the circular runner

why are people poor? no answer here…

In life, observations, teaching & education, Uncategorized on May 27, 2011 at 12:16 pm

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When I first started working in the Mission District here in San Francisco, the woman I was replacing–a woman who I think had no business working as an educator–asked me why I thought people were poor.  That, I think, was the first question out of her mouth.  No, “how are you?”  No small talk.  Just an impossible question to see if the the new guy was really “down with the people.”  I can’t remember what I said exactly.  I was closer to my days in grad school then, so I probably spoke about “systemic inequalities” and “the oppression of the downcast” and other jargon-laden ideas that are true and and not quite true at the same time.  I mean I do believe that the system is rigged, at least for some.  But as the years have gone by and I continue to work with “under-served” communities–more jargon, I know–I feel myself systematically becoming doubtful about “systemic” explanations.  Or maybe, I just don’t trust them completely.

I can’t be systematic in my dismissal of systems, mind you.  I just prefer stories.  Examples.  I trust examples.  Here’s my latest.

Every Friday in San Francisco, men and women who did not receive their high school diploma go to a test center near the Richmond in order to take the math section of the GED exam.  For many of my students, this is the last step, and it is the hardest one.  In some cases, it’s so hard that I have to go pick them up from their homes in order to make sure that they get there.  This week, I had four students taking the test–and out of those, I knew two would pass, one would flake, and the other would at least try the exam and if not pass, get an idea of what he had to work on for the next time.  This last guy is smart–no doubt about it–though he is not a very good student and is even worse a student when it comes to math.  He’s been in and out of our program for two years now.  Not all at once.  He was in jail for a while, an then he had a kid, and then…I have no idea.

I like him.  He is likeable.  I can say this and at the same time recognize that he is a bit of a schemer.  He’s always got something going–though rarely is that something something legit.  This is why he’s been in in and out of the program for two years already.  Still, there are moments, days, weeks even when I can get him to come and work and learn, and lately, I’ve even been able to get him signed up for the test.  But then something happens–his life happens and just right before the test, that something he was working on or some other thing he didn’t have anything to do with comes up and bites him on the butt.  A couple months ago, the week before he was to take the test, someone put a few rounds into his bedroom window and my student fled to Vegas until things got more mellow (yes, even kids go to Vegas to flee reality).

Things calmed down. He came back.  No explanations necessary.  And this time, we managed to get to the morning of his test without incident.  I saw him yesterday and worked with him for a while.  I was all set to pick him up when his aunt texted me that he’d been picked up by the police.  We are still waiting for details.

What is the moral here?  I have no idea.  I don’t take lessons from my student’s situation.  I am sure that there are many–let’s call them the Psychology Bunch– who might say that he’s setting himself up to fail.  Others–like the woman I replaced who fall into the Activist Camp–will cry out that the “system” is failing him.  Tough-hearted, law & order conservatives will say he needs to reform himself, and that’s all there is to it.  I’m sure there are other interpretations.

For me, I guess I’m a bit silly or too close to the kid.  Or maybe because when I’m not teaching, I spend my time trying to publish quirky, fantastical fiction, but there is just this part of me that wonders if the answer to why this kid can’t get himself out the hole he is in has something to do with what you might call bad luck or bad vibes or something else.  I know this sounds ridiculous.  Bad things happen at inopportune times all the time to all kinds of people.  And there is an explanation and it probably is much simpler than what I’m getting at.

Whatever it is, it’s hard to see.  Harder yet to understand.

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