I’ll pass right now on snatching up one of those Bill Gates’ iPhones that hits the stores today. But if Gates is as serious as he seems to devoting $2 billion dollars from his foundation to saving public schools then I probably won’t delay too long in dropping by the Apple store to check out his latest toy. True, my trusted Motorola does everything I want a cellphone to do. But the last time I checked, the CEO of Motorola hasn’t said a word about losing sleep over the high school drop out rate in the U.S.
It should gall all of us that 1 in 3 high school students in the U.S. quits school. Among black and Hispanic students, the rate is closer to 50%. They say that kids who quit school don’t just suddenly drop out; it’s more of a slow fade. Researchers believe that you can predict with 66% accuracy a student in elementary school who will go on to drop out from high school. Poor reading skills in elementary school is one indicator. Poor interaction and relationship with teachers is another indicator.
I am one of the lucky ones. I grew up when it was still possible to go through elementary and high school and be taught almost exclusively by colored school teachers, as they were affectionately called back then. Though in 1954 the Supreme Court had ordered all public schools to be desegregated, things were slow to change in my neck of the woods. I was in school, in fact, back when colored teachers were still gods and goddesses. They were our dreamkeepers. Motivated by a strong sense of mission, teaching was their calling, even among those who chose teaching because there were few other career choices available to them. Teaching was a way to uplift the race and make dreams come true. They weren’t perfect, not all teachers anyway. But enough cared about students that you were bound to run into one or two who would go out their way to reach you before the school year was up.
Colored school teachers saved my life. Besides making sure I knew my 9x tables and how to diagram a sentence, they saved me from boredom, from laziness, and from the excuses I had about why I couldn’t learn. They also saved me from the restlessness and aimlessness that prey on young adolescent black girls from working class families who dream of being rescued by love. They couldn’t keep me from falling in love with the wrong boys at the time. But they did manage to convince me that if I applied myself I had something to look forward to other than becoming an 18 year old bride and working downtown at Rich’s Department store. I’m grateful to those who took turns in elementary school beating me and hugging me, braiding my constantly loose hair and applying Jergens lotion to my perpetually dry legs, and those from high school who went to great lengths to search for things for me to do after school in the hopes of keeping me busy, determined to penetrate the heavy armor of protection I dragged around with me from one class to the next.
Thank God, Alice Doanes, Lewis Smith, Roseann Pope (bless their souls) would not be defeated by a womanish acting 14 year old whose socks could not stay up on her legs. “Don’t you know there’s something within you that’s special?” each asked. I wanted to believe, but I was too young to know how. All I could do at the time was believe in their believing in me. Convinced that I could make something of myself, my teachers were determined to see me graduate from my high school of 400 students (where less than 10% of the student body went to college) and leave Atlanta and go away to college, away from the hulky, weight-lifting, underachieving boyfriend I was dating at the time, away from whatever demons were nipping at my heels.
You and I don’t have Bill Gates’ billions to overhaul the educational school sytem in the country. We don’t need Gates billions to make a difference. We can impact a child’s education by doing for one of them what some colored school teacher did for us. Care. Teach. Reach. Encourage. Advocate for. Mentor. One hurting, hard-head, seemingly unreachable, child (of God) at a time. Here’s a shout-out to school teachers everywhere.