THOMPSON: Same As It Ever Was - or Not
The week before I began teaching in an alternative school for juvenile felons, NPR introduced me to Richard Price and his novel Clockers. A decade of living in a neighborhood devastated by the Reagan/Bush recession and crack and gangs had taught me what happens when the fragile wiring of our brains and the fabric of our social institutions are unraveled.
Price’s Clockers, and afterwards The Wire, were able to articulate the human struggle for survival and dignity in a thrown-away community. Soon, I intimately knew students like the "Buffalo," who was a teenaged version of Price’s character, Rodney, who knew every species of tree in the neighboring nursery and loved to watch the backhoe in operation. And I understood the logic of my scarred, brain-damaged young sociopath destined for life in prison, who was the spitting image of the character in The Wire, who in the last episode accepted a sweet deal and traded murder for legitimate profits.
To view some of my actual students, their families, and fellow activists, click The New Yorker article, The Marriage Cure, by Katherine Boo which describes our postage stamp of Oklahoma City as the "archetypical post welfare society," and then click the HBO documentary "The Killing of Wanda Jean." Wanda Jean Allen was a mentally retarded relative of several of my students who killed her lesbian lover in the parking lot of the police station, and some of the bewildered children in some scenes of the documentary became my students. I do not want to tip off the dramatic conclusion, but in an age of accountability does the Democratic attorney general’s office use educational information that it knows to be false in order the increase its execution tally?
So it was "deja vu all over again," when I followed Alexander’s District299 link to Linda Lutton's wonderful series on Robeson High School in Chicago. Robeson has an average ACT test score of 14.6, compared to my school’s average of 15.1, and only three times have we faced all of the same challenges in the same year.
In subsequent posts, I will try to focus on Robeson in its own right and not be overly influenced by my experiences, but there is one similarity that I have to get out of my system. Missing from the politics of school turnarounds is the death of children. Lutton features a math teacher who returns from his student’s wake in time for his 8th period class. At what point, however, do the minds of students return from their tragedies to classwork? The most vivid memory of this year was the morning when my murdered student walked into class. On second look, the new student was the little brother of the deceased and he was different in many ways. But the emotional roller coaster that follows every violent death always has many similarities and differences.
This year’s murder of our student, like the murder of our recently dropped-out student, and the year's murders committed by our former students, and the recent murders involving family members of our students could have reproduced the typical cycle of revenge. Due to the efforts of our educators and our kids, however, our school did not feed into the violence. I doubt our test scores improved, but we still participated in a major turnaround. So, I’ll issue one last plea to education reformers to look at schools like mine and like Robeson as we are in our own right, before seeing us as clay to be remodeled. - John Thompson