For most of my professional career I have worked with kids/young people/youth/at-risk-youth/participants/high school students/juvenile delinquents/snot noses/know it alls and so on. For the past 4 years I have worked with kids on the South Side of Chicago, the Low-End (Bronzeville) and Englewood (roughest neighborhood I know) I think I have done pretty well in my work. Have I always been successful with every kid? No, but I have made an impact. People have asked how I have been able to get a group of young men that don’t care about grades, have done any number of illegal things, to take part in activities or groups I organize. One assistant principal told me once, “you have one ragged group of guys following you. But damn they believe in you and stay out of trouble because of that”. I told people I have gotten through to them by keeping every promise and never lying to them. Now that’s a lie.
I have kept every promise… every promise! But I have lied. I have told the same lie that every adult tells a child. I look them straight in their eyes and say “you can be anything you want to be”. LIE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! That is up there with “the interest rates will never change” and “it’s big enough for me”. Yes I have lied to kids, we have as a country, as schools, and as institutions. No Child Left Behind… MY ASS! We may not leave them behind, but we will tell security to not let them in the building anymore.
I am not going to get into how teachers are not allowed to teach, but instead do test prep for 7 hours a day. Not going to get into high school graduation rates, set by identifying the idiots by their sophomore year and kicking them out before they F-up the 98 percent graduation rate their senior year. I am not at all getting into public schools being funded by the property tax of the school’s neighborhood. So if the school is in a community where the houses are worth $34,900 but in foreclosure and on the market for $10,000 then the last chapter of the history books in that school has a title like “Rosa Parks-Trouble Maker”. Okay, I got into it a bit.
We want kids to believe in themselves, maybe because we did not get enough of it ourselves. We had corporal punishment, coaches paddled you, English teachers cracked you in the back of your head for double-negatives, and once the teachers got through with you the principal called all the students in the auditorium for a school assembly to give you swats and for a reading of your “permanent record” in front of your friends and worse the kids that did not need ammunition to make fun of you.
Then when your parent finds out about all this, they run into the school pissed and tell the principal’s secretary, they can care less that the principal is a meeting they are going in her office right now. After yelling at the principal for 17 minutes they call for you over the intercom “your mother is in the principal’s office”. Okay a little embarrassing but now mom is here to put the principal in her place. You walk into the office and your mom whips your ass in front of the principal’s face. Not the quick little slaps, but the type of ass beating that if your parent is a Family Court Judge and you post it on YouTube can get him on the national news and possibly removed from the bench (real talk: fired). Different time, your parents beat you for getting beat by other adults. Different time, you see the principal reach for the phone, but it’s to unplug it if you had fantasies of calling a social worker.
Different times, the adults in my life dealt in the truth. The truth was usually followed by a vicious open hand smack to the jaw, but it was honest pain. Today, I must have a sympathetic ear, a kind word, a hand on the shoulder, and followed by a lie for a kid.
Lie: “You can be a lawyer one day”
Truth: “You cannot be a lawyer! You are 15 and already have 2 felonies”
Lie: “If you apply yourself you can bring your grades up”
Truth: “Well if you can stop smoking weed before you come to school in the morning, you could have a clear head and realize for yourself you are in the second semester of your senior year and have 0.29 GPA”
Lie: “Not all cops are out to get you”
Truth: “You have committed 4 robberies, shot 2 people, have a bench warrant for ‘failure to appear’, and the local news has shown your mug shot since 11 last night! So not all cops are out to get you, but all the cops are looking for you!”
There are thousands of kids graduating every year who believe they are going to have the career of their dreams and some will! I know very few people who are doing exactly what they thought they would be doing. The few people I know that ended up doing what intended on doing were 6’6″ or taller and averaged 18 points or more in the Big Ten. The rest of us… work with kids.
For all the issues this country is facing, lots of it comes down to people being in careers they did not see themselves. Let’s be honest, very few of us dreamed about $19,000 a year jobs (The salary of my first job, I cried right after accepting it). 8 years ago I saw friends of mine buying $250,000 homes but they made $28,000 a year. It made no sense to me but since the financial collapse, and watching “Too Big To Fail”, we went through a period where people attempted to live the lives they dreamed of without being able to support that lifestyle.
As I work with kids with dreams it is that lie we tell them that bothers me. Honesty is rough, but we need to do it. We point out teachers in the building, doctors, entertainers, we never point out the janitors. Not that we should find kids to be the janitors of the future, professionals get paid very well, and some work in some nice buildings but let’s be honest… somebody has to sweep the floor! As I navigate the hallways of schools then leave the buildings, I look at the parking spaces of teachers. Nice Honda’s and Toyota’s. The principals, nice Lincoln’s and BMW’s. Then without fail there is the “Building Engineer” parking space with the Corvette… I wish I swept floors.