Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Uncollective

The school year is getting long in the tooth.  Students are weary.  Teachers are testy.  Here in the desert, the temperatures will soon reach a daily average of 100 degrees.  Testing will begin soon.  Our students will fail dramatically.

Today one of the teen mommies told me she and her boyfriend, with whom she lives, are breaking up.  She had been the only one - all of the others had been left long ago.  She's a spunky kid, tough and testy but always relatively positive.  Sixteen, her Dad ran out on the family years back.  Then her Mom "went crazy" and she was sent into foster care.  She then got out, moved in with a relative, and then her baby's daddy, who's 18.  Is it even legal for her to be living alone?  I imagine it is better than foster care.  Today she told me, "Life sucks."

Another young lady - so far unpregnant - was recounting the fight she had the other night, how it began after the partying got too loud for a parent with a heart condition, and then peaked after they spilled out into the street, her and another girl had drunken words, and ended up tussling on the pavement.  She showed me the girl's phone she had made off with.  The girl seemed sad, angry in the pictures.  There was a shot of some guy doing a line of something.

I asked her about her boyfriend, a sometime gang-banger with severe defiance and aggression issues.  At one point they were going to move away together, to live with her mother in another town, far away from the troubled local scene.  Yet that fell through after her mother broke up with her boyfriend, after finding "teen porn" among his things.  When mom asked how he could have such things around her teenage daughter, he replied that he only likes brunettes.  They moved out of his house, taking with them what they could fit in the car.  He refused to let them have the rest of their things.  He had been abusive.  My student rattled off a list - clothes, music, TV, shoes, etc. 

Sometime later her own boyfriend was expelled.  She said things went downhill from there.  He didn't treat her well.  He was jealous.  He tried to hit her but she hit back.  He flipped out when she said it was over.  He chased her for blocks, until she finally dove into a bush and watched him run past.

In the staff lounge, a couple of other teachers spoke of how sick of it they were - the teen pregnancies.   They said they resented their tax dollars being spent so that young girls could get free health care and welfare.  "Most of them do it for the government checks.  One girl has a friend who had 3 of them just for the money!"  This from the libertarian who says she wants universal healthcare, yet cracks at least one "execution" joke a day.  The Reagan Democrat piped in with a story of "some woman" who had nine kids - just for the welfare.  The libertarian complained that her son, making $15k a year, payed his taxes, yet made "too much" to qualify for medicaid, while illegal immigrants and unworking teen moms got all the care they needed.  She was convinced teen moms - or even the out-of-work - ought to have their kids put in orphanages.  The Reagan Democrat offered another woman, this time a friend of hers, who was raised in an orphanages - and liked it fine.  I suggested a few "helpful" remarks.  I referenced human and social capital, pointing out that the teen moms need not be blamed - they are disadvantaged.  "No excuse!" was the paraphrased refrain.

It's April.  The days aren't getting any easier.  The kids still won't work.  They never come to school.  When they do they're often high.  Their parents are often worse.

This evening I ran across a PhD thesis by a man by the name of Tom Healy, at the National University of Scotland, titled, In Each Other’s Shadow: What has been the impact of human and social capital onlife satisfaction in Ireland?  From a chapter describing the nature of social capital:
Social capital refers to resources inherent in self-organised human networks
based on reciprocal
• expectations and obligations (of support, engagement, delivery) [TRUST];
• communication of information, knowledge, informal norms, sanctions
and understandings [VALUES]; and
• belonging [IDENTITY]
that facilitate collective action.  (p.69)
Something rang true in those words in brackets: Trust, Values, Identity.  These students lack social capital, and thus have not been able to develop human capital.  And what is it that keeps them from acquiring it today, in my classroom, as I try and present to them the best social capital I know how?

They do not trust me.  They do not share my values.  They do not share my identity.  So how could I expect them to do their part in the reciprocal dance of education?  There is no collective between us: there is me vs. them.

I have been struggling all year to come to grips with how I might possibly teach these children.  What am I teaching them?  It surely isn't very academic, given the abysmal rate of participation (attendance and classwork).  I have found myself seeking to act more as a mentor or counselor.  I listen to their stories, ask them to reflect critically on their choices and assumptions.  I joke with them.  I try and throw them off their "game".  I try to humanize them.  I try not to get into power struggles, or to "react" in typical ways to their well-honed tactics of defiance.  For the most part it has been very successful.  Kids smile and talk to me in ways that would have been unimaginable months before.  I ask them daily to be better people.  They seem to listen.

But this is what I have been doing all along, without knowing it: I have been trying to build in them Trust, Values and Identity.  I have been trying to break down their defensive walls by showing them love, respect, honor, and thin, yet bottomless trust.  I will be there for them, empathizing and trying to see the world through their eyes.  I want them to see that they have eyes - that there are people in the world that want to see through their eyes, that they are part of a "collective", that there is something out there to "buy into".  I'm by no means making much of a difference.  These stories started long before I got there and they will continue long after.  But I try and think I'm at least "moving the goal posts" a little bit each day.

These are kids who have been torn away from the fundamental forces of social capital.  Opportunities exist for them that they cannot even dream of.  But they are blinded by a sense of isolation and disenfranchisement, confusion and nihilism.  For them to grow again, they must learn to reconnect with society, with their humanity.  And we, for out part, must be there to help guide them.

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