her eyes at nothing in particular. Two more tears, one to each cheek, roll slowly. I sit down across the table.
“He was in the back seat. In the middle.”
As if on the movie set of her life, upon her a radiant late September sun casts through the window. Shadowed from the sunlight, as we adults often are from the drama of our young people, I ponder the physiology of tears: can they ever run dry?
Class, the last of the day, has just ended. After saying goodbye to the others, I return to the room; she has remained in her seat, staring ahead. Her tears are rolling for the third time in the year.
Her senior year in high school, this is our first class together, a composition class. Bit by bit through the early weeks of school, she has released some of her life’s narrative. Through conversations. Through a few partially completed assignments. Through compelling college application essays. Through questions about life beyond the sector of urban, Chicago life.
Her hunger for college is as strong as any I’ve witnessed; her struggle with Murder, Inc. may be even more powerful than that hunger. Her resilience and resourcefulness will tell the tale.
“But, you’re not getting it.” That is true. The narrative she has been telling seems way too cinematic, bullet casings dropping on hot pavement as young men packed into a sedan get all shot up. Young men she loves.
She continues, “They were both in the back seat. My brother and my boyfriend, James. He was the one in the middle.”
During summers, but especially in August, America’s teachers prepare their hearts and minds for the extraordinary beauty of the new school year. New students, new learning, new challenges, new rewards. By the previous June, an exhilarating exhaustion has arrived, the price of a school year fully invested — mind, body, spirit. Summer brings reflection and necessary re-creation. August hearkens the new beauty, and teachers must be ready, mind, body, and spirit.
Society’s mandate to educators is clear. For the viability of its own future, and, of course, for its children, society demands, “Teachers, educate our children’s minds and hearts.”
Teachers welcome this demand, knowing that doing so will incur sometimes excruciating costs. Never has a teacher told me otherwise, no matter the school or setting. Moments in teaching may feel easy, natural. Natural moments that are even . . . prolonged. The emotional reach of a school year, however, demands all that the teacher can offer.
As the year progresses, I come to understand that her boyfriend, the father of her newborn, had been murdered while sitting in the middle of the backseat. To his side, her brother had been paralyzed from the waist down. It was a drive-by-then-stop-and-get-out-and-use-a-submachine-gun killing. And paralysis.
Today, a local headline symbolizes a monstrous challenge to our society’s educational mandate, “Weekend of Violence Claims 10 Shooting Victims across Chicago,” where ten were killed and at least forty-nine wounded in one Chicago weekend. To our young, the scourge of societal violence is becoming a sanctioned sport, to the death. So, they participate in starring and supporting roles, sometimes shooters, more often victims. In cities, and increasingly so in suburbs and rural areas. Into hospitals they go, into morgues, prisons, probation, detention centers, drug treatment programs, counseling programs . . .
Tomorrow, teachers in Chicago and across the nation will stand in front of daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, boyfriends, girlfriends, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and friends of those ravaged by the violence. And, try to teach them.
While standing there, empathic as possible, teachers will teach discrete skills, the leaves, to young people who are listening less and less. Living on the set of society’s inability to address the causes of its violence and chaos, today’s young people increasingly are making their own demands: “What does our society’s addiction to numbers, regarding stuff like how we test on grammatical adverbials, have to do with our lives?”
Educators know that discrete skills have plenty to do with the young person’s future, but not without the forest of real world context. Our young people demand that educators, agents of society’s future, listen to their personal narratives — their hunger in conflict with the literal and figurative violence of our society. Society demands numbers from leaf-based testing; young people demand meaning from the forest. Therein lies our society’s greatest hunger game, where teachers are required to monitor the leaves, watching then to see how many young people, especially in urban areas, will survive to graduate from high school.
Toward the end of our conversation, as she gets up to leave, I notice that she wears no mascara; the grime of life just makes it seem so. Like Katniss during battle . . .