Children Should Never Be Left to “Sink-or-Swim”

Regular readers may have noticed the tendencies of this writer to favor the omniscient perspective in persuasive writing and to eschew the use of the first-person singular whenever possible. Thank you, Mr. Russell Sellers, for incorporating that into your 10th grade English curriculum! Your multi-colored editing pens and constant encouragement worked wonders.

Just this once, though, kindly indulge the author a moment of personal privilege for making use of the subject pronoun “I”.

As you may have guessed by now, I am a child of poverty. I employ the “present tense” purposefully, here, because surviving poverty irrevocably shapes the way my inner child perceives the world.  While never hungry or destitute, I grew up hand-to-mouth poor. The child of two high-school drop-outs, my parents held subsistence jobs until fairly late in their adult lives. Early on, they managed to provide basic material needs and lots of love. The so-called “extras” were few and quite far between. Any request for something beyond the necessities of life was invariably greeted by the mantra, “We don’t have that kind of money!”

Unfortunately, a decade of acute marital strife for my parents coincided with my adolescence. I will spare you the graphic details, but as the Owen Wilson character offers in the movie “Armageddon”, “Pretty much the scariest environment possible.”  Emotional safety was not to be found at home when domestic violence entered the fray. A therapist’s couch may be the only appropriate venue for sharing what passed for my home life between the ages of nine and fifteen. For an accurate depiction, a nom de plume would definitely be in order. 

Suffice it to say that on top of those challenges, as a consequence of long hours in their respective workplaces, my years as a latchkey child also furnished access to a world of temptations with too little monitoring by my frequently absent parents. Increasingly “bored” by school and ensnared by the counterculture, truancy ensued. Due diligence for the neighborhood school back then was a phone call to my parents to inform them that I had not attended school for a number of months and was about to be withdrawn.

So, following in my parents’ footsteps, I left the nest early and dropped out of high school to support myself. A few years of hedonism followed in tandem. Those ended when an armed thief very nearly took my life for the few dollars in my pocket.

The loss of employment due to a long recuperation, and the lack of a diploma, would lead me, eventually, to a four year stint in the Navy and what Herman Melville aptly called “the promiscuously vile company of the forecastle”. Not all of the lessons learned in the military were of great benefit, but the rediscovery of discipline worked to my advantage.

Government Equivalency Diploma while enlisted and an education stipend from the GI Bill made it possible for this ne’er-do-well to attend junior college upon discharge and, then, the University of Maryland. The last year of graduate school was funded by the Christa McAuliffe Scholarship awarded by the state of Maryland for those seeking to teach in the public schools. The rest, really, is history.

So, what did the greater society receive in return for its investment in my college education? For starters, it yielded a highly-successful, activist-educator who would return to spend an entire teaching career in the majority-poverty school that he had abandoned twenty years prior. A couple hundred students left that majority-poverty high school with college credit in French through the Advanced Placement program, and those that did not score three or above left high school with some experience of college level rigor. Furthermore, the parents of every truant student were always contacted and the administration always informed in triplicate.

Would any of these fortuitous events have occurred had my early childhood been scarred by my parents’ travails instead of my adolescence? Probably not, according to Paul Tough in Why Children Succeed. Too many Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) too early in life inhibit the formation of “resilience and grit“. 

Nor can there be any illusions about the likelihood of this high school dropout achieving any of these outcomes had I, as a caucasian, not belonged to the privileged class of a stratified society, an advantage that should no longer exist in an inclusive world.

Social justice begins in the schoolhouse. We must reach all children earlier to optimize the path to self-actualization. A couple decades ago these chronicles began by quoting Aristotle and the citation bears repeating,  “The fate of empires shall be determined by the education of youth.”

[This slightly re-worked piece appeared as my last Commentary in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on 6/30/2105.  It was my last piece written as President of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association.]

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