I was invited to speak to a class of 22 high school seniors today at my alma mater. I knew my topic of choice was going to revolve around self-determination. I chose the topic of self-determination because I know the one thing that we lacked when I was in high school was an appropriate level of recognition. A recognition by the decision-makers, that we, as economically disadvantaged youth, faced more obstacles than those elsewhere. I wasn't aware of the deficiencies of my local education system and how it had failed me and my peers for so many years. I wasn't aware of my lack of college preparedness. For someone to be accepted into college was a significant accomplishment for us. No one was concerned about college retention rates, they were concerned with how many students simply applied. No one was concerned with horrid SAT or ACT scores, they were concerned with how many of us passed or failed the TAKS.
When I began speaking to the students today, I realized that not much has changed in this regard. My first question was the typical, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" The replies I received ranged from nurse, to lawyer, to coach (no rappers or athletes, thank God). My next question, how many of you have applied for college? All of the students raised their hands. I expected this due to the fact that one of the main objectives for SAISD this year, in regards to college preparedness, is to have 100% of students apply for college. I then asked who has applied for five or more colleges? Half of the hands dropped. "Ten or more?" One person had their hand up.
I continued by asking how they planned on paying for college? Many of them said they were going to use scholarships. I then asked, "How many of you have scholarships?" One or two hands went up. I followed with, "How many of you have applied for scholarships?" The same one or two hands stayed up. Allow me to remind you that it is February of these student's senior year. I refrained from lashing out and pulling the usual, "What are you waiting for? It's getting too late." statement, and instead told them that I was once in their position. I didn't have anyone to push me to fill out scholarship forms. My counselors didn't care enough to advise me on applying for college or for how many to apply. So, I applied for UTSA and luckily got in with a bare minimum SAT score. Unfortunately, I had no way to pay my tuition past the first semester. So I jumped in the military. This is the story that is left out when these students are told over and over again to "Go to college! Get your education!" The 'how' of it all is missing and many of our kids aren't provided the push they need to develop some self-determination and willpower to get the job done on their own.
Throughout my time in the classroom we jumped around from the election and how they would vote, to the current welfare system and how there needs to be some serious reform. We even dabbled a bit in the fact that the Eastside is still considered the 'black side of town', although it's majority Hispanic. Somehow, we ended up on the topic of Sam Houston's recent 'school closure' scare. These students were sophomores when the event occurred. A few of them were present at a meeting that I spoke at in September of 2009. A couple remembered me as the guy who wanted the school to close. I was offended, but I calmly asked, "How did you gather that opinion?" The student's response, "Cause everyone was booing you." I laughed and explained/reminded that everyone was booing me because I wasn't going along with the typical "This is racism. You don't care because it's a black school" jive. I then asked if anyone remembered what I said? No one responded. I reminded them that I rattled off a bunch of statistics in order to bring some light to the fact that no one has cared for this school for years. I reminded them that I addressed the audience of 500 people and asked, "Where have you been all these years?" I then asked the class, when was the last time they saw a mass gathering of community members for Sam Houston? They all stated that they hadn't seen anyone since that night in 2009. I asked, how many alumni have you had come back and speak to you? One student responded, "You're here. So I guess that's one."
I didn't want this to be a pity party and I made that clear to the students. I don't want them thinking that because they are at a disadvantage that it was an excuse to fail or to aim for mediocre levels of performance. "I am making you aware of all of this because I want you to know that you are going to have to do a lot for yourself. You aren't going to have all the perks of a kid on the Northside, or a kid at a private/charter school. You are going to have to develop a lot of self-determination to get where you want to be." I really wanted to drive this home because throughout our conversation, many of them stated that they felt that very few genuinely cared about them or their success. One of the students mentioned that "All the administration cares about is attendance. And only about 30% of teachers care about whether or not we succeed. The rest are just here for a paycheck." I replied by asking, "What have you done to change that? Have you spoken to your administration about how you feel?" She replied, "They don't care what we have to say. All they care about is if you're in class or not." I didn't really know what to say in response to that statement. How do you voice your opinion to someone who refuses to listen? I encouraged the student to consider voicing their opinion, respectfully and politely through other channels such as the PTSA or a local community leader. I wish I could say that my recommendation received a warm reception, but honestly, I received a lot of non-verbal responses that reflected a simple, "Whatever".
The response of "whatever" didn't bother me. I completely understood the students' attitudes. Who am I to tell these students that you not only have to succeed in school, but you must fight your administration to be given the same standards of education as one of the wealthier schools. You not only have to have the self-determination to want to go to college, but you also must figure out a way to get there with very little help. What kind of society do we live in where we have to tell our STUDENTS that they themselves have to stand up and fight for access to a fair and equal education system?
My conversation with the students went well over an hour, so I can't fit the entirety of our discussion in this blog post, but I wanted to give an idea of what the spirit was like today. I want you to understand the expectations of our students and their thoughts on our expectations of them. These students know that they aren't getting a fair deal. They know that the situation they are in isn't normal. They know that the fire they are having to fight through right now shouldn't be as hot as it is. As someone who has been in their shoes, I wish I could convey to them that the fire they are in now, is nothing compared to what they are about to face. When they graduate and find out that the heat in the real world is a lot more fierce and a lot less forgiving, I am afraid that it will be too late.