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Recently my eyes were opened to a whole new culture right here in the United States of America. At first, I was shocked and appalled by what I saw, but as the newness of my experience faded away, my horror has changed to a dull ache and a desperate cry of, “What can be done?”
I teach at a high school in one of the poorest counties in Mississippi. I am new to the racial tension that is part of the South, and I am new to the poverty that is a part of life in the Mississippi Delta. As one of two white people in an otherwise all-black school, my experiences have, for the most part, been unbelievable, unimaginable. I would not believe it if I did not live it daily.
Now that I have seen it, I feel compelled to share what I have seen. I feel like I need to shout from every mountaintop in the nation that things are desperately wrong. Racial tensions have not ended in the South, and if we continue ignoring them, we are allowing injustice to occur. If we continue to accept sub-par school systems and inequitable education we are going to negatively affect our future and our children’s future. Every day I go to a school where graffiti decorates the lockers. We have no principal (as two have already resigned this year), therefore, we have no discipline. Students constantly roam the hallways, disrupting at will. I do not have enough textbooks for even half of my students and the ones I do have are in horrible condition and are out-of-date. We have no air conditioning (though it was over 100 degrees at the beginning of the school year). The drop-out and pregnancy rates are staggering. I have students who are over twenty years old in the tenth grade; I am only twenty-five.
The saddest thing I see, and I see it constantly is a lack of hope. The kids are too poor and too uneducated to see that there is something better. Or perhaps I am too naïve to see that there is not. The kids take failure for granted – in their classwork, in their self-discipline, in their plans for the future. I want them to dream big and make things happen. Maybe they try and I do not see it. Maybe they cannot and I cannot see why.
Poverty affects people severely. Poverty takes away hope and stifles ambitions more often that it flames them. I would have thought that the opposite was true. I assumed that all people worked hard to gain a better life, to fulfill the “American Dream.” But when one is surrounded by poverty and sees no way out, and has no one to show him the way out (or when more than half of the students already have children and would therefore have to work even harder to change their fortunes), giving up is the more realistic option to these students. By the time they get to high school, most of them have given up. My vision of the universal appeal of the American Dream is obviously wrong.
Having grown up in Southern California surrounded by people of many races, I find the race relations in the Black-White South alarming. My students always say “you all” and “us,” – “You all oppress us. You all hate us.” I tell them that it is not true. I tell them that racial problems ended twenty some years ago, before they were born, before I was born – it has nothing to do with either of us. I tell them that they have the chance to prove anyone who thinks otherwise wrong. Then on my way home from school, I get behind a truck flying the Confederate flag with a bumper sticker which says, “Malcolm who?” Again I am wrong.
Somehow, I wish my naïve ideas could be true. But wishing them true does not make them so. The truth is that racial problems, poverty and school systems like the one where I teach are not uncommon. They exist much more often than non-Southern suburban white people care to admit. Something has to be done, and until we figure out exactly what that is, I will be struggling to give my students even half of the education which I received. The sad thing is – they are citizens of the same nation as me.
I know that the Constitution does not give people a right to an education. And I know that life is not “fair.” And I know that the problems are not only in the educational system – but it is a place to start. I want my students to reap benefits for their hard work. I want society to nurture their dreams. I want them to have every opportunity that other kids have in America, and I want society to realize that right now they do not.
In sub-standard facilities and under less than adequate conditions, my students are trying to receive an education. They are doing so without the added benefits of a school newspaper, yearbook, speech team, debate club or choir. While the high school in a local town offers a television broadcasting course, my students are not even offered Spanish. They are not being prepared for success.
We cannot sit back and think that the Civil Rights reforms of the 1960’s solved the problem because they did not. Do I think there is an easy solution? No, I do not. I do not even know if there is a solution. But I do believe that we will come much closer to solving the problem if we admit that there is a problem.