Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Definition of Urban Education

According to Google’s web definition, “education” is defined as: the gradual process of acquiring knowledge; "a preparation for life"; the result of a good upbringing, especially knowledge of correct social behavior. As such, education often encompasses all of these. In the United States, all children are given the right to obtain an education from the age of five through the age of 21. In America the public education system provides everything from teachers, textbooks, and computers, to playgrounds, libraries, swimming pools, and science labs. All of these components lead, or aim to lead, to a “preparation for life.” However when one adds the word “urban” to “education” on the Google search engine, many of these presupposed rights are transformed into luxuries.

Urban education does not actually even have a Google-web definition. (To give some perspective, the words “bootylicious” and “muggle” have multiple listings on the Google-web definition search). Without this transparent demarcation, I instead need to rely on my first hand experience in Guilford Elementary Middle School, a Baltimore County school, to shed light on what urban education is truly like. The rooms with temperatures in the 80’s even in October due to poor circulation; ripped and dated text books; garbage littering the floor; cell phones and swearing contaminating the delicate academic atmosphere; and talented teachers using every ounce of energy they have to get through a lesson only 25% of the students retain: this is urban education. This is what children in cities face every day. This is how the system fails and these are the victims who fall through the cracks.

In “My Papa’s Waltz,” by Theodore Roethke, the speaker describes a dangerous dance done by him and his father, as abuse is imminent and disguised through that of the seemingly benign ritual of the waltz. Through the use of verbs like romped, battered, scraped and beat, Roethke creates the perfect depiction of neglect in contrast to the unconditional love expected in a parent-child relationship. Much like the relationship between urban environments and the education system, their connection is flawed. Urban communities rely on the education system to pull their children out from the poverty and ignorance plaguing their environments, much like the son relies on his father for approval and love. In both these situations, the dependent is being let down by the one role model who is supposed to support them unconditionally. At the end of the poem, the speaker desperately adds, “you beat time on my head With a palm caked hard by dirt, Then waltzed me off to bed Still clinging to your shirt.” This colors the relationship between urban communities and the public education system even more, as despite its vast shortcomings, education is the only way to defeat these injustices; the communities have no choice but to continue to cling to the shirt that is urban education.

Much like Ceri in, “The Video,” by Fleur Adcock, those in urban communities often suffer in the shadows of prospering suburban areas. Maryland is currently ranked number one in the country in public education, rewarded with a gold star for success as they out shine all other 49 states. However, that does not mean that Baltimore City and County school districts are producing test results that meet acceptable standards. Instead of pitting both communities against each other like, “The Video,” we must as a country realize our strengths lie in combining resources and assist each other whenever possible. Maryland cannot remain number one in The Race To The Top if we neglect any of our children.

To say that those in Guilford Elementary Middle School are failed cases that have slipped through the cracks, however, would be a mistake. These children have fought all kinds of adversity that I wasn’t even aware existed at their age – and they manage to smile and laugh while doing it. The children I work with at Guilford Elementary Middle School do not need help on basic concepts their peers have already mastered; instead these children choose to stay after to further their knowledge and compete in local competitions for academic accolades. For these boys are girls hardship is a given and one that they will have to endure if they have any hope of living the American dream and thus achieving more than their parents did. In a world where temptation is everywhere and safety nets are frail at best, these children, even at age nine, keep themselves on track in order to succeed. It is not true that every child in the urban education system has failed. But it is imperative that we examine the obstacles that face them daily and aim to diminish these the best we can if we ever hope to increase the quality of urban education. In eliminating these hurdles, we will create a more just education system, which provides equal wisdom to all regardless of lines on a map.

Finally, “Untitled,” a shocking poem written by Peter Meinke, depicts an apology from a father to his son after years of physical and emotional abuse. The line, “because when I needed to strike you were there to be hurt and because I thought you knew you were beautiful and fair…” portrays a heart wrenching confession equipped with a sense of honesty and selflessness that was clearly not present in the relationship before. As the holes in the urban education program come to the surface, so too do the apologies. Programs such as Teach for America, founded in 1990, are now so popular that their selectivity is higher than the nations top law schools.[1] It is with hope, determination and a sense of humility that our nation begins to look in the mirror and address the root problems that contribute to poverty in the United States. The speaker concludes his apology with, “I think anything can be killed after a while, especially beauty, so I write this for life, for love, for you, my oldest son Peter, age 10, going on 11.” Although urban education is one of the largest obstacles facing politicians, educators and communities it is our nations’ future that we hold in our hands and the beauty of knowledge that we must work unwavering to preserve.

[1] Winerip, Michael. "A Chosen Few Are Teaching for America." New York Times, 11 July 2010. Web. 18 Oct. 2010. .

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