The makings of literacy. My mother & I. (1983)
I was sitting there on a Monday night, sipping coffee like it’s nobodies business, trying to maximize what little time was left in the day when I came across a Daily Show interview with Nobel Peace Prize nominee Malala Yousafzai. Instantly taken by the youthful hopefulness of her responses, despite the heavy nature of the conversation, I closed out the evening by watching the interview in it’s entirety. If you have not yet heard about this young woman, there’s a good chance you will in the near future. Malala began blogging for the BBC when she was just 11 years old. In her writings, she told of her life under Taliban rule, and denounced their attacks on the schools, teachers and students of northwest Pakistan. As a direct result of her activism, Malala was shot in the head and neck during an assassination attempt while on a bus with her classmates as they returned home from school. She survived the attack, and has become an international advocate for women’s educational rights. I went to bed that night thinking about Malala, the motives behind her fierce determination, and the idea that it’s not necessarily a political agenda that makes her voice so threatening to the Taliban, but the fact that she’s pressing for girls to be educated in a country where women are afforded few freedoms, and are subjected to astonishing rates of violence and institutional discrimination. I remembered the way my grandfather proudly wore a “Knowledge is Power” shirt for as long as I can remember while I was growing up, though I didn’t quite grasp the significance of that power until early adulthood. Clearly, Malala understands it, as she has literally risked her life in order to contribute to the chorus of voices demanding educational equality in that region of the world.
The following evening, I lay on the floor of my son’s bedroom, feet propped up on the edge of the bunk bed, with book in hand. My 6th grader’s required reading for this month is Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry. As usual, I’ve been coerced into a group read-aloud, as my little ones have grown accustomed to bedtime chapter books in place of standard bedtime reads such as Goodnight Moon. Anyhow, I wasn’t about to get off easy with a simple board book, because on this particular evening, the author of the day was Mildred Taylor, not Dr. Seuss. My toddler’s eyes fluttered closed as I read from a passage describing how it was once necessary for some children to walk miles each day in order to get to school. Whereas the children in Roll of Thunder would depart from the house while it was still dark in order to arrive in the classroom by sunrise, my kids can easily leave the house 10 minutes before the start of school-on foot- and still have time to chat with their friends before the tardy bell rings. We talked a bit about the dedication it took for children to make that kind of daily trek- in many cases, without shoes- just to take part in their right to an education. I told them about the black students in Little Rock, Arkansas who had to be escorted by the national guard into their classrooms because they were under threat from violent protesters who seethed at the idea of integration in schools. I reflected on just how precious our right to an education is, and the lengths we’ll go to get one.
Educational empowerment was the theme of a discussion my children and I had weeks ago when—out of nowhere— my 8-year-old posed this question: “Mom, what was the happiest moment of your life?”Clearly, the births of my four beautiful children are in the top five of my life’s happiest highlights. But narrowing “happiness” down into one single moment is tricky. I thought long and hard. And a memory surfaced…
It was Autumn. I was 25 years old and had recently been accepted into grad school at Sacramento State University, Sacramento. It was my first day of courses. Perhaps it was the cool fall breeze that seemed to carry with it an air of nostalgia and possibility. Maybe was the way the carpet of red & orange leaves covered the campus walkways like a gloriously seasonal variation of the yellow brick road. It might have been the smell of the new textbooks I cradled in one arm, or the pumpkin latte I held with my free hand. But as I bustled along with the crowd of other students, backpacks slung over shoulders and syllabi in hand, I realized I was insanely happy. I kid you not, I was literally trembling with energy to the point that I had to keep my teeth from involuntarily chattering. In all my life, I have never felt so radiantly alive. It was a mixture of pride, freedom, wonder, and hopefulness beyond measurement. Less than a decade before, many people openly told me I’d never complete high school, yet there I was on the cusp of obtaining a Master’s degree. I love that memory. And when I get lost in the recollection of it, I feel as if I catch a small glimpse of the passion present in the spirit of Malala, the Little Rock Nine, and countless other young people who have fought for their right to an education.
As of present, the Western world has co-opted Malala’s message for educational equality and paraded her across every major news outlet, and all the while public schools across The United States are struggling under the pressure of shrinking funds and a battle against educational privatization. It bothers me that the talking heads will sing the praises of education when it serves their agenda, but regularly ignore the fact that we have a serious crisis on our hands as services such as school counselors, libraries, physical education, and enrichment curriculum are being slashed as educators struggle to compensate for the losses. Yesterday, the district I work for in Sacramento, California, announced that our superintendent, Jonathan Raymond will be resigning from his position come December, in part due to the difficult nature of the last few years in which the state of California made drastic cuts to education spending , and declining enrollment prompted many school closures and teacher layoffs. Meanwhile, the district’s child development program that I teach for has run out of funds for the year, and I am left trying to find ways to maximize supplies while keeping the quality of my classroom curriculum high. It’s going to take a small miracle.
There are few things more empowering than an education. My dad used to encourage my sisters and I with this mantra, “Once you get your education, no one can take it from you.” There are few things in life in which that is the case. Homes can be lost, health deteriorated, loved ones grown apart….but an education, once earned, remains. And maybe that’s what drives us to pursue it with such relentlessness, despite the odds. Whether it’s a young mother in search of a better life for herself and her child, or a girl in Pakistan with a dream of liberation, young people across the globe face major obstacles when it comes to achieving their goals. Many of us in the States feel suffocated under the weight of inadequate funds, school closures, lack of resources, ever-changing standards, and the cost of higher education. Around the world, the barrier between a student and their education may be as small and deadly and as a bullet.
Here at home I fight my own small battles- as a teacher, the parent of three school-age children, and a community member who is truly concerned with the state of public education. It is, at times, daunting. As I walked up to my classroom this morning, I heard my dad’s voice, “Do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve got.”
In the face of the current educational climate, I can only hope to be a warm front in this brutal chill.
Bundle up, young ones, we’ve got a storm to brave.