Aside

Weathering the Storm; Education, Empowerment & other thoughts on a Weekday Evening

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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.

Aside

You know what they say about Hindsight…

16 & Pregnant’s Alex (and baby Arabella)

It’s that time again. MTV’s 16 & Pregnant has started a new season, and the blogosphere is brimming with  commentary  about the new line up of featured young mothers. Granted, nearly all reality TV stars are subject to the harsh opinions that are so freely given in cyberspace, But I can’t help but feel like the girls on 16 & Pregnant are held up to a different type of scrutiny. The kind that ruthlessly delves into the most personal aspects of their relationships, sex lives, financial situations, and family dynamics. In case you missed last week’s episode (or you’ve made the understandable decision to skip the show all together), I’ll give you a brief rundown—16 & Pregnant features teens and their families as they deal with the consequences of unintended pregnancies. The stories are often sad but inspiring, and are always ripe with raw emotion. Some claim MTV is glorifying teen pregnancy by airing shows such as this. But avid followers of the show mostly agree that there is nothing glamorous about the girls and their situations (unless of course, you count the six figures that MTV reportedly pays the girls who are chosen to take part of the lucrative spin-off show, Teen Mom. But that’s another story…) Anyhow, I continue to watch the show because I believe it shows teen motherhood for what it is: difficult (at times), potentially alienating, confusing, and life-changing. That’s not to say there are not beautiful, joyful moments to be seen. Life is not easily categorized into good and bad, especially when it comes to bringing a new life into the world. Beautiful things arise out of ugly situations, and vice-versa. However, in last weeks episode, it was hard to see the silver lining in the storm.

 The show featured Alex, a 17-year-old who is entering her senior year in high school. She and  her boyfriend Matt are expecting a baby girl, Arabella. Although I try really hard to give people the benefit of the doubt, it was terribly difficult to root for Matt. He appeared high and/or hung over during many of the moments when he should have been most present (i.e, the ultrasound), and he quickly lost interest in his newborn daughter once the adrenaline from her birth wore off. Everyone deserves a second chance, and, for Arabella’s sake, I hope Matt proves everyone wrong. Moving right along to Alex’s mother, who was one of the unsupportive mothers I’ve seen since the show began. Early on, she gives Alex an ultimatum: adopt the baby out, or find a new place to live.  Alex, who is still grappling with the prospect of adoption weeks before her due date, eventually moves in with the neighbor of a close friend. It was heartbreaking to watch her struggle through the first night “home” with her newborn, alone, and in a strange house, without a soul to support her. Anyone who has ever gone through the emotional roller-coaster of birth can understand how crucial it is to have a strong support network in place in the days following. Alex had no one. Thankfully her mom  eventually softened her stance and let Alex and Arabella move back home. The tentative adoption agreement that Alex had with her friend’s parents was put aside and Alex opted to keep Arabella. The morning after viewing the show, I opened my laptop to a news feed of criticism for Alex and her decision. Bloggers wondered if “Alex had made the wrong choice”  and many went so far as to say that baby Arabella’s life would have been much better off had Alex only chosen to adopt her out. My response: How do they know?

 Many comments I read referenced Alex’s financial situation as proof that she was unfit to mother her child. The problem with that stance is that it assumes that a child is automatically better off when raised in a wealthy family. Granted, money can easily provide a child with necessities such as healthcare, food, and shelter, among other things. But does money ensure that a child will be loved & nurtured? At what income level is a person then “fit” to be a parent? Are you comfortable with putting an income threshold on parenting? Just playing devil’s advocate here. 

 Aside from that, there is also the assumption that Alex’s age, and her boyfriend’s demeanor prove them unfit to be parents. Okay. I understand where people are coming from on this, but let me offer you two very real scenarios:

Scenario 1: Mom, 17 when baby is born. No high school diploma. History of partying a little too much for her own good. Lives with her parents. Unmarried, with no income. Dad, also 17. Works are a nearby fast-food restaurant. Makes a concerted effort to continue high school but also continues with typical young adult behavior after birth of the baby, causing a rift between him & the  baby ‘s mom. 

Scenario 2: Mom, 32 when baby is born. Graduate degree, stable career, married to college sweetheart. Drives a mini-van. Is a member of a local mother’s group. Active in the church. Dad, 35. College-educated. steadily employed, homeowner, church deacon.

Based on that information, which baby will have the better outcome? Which couple is more stable? Fast forward 14 years…Couple #1 have both matured, and though they have moved on to other relationships, they’ve maintained  a great co-parenting relationship. They are active in their community, shuttle their child to and from sports games, church events, and family gatherings. Mom completed a graduate degree, Dad has been steadily employed since age 17 and now has a stable career, a wife, and daughter. Their son is enrolled in college-prep courses, volunteers regularly at various non-profit organizations, and is a well-rounded, well-adjusted teen. Couple #2 divorced three years ago. Dad ran off with a women 12 years his junior and moved out-of-state to start a new family. He (by choice) has limited contact with his children. Mom is now struggling to keep the house, and will likely be forced to let it go soon. Their son is having difficulties in school and is seeing a counselor for issues surrounding the terms of the seperation. He has dappled in drugs & alcohol. The younger siblings are grappling with the task of coming to terms with their father’s decision to abandon them.

 Skeptical? Look around you. For every scenario I described there are many, many more like it unfolding. My family story is told in Scenario #1. Unfortunately, the family in Scenario #2 was also based on real events. Could anyone have accurately foretold our family outcomes from the get-go? Not likely. Do our family situations have the potential to drastically change from one year to the next, or even one day to the next? You bet. I’m not smug when it comes to my family’s situation. I count these blessings everyday and try to take little for granted. There is no way to predict the fate of a family. Life is dynamic in nature, ever changing, and subject to so many various influences.

 Who is to say whether or not Alex made the right decision? Who’s to say I did? The other night, I glanced across the dinner table at my firstborn. He was holding my baby daughter on one hip, and offering his little brother baseball tips as he attempted to help me set the table. The thought flashed through my head–what would this family have been without him? We all would have missed out on so much…Someday I hope Alex has the same clarity when looking back on her decision to keep Arabella. In the meantime, she shouldn’t worry about those who openly second guess her decision to raise her daughter. There is no way on earth to foresee when or where a rainbow will appear once the storm has passed.