kidscrying.jpg

A Synopsis of The Road Less Wanted

Jose Vilson Jose 24 Comments

kidscrying.jpgLast week, I spoke extensively about one student who had some serious behavioral problems in his classroom, and how that’s a microcosm of what he’s going through at home. Whenever I look at kids like him, I know how to approach them because I’ve been witness to that environment. Unfortunately, because of program restrictions, I no longer work with the child after-school, but best believe I’m still paying attention to his progress.

After all, many of our children come from environmentally abusive backgrounds, and environmental issues in the urban ghetto usually get glossed over. People are quick to blame their environment on the victim when almost all of the evidence shows that our condition stems from oppressive policies stemming back to when this country was first founded. It’s hard to point a finger when the policies don’t just stem from one particular face, but a whole institution. That’s the critical part of understanding how our children can be constantly subjected to the road less wanted.

For instance, people blame poor urban families for their own health issues, everything from diabetes, heart failure, asthma, obesity, and high blood pressure. Yet, the foods we get here are usually in poor condition. I thought the food here was alright, until I visited the Farmer’s Market on 14th St., where I was astonished to see real and fresh vegetables. Real lettuce, with actually red tomatoes, and truly green broccoli and ripe pickles. Natural apple juice, and freshly picked oranges. Usually the first stop that these items make is the more affluent places, where the customers presumably live a healthier lifestyle but conversely where the produce makers will make top dollar for their produce. Meanwhile, a poor urban mother could a) settle for the less than pleasurable and unkempt vegetable aisle or b) go to the canned foods and boxed food aisles. After all, processed foods are much cheaper than organic food, even when the organic food’s quality has been severely diminished.

School LunchThen there’s the issues our children’s parents go through. Imagine all the history of denigration they’ve gone through: Reaganomics, crack infestation, needle and blue cap infiltration, gun warfare, massive rape and abuse, police brutality, immigration, English acclamation and retention, prison industrial complex promotions, rent hikes, gentrification, asbestos paint, lead-tainted water, declining hospital service, and abject poverty … and that’s just in my neighborhood.

Many of them have a good from 8-6, then come home and work on their families until 11pm. We have Third World conditions right here in America, and Hurricane Katrina only highlighted that temporarily. Little do people know that the Lower 9th Ward wasn’t pretty before the Hurricane, so what does that say about America’s response to places like that, Watts in California, East St. Louis, Southside of Chicago, Chinatown in NYC, and a thousand other places where poor children of all colors are all subjected to a lack of money and hence care.

Yet, when the children get to school, malnourished and uncared for, they act out. They’re acting out, stealing from each other and screaming at their teachers. Of course, that’s when teachers and administrators who don’t understand where these loveless children come from want to treat them for every possible disorder and dysfunction on Earth. I admit that some of them that do come from this background really need more substantial help than any teacher in the current public school system can offer. Many of these children don’t really have a disorder, and it’s been proven that if you just talk to some of these kids like human beings, those disorders start going away. And even if they’re not getting mistreated for some disability, they’re getting mistreated in the classroom. Some people who don’t belong near a classroom but see the value in looking like they’re making a difference let their inherent classism and racism shine brightest and thus build mistrust for an education for kids who need it.

None of this is new. To the contrary, the miseducation of our youth has gone on for centuries. And people wonder why poor people won’t take out loans to get a new home since money’s meant nothing but trouble for them. Pregnancy and STI prevention information isn’t a deterrent to those who have no self-esteem or self-worth. Thug rap went from reporting what’s going on in the streets to just living life on the fast lane because there’s no future so they live for the present. Colleges are easier to get into but harder to successfully get out of with the increasingly expensive tuitions and steady drop of governmental financial aid (which works well for a booming college loan market). With slave wages for the increasing population of immigrants from the West, South, AND East and a depreciating job market, it’s no wonder why the rich continuously get richer while the rest of us unknowingly have remained on the same plateau of poverty.

2PacThe one argument that everyone uses against me when I discuss these multifaceted issues is “But Jose, you made it. You lived in the same environment these people did, and yet look at you now. You’re successful and have a promising future. Why can’t they make it?” And usually, this person either comes from a household where the parents are successful and have been for generations, or a family whose grandparents were successful, and that story didn’t pass onto the person who asked me.

Their point usually starts with how some families they’ve seen concentrate more on getting 200$ sneakers an rims for their cars instead of investing in the stock market. They’ll see people rockin’ gold chains and wearing inappropriate clothing wherever they go. What I also believe they see is exactly what they want to see and not what’s truly there.

I contend that the factors that led me to where I am today were nothing short of fortunate. I had a mother who, with her flaws, pushed me in the right direction, a set of schools that were top-notch in their own respect, whether private or public, a good amount of people who believed in my own ability, and a genetic intelligence and stubbornness that could have prevented me from making some of the decisions I made but they did. If anything in this paradigm fell out of place, I wouldn’t have been as successful.

These opportunities I’ve worked hard for and have been granted haven’t made me any more complicit with what’s around me. I still struggle with different health issues like many of my neighborhood brethren do, and it’s something that I have more information on now. People don’t often break that seal until they’ve tasted a certain echelon of society. I am a firm believer in self-determination and making something out of nothing, but that’s exactly it. I don’t believe in alchemy. As a math person, I think there are simple solutions to some of the problems that afflict us, and it’ll be worth it if we can find those solutions.

Not everyone’s has been as fortunate as I am, though, which is why I fight for them. The images we see of the bling and the pomp are usually a very small percentage of truly poor people, and that’s what we don’t really see. Many of the little gadgets we see the kids have are second hand illegal devices, and liquor stores on every corner surface because it’s the one legal potion people use to get away from their daunting troubles. Change doesn’t happen by just sitting there; we need to be that change.

jose, a proud supporter of blog action day

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 24

  1. El Viajero

    I had a mother who, with her flaws, pushed me in the right direction…

    And there it is. That is the reason why the right is so adamant about the the family structure. Wanna help people PERMANENTLY? Promote marriage and family.

    I was from a poor white family one generation off the farm. My father was a type setter and while not college educated, his job required him to read every working day. Everything from philosophy to airplane maintenance manuals. The one thing he stressed to me as a child was that knowledge is power.

    I grew up to be a housepainter, but deep down inside, this expectation he had for me kept gnawing at me so in my mid thirties, I took out loans, grants and went to school, every semester including summers, taking as much as I could. I graduated with an BS in business, went on to graduate school and finished an MBA and then studies more to obtain a CPA license.

    It was the family, Jose, and their expectations and it made a permanent change in my life. While you are sympathetic to the poor, as long as they hold dear a culture that doesn’t revere knowledge and only wants to follow the criminal lifestyle, your efforts are simply pissing in the wind.

  2. Post
    Author
    Jose

    It wasn’t just the family, though. I feel like I just said that. It’s not just one thing, because I know plenty of mothers who push their kid in the right direction and still things don’t come out well. Statistics show that people who have a bad family and a good neighborhood have a much higher probability of being successful (at least monetarily) than do good families in bad neighborhoods. Again, it’s a multitude of things, Viajero.

    I understand and appreciate your story, but we were fortunate. And it’s funny because it’s only after you made your own situation in your mid-thirties did you get the opportunity to go take classes. As for me, it wasn’t just my mother. It was my counselors, my friends, my school, my afterschool activities, my mentors, my own characteristics. It’s a LOT of things that contributed to that, and like I said, that all needs to be there for me to have made it. Any of that could have gone wrong, but it didn’t.

    Btw, travel.com doesn’t have a travel at travel.com. You’re funny.

  3. El Viajero

    I know plenty of mothers who push their kid in the right direction and still things don’t come out well.

    You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. A huge variable, and maybe the most important of all is the will…the personal responsibility. Without it, nothing happens regardless of the environment. If you think all rich people’s kids do well, you’re mistaken. Many have excellent circumstances, but lack the will and won’t take personal responsibility for themselves.

    And it’s funny because it’s only after you made your own situation in your mid-thirties did you get the opportunity to go take classes.

    That *IS* funny ’cause I had the opportunity to go to school since I graduated from high school. I just didn’t have the will to go to school. I was too busy chasing pussy and getting high. I was not taking responsibility for my position in life.

  4. El Viajero

    I meant to add that anyone can do what I did. I’m not that unique, smart or special. I used the tools available to anyone such as pell grants and student loans and part time jobs, etc. and I attended state supported schools and not private ivy league colleges.

    The opportunity is there for all citizens.

  5. Post
    Author
    Jose

    I don’t think all rich kids do well because I know of a few who haven’t, but there’s a better chance of them doing so because they tend to have a better environment versus kids who come from good families and bad neighborhoods. The statistics are out there, and it’s not just a “responsibility” and “self-determination” thing. It’s systemic and embedded in this capitalist society.

    You’re basically supplementing what I’m saying, too. Until you had the right factors going on for you, even with that raising, you couldn’t have made that decision to cut the crap out of your life and make it happen until you were in the right place and made the situation better for yourself. Many of the people around me never arrive at that station, and don’t have the right factors around them.

    The opportunities are not there for every citizen. It’s there for everyone who has the right circumstances on many different levels. It’s not just one combination of things that’ll lead to success, but a set. And even then, things don’t work out like that.

    We’d be fools to think that race, class, sex, gender, and national origin don’t all play into this discussion. We’re not all on an even playing field, and unfortunately, we don’t often realize how hard it is BECAUSE / DESPITE how hard we had to work to do it.

    Good comment, for sure …

  6. Frumteacher

    I believe that schools do have a big responsibility to make sure their students are healthy. Does your school offer breakfast to these students? Imo, without a healthy breakfast, nobody can learn. Does your school supply fruit to combat the lack of vitamins these children have? I know it’s a bit utopic, but I don’t think we can expect our students to behave and learn if these basics are missing.

  7. El Viajero

    Many of the people around me never arrive at that station, and don’t have the right factors around them.

    What a load of succotash. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE is told by society the things they should be doing to be successful such as go to school and don’t do drugs, don’t smoke etc. I was told. I didn’t listen. When I decided to “cut the crap out of my life” it was becuase I felt trapped with no way out. The same “circumstances” were around me all the time. Geeze, if you wait for the perfect storm, you will never get off the starting block.

    The key ingredient is personal responsibility and it’s a shame that so many choose not to be responsible, even when they know better. You cannot live people’s lives for them and you can’t force them to do what they need to do and in the aftermath of bad decisions, you must hold them ultimately responsible for they make the final decisions…..rich or poor.

    The difference between you and me is that you are unwilling to assign any responsibility to the individual and it’s all someone else’s fault.

  8. another teacher

    A while back in one of my English classes, we were reading cause-and-consequence analyses and were discussing this one essay about destructive behavior among teens called “The Disease is Adolescence” which broke out into this great argument about structure versus agency–which is the big question after all, isn’t it? It all started after I asked if the essay was saying this self-destructive behavior was the consequence, what was causing it. They started trotting out the answers–lack of guidance, poverty, lack of attention, abusive situations etc. Then one student, C, said, “that is crap. What about these kids? Don’t they have to take responsibility for what they do? What about all the kids who don’t do this stuff?” Then T, who has a very messed up home life, said, “You say that because you have support at home. You don’t know what it is like to not have people helping you.” It was going to get pretty hot, and C was going to get it pretty bad, but I managed to take the heat off her by putting it on myself by taking her argument and making it slightly more abstract. “Why is it that some people come from rough situations and succeed and others don’t?” and then after a while we conjectured what would have happened to Bush had he not had all of his safety nets, which was kind of fun to muse on for a while. . .Anyway, after that discussion, I brought in Brothers and Keepers, which is a memoir by John Edgar Wideman exploring this very question–how did he end up an award-winning author and his brother end up in prison for life? Its a great book and some of my students ended up reading it. Anyway, this discussion reminded me of that moment.

  9. Post
    Author
    Jose

    @ Viajero: while I completely understand where you’re coming from with the responsibility argument, I argue that the responsibility argument only works if everyone has the same or a similar shot at the same opportunities. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in this country, where most citizens of this country through class, race, and sex often get treated as second class citizens. The independent research is out there, and I’m not making this up. The disparate money spent on middle to upper class is almost 8 times more than working and lower class on average, and that’s just in K-12. In some cities, it’s even as far as 12-15x, and that’s unfortunate.

    And I’m not saying that the separation not exist, because in this capitalist republic, that’s not happening. But if indeed our children from K-9 are being mandated to go to school, then, if we’re discussing fairness, let’s have them have the same facilities. Not everyone is “told” what to do, and more importantly, they’re not given many examples of success that they can relate to. It’s not succotash if the food bears fruit.

    Thanks again for the discussion.

    @ another teacher: that’s cool. I haven’t read either of those articles, but I need to do so immediately. I’m still reading “Savage Inequalities” by Jonathon Kozol, and I still have a million more books to read, but I need to get on this material. Thanks for comin’ through …

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  11. El Viajero

    …I argue that the responsibility argument only works if everyone has the same or a similar shot at the same opportunities.

    Perhaps you are speaking of opportuinites that I was (am) not aware of.

    I must be missing something. The opportunities that I took advantage of are there for all. I went to a not-so-good public school. If one doesn’t graduate, they can go into programs to help them get thier GED and off to higher education.
    In fact, there are more loans and grants available to those of low economic status and some available to non-whites only such as private grants based solely upon the color of one’s skin, Affirmative Action for easy admission to snotty colleges (of which I didn’t attend), etc.

    Exactly what opportunities do you believe I took advantage of that others don’t have access to? I must have missed the boat!!

  12. Post
    Author
    Jose

    @ el viajero: still blaming the victim. not saying that you don’t have valid points, but you’re under the assumption that it’s all well and good. it’s amazing that we can hold certain people to one standard, and one to quite another. your whole argument reeks of it, and that’s really unfortunate. you haven’t really countered my argument; to the contrary, your disconnect with what’s really going on makes me wonder why when we become successful, we look at the people behind us like they’re not on your level. nothing personal, but it is what it is.

  13. El Viajero

    While I’ve enjoyed your site immensely, you still have not identified the opportunities that I enjoyed that are not available to others. When pressed, all you do is make some personal issue out of it by sidestepping the question and blaming me for asking the question.

    Well here it is again:

    Exactly what opportunities (tools) that I took advantage of that are not available to all?

    Put answer here_____________________________________________________________

  14. Post
    Author
    Jose

    First of all, I didn’t make it personal. Actually by bringing up proven statistics, I’m making it a concrete argument. Because it’s easy to say case by case, certain groups of people aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing. We often turn a blind eye to what’s actually fact. Second, that blank won’t be enough for what I have to fill in.

    But fair enough: let’s take GEDs for instance, since it’s presumably for everyone. GEDs are mostly for people who, after not having done well in their educational careers earlier on in their lives, need to have it for a job that requires that degree. Alright, but it’s not so much that the higher-ups say, “No you can’t come in.” But rather, why would most people who have had terrible experiences with schools actually want to go back? One can persuade a group of people to not go further by making their previous conditions miserable.

    The research shows that, after 3rd grade, the optimism that kids in urban public schools show decreases sharply. It’s due to many factors including unkempt facilities, lack of technological classes, overbearing and often insulting teachers, exposure to the contrast between rich and poor, parents who themselves have never had an education and don’t have that access, and tests that determine whether these children can go on to the next grade, even when they’re excelling. When someone, or a group of people, constantly have that sort of experience, what will they think about progressing past 8th grade? Chances are, when the chance comes, they’ll drop off their educational careers and never go back. And anyone who leaves can tell you how hard it is to come back into that. Even for those who leave in college have a hard time coming back.

    And for many of the dropouts, they fall into a series of routines and familiarity, as most humans are a creature of habit. If you can sell drugs, not only are you learning math and language arts, but you’re learning law and business. The risks aren’t anything for someone who can take the average of someone in their specific demographic, and that’s a really low number. If they have a child or two, they have to raise your family.

    Even as the children get older, they go to school from 9-3 with maybe a day care that’ll hold them until 6, which means that the parent will most likely work during that time, and if they have to go to school, they’ll do so after 6, in the care of someone else on usually some random days. How can someone count on someone else to constantly take care of their child when 9/10 times, they have their own issues? There’s still a proliferation of single parent homes, and even for those families with a mother and father, in an urban community, they will still have to work from 9-6, and someone’s going to miss out on their responsibilities.

    And like I’ve said before, it’s shown that it’s easier to be from a “bad” family in a good neighborhood then a “good” family in a bad neighborhood, which suggests that even if there’s a good family, and the parents keep pushing the child to go to school and get their education, and everyone in the family is well informed, the child can be influenced by his or her teachers, peers, or strangers on the street. So it’s a cycle of “missed” opportunities.

    As for the other opportunities, it’s a matter of statistics. Again, nothing personal. For instance, most affirmative action recipients are white women, by percentage and numbers. Even after that, you think about the probability of getting into your college of choice, then actually affording to go to college, because Pell grants and other FAFSA aid are significantly down since the 70s, it’s rather daunting for someone who’s never seen anyone actually make it that far, much less heard of someone.

    What’s more, I don’t believe that most middle or upper class have to worry about certain factors working out for them (that’s changing for the middle class, too, by the way, as they’re also getting shelled financially). In any case many upper class citizens have legacy representation in many schools, and have parents who have also gone to college. It’s also a matter of money, because they can probably afford to go, and have a life expectancy that’s usually higher. They have better environments, more subsidies for their schooling, and healthier foods.

    In other words, I go back to my original statement: it’s a multitude of factors that propel so many of us into success, and oftentimes, we need a lot more of one factor to make up for what we don’t have. Responsibility shouldn’t just fall on the victims of oppressive conditions. I agree that they have to have self-determination and take action for their own condition, but that’s not the end-all-be-all. To the contrary, many of the successes we attribute to ourselves has really to do with our environment. Programs like night school, GEDs, Associate Degrees, and certifications doesn’t necessarily work for everyone, so for many who’ve been through a lot of this is not a real opportunity. These aren’t excuses, but realistic situations.

    I can agree to disagree with this one.

  15. Hugh O'Donnell aka Repairman

    What a soulful post, and what a great conversation following!

    Family, personal responsibility, mentors…all important, each for different reasons to each different kid. There’s no cookie-cutter formula for propelling each student to success, but we have to constantly rebuild the foundations of our social and educational infrastructures every step of the way.

    The work is never done. We’re not working for a static group. We’re working for a parade.

    Besides the statement of your Mom’s support, Jose, the words that ring my bells are these:
    “it’s been proven that if you just talk to some of these kids like human beings, those disorders start going away.”

  16. El Viajero

    I still contend, after all of the apologizing for these groups, they still had the same tools and opportunities AVAILABLE to them.

    What Jose wishes to say is there are self destructive cultures that make these people less interested in utilizing these tools, but they are there for everyone, nevertheless.

    Again, the water is there, but you cannot make anyone take a drink. It is a decision that the individual must take. And Jose might be right that less from some groups are interested in making that decision.

    This is why mentors who have the courage to expose the enablers and tell the truth about these self destructive cultural attitudes like BILL COSBY are so important.

    He cuts to the chase and doesn’t enable the minorities by telling them they are less and can accomplish less. He knows the opportunity is out there for them. His message is reach out and take it.

    Good job, bill.

  17. Cero

    I had a job grading qualifying tests for middle school English teachers in Brazil. Being a native speaker I was able to impose my views on the other examiners on a couple of exams they wanted to fail but which I thought were all right. My favorite was the essay answer to a question on what Brazilian students needed to learn English. It was supposed to be a question on second language teaching methodology, which was why the examiners wanted to fail it – the answer was off topic. But I liked it because it started out: “If you want to teach your students English, the first thing you must do is bring them food. You will find that after eating they can concentrate…”

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