“Your child’s future was the first to go with budget cuts. If you think that hurts then, wait here comes the uppercut. The school was garbage in the first place, that’s on the up and up. – Lupe “Words I Never Said”

I cried uncontrollably in the empty theater during “Waiting for Superman.” It wasn’t a pretty cry. There weren’t two tiny tears streaming down my face as I cried silently. It was a heaving, sniffling, shoulders moving up and down and type of cry, so heavy that my significant other looked over and immediately wrapped his arms around my shoulders and began rubbing my back.

“Waiting for Superman” is a controversial documentary that explores our nation’s failing public school systems. The audience is introduced to five parents desperately trying to save their children from the horrors of a public school education. Full of hope and prayers, parents enter their kids into a lottery for the most coveted charter schools in their cities. Watching involved parents anxiously wait the fate of their child’s future, only to be turned away after all was said and done, was heartbreaking.

I attended both public and private schools. Kindergarten through 5th grade I spent my days at South East Academic Center (SEAC). SEAC was a magnet school. My mother went through a strenuous process before I was accepted as a kindergartner.  She was interviewed, it was mandatory she be involved with a specific number of school activities and she was bound to her commitments by signing a contract. I, as five-year-old, was required to take a number of tests before the final decision was made. SEAC was an inner city public magnet school with  predominantly black  students from all parts of town. As one of the best K-8 schools in the city, it logically made sense to have the best teachers in the district. For 6th and 7th grade I attended two different private Lutheran schools where I was one of no more than four black students in the entire school. In 8th grade when I moved to Nashville I went to the middle school I was zoned for, which was a public school. And high school I went to Nashville School of the Arts where I auditioned for drama and dance and was accepted for both.

Unfortunately, not every child has a parent(s) who valued education the same way my mother did. This became painstakingly obvious when I began substitute teaching in the Uniondale Public School District. Like many writers who move to the big city to pursue a dream, things don’t take off as quickly as you expect. Although I was freelancing I needed a supplemental income.

Uniondale is a predominantly Latino and black suburb in Long Island, therefore the classrooms reflect that ethnic make up.

On my very first day the district sent me to a 7th grade middle school classroom. I was nervous, but shook my fear thinking, ‘How bad could it be? They are only 12.’ My naiveté quickly vanished when I was greeted with piercing stares from a rowdy group of kids wanting to know, “Who are you and where is Mrs. Andrews?” Thirty seconds into me laying down the law with the kids about what was not allowed, I was being mocked because of my southern accent.

“You must be from the country somewhere,” said students simultaneously as the class erupted with laughter.

Be quiet, please,” I’d reply. “If you have something to say raise your hand and wait to be called on.”

“Be quiet, please. If you have something to say raise your hand and I will call on you,” a few students mocked.

From that point on the day got progressively worse. Instead of being able to concentrate solely on “teaching,” going over the assignments and answers their teacher had left for them, I spent my day rattling off a list of commands.

“Be quiet.”

“Sit down.”

“Stop running.”

“Don’t speak when I am speaking.”

“Hey, don’t get fresh.”

“What’s your name? If you don’t do your work I will be putting your name on my list for your teacher of students who did not behave.”

“Do your work.”

“Don’t throw that!”

It wasn’t much better for the TA. They treated him with little respect as well. As I stood around regaining order every 10 minutes, I realized some of the students in middle school already had no desire to learn. One boy who was about twice my size and weight, refused to do any work or even sit at a desk. When a TA attempted to coerce him into doing it he still refused replying, “This s*** is boring.” By that age a number of students freely use the f-bomb, harass their classmates, have a defeatist attitude and are uninterested in learning the way the material is being taught; I refuse to believe they are uninterested in learning altogether.

I vowed to never do middle school again. Like ever.

Elementary school was my niche. In the 1st grade children are eager to learn. At this age they are naturally inquisitive about everything. They revel in getting the answer correct. And as the “teacher” I got a fuzzy feeling inside seeing them actually learn. Doing basic addition with them, seeing them shout out the answers excitedly, was what made the distinction between my love for elementary and loathe for middle school.

Being in the classroom, walking the halls, talking to teachers, administrators, and other substitutes, solidified what I’ve always felt- education is such a critical foundation for one’s life. It also reinforced why we need to remain in constant discourse about the crappy American education system and how to improve it. Here are my reflections:

1.  Money, money, money. “Everything is about money, but nobody [at the top] cares because their kids don’t have to go to these schools.” –Anonymous teacher. The Uniondale School District, which consists of five schools, had a total budget of $155,993,010 for the 2010-2011 school year. I won’t break down all of the allocations, but here are a few that I’ve rounded off: $62.9 million went to Teaching-Regular School, $12.5 million to Programs-Students w/Disabilities, $1.3 million for Occupational Education, $4.8 million for Library, Media, & Instruct. Tech, etc. I’m not a numbers person so that seems like a fair allocation of funds. Yet I personally know teachers who have paid for certain books or supplies that the school did not cover. With nearly a $156 million budget, why should a teacher have to reach in her purse for anything? Something isn’t adding up.

2.  Every child learns differently. Our black and Latino children have cultural differences in comparison to WASPs, which is who our education system has always been structured toward and after. Archaic teaching methods may not be effective in the 21st century. Further, black and brown children must be challenged through methods that may be unconventional.

3. Teachers are underpaid. Teachers are underpaid. Teachers are underpaid.

4. Our crapola school system is not all the teacher’s fault.

5. Parents must be involved in every aspect of their child’s education. You can’t expect the school to do it all. Black people, we have to teach our kids our history. Schools certainly aren’t doing it. And as important as Dr. King and Rosa Parks are, there is so much more to our history than the Civil Rights Movement.

6. Middle school is a critical point in children’s lives. You have to catch them here before they get to high school. Some have already given up at this point.

7. Black men are needed in public schools. We’re losing our black boys. They are slipping through the cracks with very few people giving a damn. They need to see your face, black men! A face that looks like theirs. Mostly, they need to see that you made it and they can too.

8. We either pay now or we pay later. There is a direct correlation between dropout rates and incarceration rates. We pay on the front end and invest in their education, or we pay on the back end with our taxes paying to house them as inmates. Which one seems like the better option for all of society?

What else can we do to improve our education system, ensuring our children don’t get left behind?

*Hope this does not read as if I am I’m an expert now on our education system because I’ve served as a substitute teacher. These are just my reflections. I’ve always had a strong interest in America’s education system.

  • Ms. Niki

    I've worked in a high school, and am now an school counseling intern in a middle school. I love middle schoolers for the same reason you love elementary students. words to live by Bene so that you won't get burnt out or want to give up: Every child has the potential to learn and change, but every child isn't yours to change. You will find that the students you just can't reach are reachable to someone else. just do your best with the students who are receptive to you. I don't know if this is the field that you are genuinely interested in (as well as writing) or if it's just a side hustle until you break into the writing world fully, but when working with kids Passion, Purpose, and Dedication must be there.

  • Ms. Niki

    it's really not a job for the faint of heart. These kids need people who are dedicated to seeing them succeed in life, who will push them, and even fight with them to make sure they make it, because no one else is looking out for them. Often times you'll find that teachers, counselors, A.P's and Principals are the only ones who are advocating for the students. Parent involvement is perhaps the single most important thing, but you'll also see that some aren't involved because they don't know have the resources to help their children. Just don't give up on them, you may be the last advocate they have.

  • Crystal

    Some might argue with this statement but it's my truth. Education does not begin at school. Education and a quest/thirst for knowledge begins at home with parents and the child's village. I have witnessed multiple times where the school system was not adequate but there were certain students who had a thirst to learn and went after it with vigor. One group even had a teacher removed because they felt they were not being taught properly…all in the inner city. Their peers saw nothing wrong with what was taking place because they did not have that same zeal for knowledge because it was not instilled from home. They were okay with doing mediocre work and getting a "passing" grade. We (as in older generations) have to instill that thirst for knowledge/education back into our young people. No more excuses of it's a "bad" school. I went to a school that never taught Black history beyond MLK and Rosa Parks, but Black history is my favorite subject because I studied it when I got home from school. I had a zeal instilled inside of me to want to know more than what I was being taught at school.

    • WrittenbyBene

      Wholeheartedly agree. As a community I'm not sure that we learn about reading to babies in the womb. Or playing tapes of a foreign language while the baby is still developing, which has been proven to have a positive affect on children's cognitive skills later in the child's life. Growing up in the era I did we also didn't learn about Black history in detail. However, my mother had a floor to ceiling bookcase of books all by African-American authors. That is all I ever knew. I'm also a firm believer in putting kids in as many extracurricular activities as possible. Not only does this keep the child out of trouble, the child becomes well-rounded. From the age of four throughout high school, at different times, I was a Girl Scout, did gymnastics, Taekwondo, ballet, jazz, tap, basketball, track, Delteens, Black Achievers, cheerleader, majorette, I was in plays, etc. etc. I believe my extracurricular activities were as important as my education. My mother refused to have an uncultured child who was not well-rounded. I didn't understand why it was imperative as a child. But I understand it now.

      I love your story about our children in the inner city because I believe this happens more than we would ever read or watch in the news. It also shows the tenacity of our youth who want to learn and have been instilled with the value of education from day one. Some of the best scholars, achievers, success stories for African-Americans have come right out of the hood and went to inner city public schools. Like you said, it has to start in the home.

  • Crystal

    Bene, I agree with your reflections of education wholeheartedly. Another solution is parents have to realize learning starts before your child speaks their first word. Also, the television should NOT be used as a babysitter, counselor, or friend for young children. It is only breeding a generation of "instant success/gratification" in which devalues education and hard work. Great post.

  • http://twitter.com/kjnetic p.parker

    Good post. as someone who came up in that school district…it sounds like you got the rowdy bunch, to say the least. i do agree that us (well, us black men) need to be a more visable presence in the school system. also, IMO, for education to be effective, especially for those of us not blessed with major funds/resources..it takes a collective effort from the teachers/school, from the parents/relatives, and the kids themselves to want to make it work.

  • TMass

    I completely agree with you, especially about black men and their presence in the school system. The black community severely lacks the patriarchal leadership it once had and that is a sad state of affairs. Recently, I attended a commencement ceremony at a HBCU in Houston and both the valedictorian and salutatorian where women – Hispanic women. Bravo to them but where are the male pioneers that excelled at Tuskegee, Morehouse, and other HBCUs? Will another Thurgood Marshall or W.E.B. DuBois rise from the ashes of our torched communities? Not as long as we celebrate wealth and not culture. I believe our school systems have run a muck because many parents don't even know their child's teacher's names. Education starts at home but not just history. An education in respect, discipline, and achievement are also subjects that only a parent can teach.

    I remember as a young man we had a substitute teacher and a few mischievous boys, including myself decided we would mock the young black woman and make her wish she never came to school that day. What we didn't know is that the school nurse had slipped into the back of the room to escort a student to her office and witnessed our merciless torture of the young teacher. She didn't say a word – to us. She went back to her office, called our parents, and by lunch time three of the four mothers (including mine) sat in the back of the class the rest of the day. Needless to say, not another word was muttered.

    Expectation is the key. Great post.

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