February 18, 2006

Locked up

My sister has been spending the week here at Tyler Elementary School. Ninety percent of its pupils come from the Potomac Gardens housing project, a place infamous for its open air drug market, frequent gun shots, and just plain being "truly ugly".

The kids know her from their participation in Camp Heaven, a summer day camp at which my sister has been involved for the last two summers. Her boys from that first year have her absolutely enchanted. She spends all school year in Corvallis at Oregon State University dreaming of the time when she'll see them again. This week she's been interviewing with inner city teaching programs in DC and Baltimore. And her boys have been delighted to spend time with her as she's volunteered at Tyler. One jumped out of his classroom seat and ran to her the minute he saw her. Another, who recently moved in with his aunt and away from his abusive parents, clung to her when she gave him a hug.

As you might imagine, Tyler Elementary is not known for its exemplary academic record. The DC public school district has some of the lowest performance scores in the nation and Tyler some of the worst in the DC district. The school disctrict, like many around the country, is facing enormous budget deficits, and the talk is that they are thinking about closing Tyler and busing the kids elsewhere.

Which will mean a lot of those kids won't even bother with school.

A lot of kids across the country come from dysfunctional families, but how many have to deal with people getting stabbed and shot in their own home? So far two of Tammy's boys have. Their parents are often apathetic about education, or too wrapped up in their own drug-induced world, or just not there. One of her boys, when you ask him where his father is, will say in a matter-of-fact, slightly disdainful way, locked up! It's funny to hear the way he says it, yet of course it's heartbreaking at the same time.

One in three African-American males will spend time in prison at some point in his life. For young African-America males in our nation's capital the figure is close to 50%. Year- round unemployment for African-American males ages 20-64 is near 25%. Life expectancy is almost seven years less than white males. And Tammy's boys, at just seven and eight years old, know that they are not going to amount to much. As do the girls, like the one Tammy was helping with reading the other day. This girl was little Miss 'Tude, but as they worked through her assignment, she really did try. After struggling and struggling, she finally stopped and said under her breath, I'm just stupid. While Tammy can tell her she's not and celebrate with her when she does manage to get through her assignment, it will do little to counteract the negative reinforcement this girl gets everyday.

Taxpayers in DC complain that their school district spends more per student than most school disctricts throughout the nation. But frankly, it's because their students need more money than students from middle class suburban schools with parents who don't just make sure their kids get to school, but also to soccer practice and band concerts. As one community website pointed out, Tyler Elementary needs an "educational Marshall Plan."

But as Kanye West so aptly put it a few months back, George Bush doesn't care about black people. And I would add, neither do most white Americans. Not enough to do more than donate some canned goods and feel a moment of sympathy on their way to the Gap.