Last week’s news included two stories that at first glance seem unrelated. One was the release of the Trump administration’s 2020 proposed budget. The second was the college admissions bribery scandal.
Both the budget and the “Varsity Blues scandal” show an America of haves and have nots where education is concerned. The proposed budget hurts disadvantaged students, cutting funds to after-school programs, Special Olympics, full-service community schools, academic supports and enrichment, and literacy development. It continues this administration’s tactic of privatizing education by starving public schools and diverting funds to charters and vouchers for private schools.
The parents who bribed their children’s way into prestigious colleges believe in that vision of two Americas, a world where money matters more than anything else.
The two connected news stories aren’t just abstractions to me. I teach both the top and the bottom of the senior class, the Advanced Placement kids and the ones in English 4.
My AP students just finished a unit on film criticism that focused on the technical aspects of moviemaking. After we watched Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Vertigo,” I explained how Hitchcock created the dolly zoom shot that makes the dizzying vertigo effect. Within five minutes my students used a chair on wheels and a phone camera to create a clip that rivaled the one in the movie.
I have no doubt these students will be successful after high school. No one is bribing their way into a university, and many are heading to the local community college for two years to save money. But they came to my class ready to learn, middle-class kids who wore braces and went on summer vacations, whose parents took them to the public library and read to them at bedtime.
Their peers in my English 4 class often had none of those things.
Each morning as the students arrive, I stand at my door and ask the 16 boys and two girls how they are doing. Eight of the students are in special education classes. Two more boys are learning English. All of the students struggle with their academic classes and find reading and writing difficult.
So that’s what we do. Every day. Nine weeks into the semester, no one complains or hesitates or snickers when someone stumbles over a word when we read aloud. Some of the abler students are quick to help the ones visibly struggling.
The class includes challenging British literature — Chaucer and Milton and Wordsworth, for example — and we move deliberately through it, pausing to talk about the ideas hidden in all that difficult vocabulary. When we read No Fear Shakespeare Macbeth, a modern “translation,” or we watch “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice” instead of reading Austen’s novels, I worry that I’m selling my students short.
That is, until I hear the audible collective gasp when we read Lady Macbeth’s speech about killing her baby, or a student challenges the premise of an assigned Austen essay.
“I know you want us to compare the main characters,” he says almost apologetically, “but they’re really very different. Elinor Dashwood holds in her feelings and Elizabeth Bennet is sassy. Can I contrast them instead?”
This student will never go to college. He may never be a financial “have.”
But he knows how to think for himself, and he writes a terrific argument proving it. That ought to count for something.