A few stories about when conditions are really tough …

A reader wrote a comment to a recent post of mine comparing students who went to private or public schools. I would like to reprint that person’s note, and my response.

First, what the reader wrote:

What you have said is so true. Here’s my experience:

When my older son was ready for high school I was afraid to send him to the local public high school because of the number of low-achieving and poorly behaved students. So my husband and I spent a huge amount of money on a private school where my son felt isolated and was unhappy. However, he DID get a good education and went on to graduate from the University of California and Stanford.

My younger son refused to go to this private school and insisted on the public high school which had a program for the high achievers. He did even better than my older son and graduated from Harvard. Also, he was with his friends from grade school and had a much better time.

There is so much research showing that the children of educated, attentive parents will do well at any school and yet people generally are afraid to trust this information.

Now, here is what replied:
  • On June 15, 2011 at 10:16 pm gfbrandenburg wrote: 

    Your conclusion appears to me, by my experience and research, true in an overwhelming proportion of cases (but not always).

    The converse is also very often true as well, it seems to me.

    In plain English, for those not familiar with logical and mathematical terms:

    I agree that if a child is lucky enough to be born to attentive and educated parents, he or she is going to do well in school perhaps 75% to 95% of the time (more or less).
    And if a child is unlucky enough to be born to parents who are uneducated and don’t care for their needs, the odds are stacked pretty high against that student doing well in school.

    Not that there aren’t exceptions. But they are fairly rare (one in five to one in twenty, perhaps?).

    {Not that it’s absolutely necessary to excel academically if you plan on excelling in life. There are lots of examples of folks who do very poorly in school but go on to do well or very well in real life. And there are folks who have extremely high IQ, SAT, and GRE scores (or whatever) and did great in school, who are miserable human beings because they can’t relate to the real world in any way at all. I’m not at all sure what the percentages are, but I know of lots of such folks – both types.}

    Note that I am also contradicting the “wisdom” of the current religious cult founded by the usual gaggle of educational Deformers and their billionaire backers (almost all of whom attended exclusive private schools).

    In fact, I claim, and studies and common sense bear this out: the teacher is NOT the major determinant of a child’s success in or failure school. We obviously have an influence, and sometimes we are successful in making a positive difference in our students’ lives, but most of us end every school year wishing that we could have somehow done more in getting kids to go the right way.

    One of my girlfriends about 4 decades ago taught in a rural, high-poverty school somewhere in New England. I heard lots of funny stories and lots of hair-raising ones, too. She grew to know a LOT of the folks in her rural, spread-out community. Alcoholism and utterly reckless driving landed a lot of her students and their families either in the hospital or the morgue. (I was present at one of the latter accidents, when such a teenage, drunk driver tried to pass the car I was in on a sharp blind turn on a hill at a high speed; the car then went off the road and flipped sideways several times until it ended up on its side against the fence. I helped pull the passenger and the driver from the car. The passenger was shook up, but the driver was delirious, at best. When the local doctor came, my girlfriend claimed he smelled like booze, since he too had come from a party. I saw the doctor shine a flashlight into the fellow’s eyes; apparently he didn’t think the fact that this guy was talking gibberish (if he was saying anything at all) was all that serious, so he didn’t have the eventual ambulance take him 30 miles to a modern hospital center. So when he went into convulsions later on, the local clinic couldn’t do anything for him, and he died.

    A lot of the families were really messed up. But not all, by any means. Many were great, whether they were poor or relatively wealthy. But they were all white, unless I’ve forgotten somebody. Jews (like my girlfriend) were really seen as weird and exotic, or in league with the devil. Many of the kids had never, ever met a person of African-American descent.

    Those students who came from professional or academic or well-educated families generally (though not always) did well in school. It was kinda rare that kids from broken families or from working-class or poverty-stricken backgrounds did well academically, though they may have excelled in sports. Or at hunting and such. Or went into the military. (BTW, this was during the Vietnam War.)

    A story that one of my first principals here in DC told me about 30 years ago:
    (Obviously, I don’t remember the exact words, which I’m obviously making up, but I remember the gist of what he said.)

    “Mr. Brandenburg, I do my very best to get our male students to go in the right direction in life. I talk to them personally. I am sympathetic at every single one of their disciplinary hearings, though obviously there are definitely cases where we have to ask for suspensions, or even get police officers involved. I am on speaking terms with many of their mothers, or if there ain’t no mother, then the stepmother, or the grandmother, or the grandfather, or the aunt, or the uncle, or the foster parent, or whatever parent figure there might be, even the occasional father.

    “As you know, I’m out in the hallways, out on the playgrounds, they like me, and you teachers know that I support you as well: we deal together with the crazy little gangs that sometimes attack our students, and so on. I also sponsor RRRR and SSSS and TTTT on weekends.

    “But you know what’s really sad?

    “When I go down to visit a former student of mine that I hear has been locked up at Lorton [Reformatory: it used to be the DC prison, not jail, and was located outside the Beltway in Northern Virginia] — every single time I go to Lorton, or even to the DC Jail near RFK Stadium, I hear all these voices all over the place, on the wrong side of the bars, smiling and saying things like this:

    “Hey, Mr. T!” (note: not his real name)

    “What’s up, Mr. T?”

    “Look at me now, Mr. T!”

    “Hi, Mr. T!”

    “I made it, Mr. T!”

    “Remember me? I was in your XXXX class at YYYY school!!”

    “I’m a MAN now, Mr. T! I made it!”

    “Yo, Mr. T! You were my vice-principal at YYYY school! How ya doin’?”

    and so on.

    This principal really was a great guy and a compassionate, yet tough and competent administrator. So much so that when DCPS threatened to move him out of my school to a larger school where they needed a tough, well-liked, competent administrator, all the teachers at my the school protested, because we wanted to keep him and not change leaders in the middle of a school year.

    (They relented and moved him over the summer. Our next principal was a former downtown administrator who, rumor had it, was exiled to our school for doing something wrong downtown. Don’t know if that’s true or not, but I thought she was a very ineffective administrator. She later told me, many years later, after she was retired, but while I was still teaching, and we happened to meet at a reunion of teachers and staff at that school, that I was a “principal’s worst nightmare.” We had, in fact, locked horns horns a few times…)

    So, this guy, who was BY FAR the best administrator I think I ever spent a full school year under, even he had a pretty low ‘batting average’ in getting his roughest kids to go in a positive direction, after years of hard, conscientious work.

    By the way, that was a very tough neighborhood.

    How tough? Let me explain.

    Some of our students lived in little houses, and some of the students lived in low-rise garden apartments, typically about 2 or 3 stories high. The region was very hilly, and consequently had quite a lot of areas where you couldn’t build anything. These “empty” spaces weren’t really empty: they held quite a few medium-sized trees and underbrush as well as a fair amount of trash. Also, lots of hiding places. I didn’t much like walking around there after dark.

    I visited quite a few of my students’ houses, since they all lived close to the school. If I had previously been invited in for a conference, the houses or apartments were typically immaculate and tidy. On the other hand, if I happened to call at an apartment because I hadn’t been able to get in touch with them in any other way and there was a serious problem (like suspected child abuse or neglect), it was not uncommon for THAT apartment to be a real mess, and to have drunken adults dozing on a couch or two. But that’s not the scary part.

    The scary part was that in just about every 2- or 3-level garden apartment building where I visited in that area, EVERY SINGLE ONE of the ground-floor apartments had apparently been burned and broken open (by whom I don’t know), and abandoned.
    Second or third floor, no. (Though the lights on the landings and in the hallways were often broken, and I recall some of the doors looking like someone had tried to break in.)

    Just the ground floor was burned out.

    But every single one.

    Think about that.

    How would YOU like to live right above a ground-level apartment that’s already been burned and broken open and ransacked? I mean, what’s to prevent them from coming back with a stepladder and a crowbar next time, or just to start another fire downstairs for kicks? How secure and comfortable would YOU feel?

    Most likely you would do what you could to go move somewhere else, unless you couldn’t afford to move…

    It was depressing, all right. But we all tried hard, and after a while I eventually even learned how to teach.

    Or I think I did.
Published in: on June 15, 2011 at 11:35 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. With regard to the broken burned out apartments, when I worked the Census in 2000, one of the buildings I visited on Georgia Ave., not too far from Howard University in Petworth, was exactly as you described. Every time I go past it, I think about my shock, and I wonder what the state of the building is today.


  2. Thanks for so poignantly describing the reality that many of us face.


  3. I remember delivering newspapers to garden apartments near the old Landover Mall and every single hallway smelled like human urine.


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