Thursday, June 26, 2008

Little Black Boy Lost

This picture touched me. The photo is from this story in the NY Times about a new program for struggling students in Spring Valley, New York. Kids are held back in school if they can't meet the requirements and then placed in a special class, called the "Gift of Time", where the teacher concentrates on basic skills. The kids are promoted if they reach certain benchmarks. Check out the story if you have the time.

Then look at that little boy's face again.

He doesn't seem like he received a gift. In the story, educators, experts, parents and students discuss the program and give it mixed reviews. They talk about its pros and cons and the article is very balanced. Yet, when I looked at that little boy, at his expression, his clothing, at his eyes, well I knew everything I needed to know.

It's very clear how he feels about his gift.

I remember the kids who flunked in elementary school. Maybe it was because I went to public school, but I don't remember there being a huge stigma associated with flunking, although everyone was aware of which kids were one or two grades behind. Shoot, a lot of the "cool" kids in elementary school and middle school were kids behind in the classroom.

I wonder now if those kids were embarrassed about being behind. Did they view school as some sort of torture chamber where all of their weaknesses were exposed? When I constantly raised my hand to answer questions (Yeah, I was that kid.) did they view me with jealousy or hatred? What went through their minds when teachers said "this is the reason why you always fail!?"

I can't really decide if this program is good or bad. We all know that whenever institutions start grouping folks based on perceived intellectual ability black folks get the shaft. Some people would argue that is because black folks keep effing up, but y'all know what I think about that.

I know that school systems have a history of labeling black children, particularly black boys, as being "special needs" children in an attempt to remove them from regular classes and warehouse them. These children often are very intelligent, but have other emotional problems that can make them harder to educate. Often, by labeling these children as being "special needs" school systems can avoid having their test scores count on the same scale as the scores of children in regular classes.

Yet, hasn't it been proven that smaller class sizes and individual attention help children learn? If programs like this one give children the type of instruction that benefits them, can the program really be bad? Sure, there is a potential for things to go awry, but is that potential enough to invalidate the entire enterprise?

I grappled with those questions when I read this article, when I read these people's comments. And I kept coming back to that little boy's picture. To me, his picture says that this program has an effect on the psyches of these children, that something vital is lost inside them even as an education is gained.

My past experiences say that children don't have to be outcasts if they are removed from regular classes, but looking into that boy's eyes, I'm not so sure. That little boy looks like he's already lost, like he's already decided that this education thing isn't for him. His eyes seem to say that he's not one of the smart kids and he never will be.

I know that's not true, but I'm not sure he ever will.


WNG said...

Papa G contends that one of the worst things ever to happen to Black boys was the desegregation of the public school system, because it moved the 'best and brightest' teachers and students to 'white' schools and left the poor or struggling boys behind. I don't know whether it's true or not, but I do understand his point. I understand yours as well. My only question is how do you know why his eyes are so shuttered and shattered? I don't think you're seeing pain where there isn't any - I think you may be jumping to a reason for that pain.
I personally think that programs like this can work if the teachers and school administrators are dedicated to the long term success of each student. If they expect you to catch up with your classmates and move back into the mainstream - if it is inconceivable to them that you will not and they can pass that belief on to you along with the reading and math skills then they can save lives. If not then the most wonderfully planned programs aren't worth too much. You create a culture of failure or a culture of success.
(i saved all the words i didn't use yesterday for today)

Big Man said...

Great comment WNG and that was the issue I struggled with when writing this blog.

Like you, I think that if you give troubled kids more attention it can often turn them around. However, I was concerned about how kids would react to being removed from the regular classes with their friends and thrust into these classes where everybody is behind. I also just have a deep distrust that people within the school system are going to sacrifice to help these kids when it's much easier to segregate them, label them as "special" and never have to worry about them. I know that's cynical, but it meshs with my past experiences.

Finally, a friend of mine said I was projecting my own concerns on to the little boy's face, that she didn't see the same thing I saw when I looked at him. Both of you all may be right. But, something about how is eyes are lidded and the set of his mouth said to me that he was unhappy. Now, that could be related to a whole bunch of things other than being moved to this special class, but I just felt like it was something about this class that didn't sit well with him. That maybe he didnt' like being trotted out for pictures in the slow class. I also got the same vibe from the other kids who were mentioned in the article.

Thanks for being such a loyal commenter WNG.

OG, The Original Glamazon said...

Big Man, I was just reading the article in Essence about the CNN Black America special and they talk to the inmates in St. Quentin about why they are so motivated now to get educated and one 25 year old said the reason he could do it now was because he had been too embarrassed to stay in school because he couldn't keep up and didn't want everyone to think he was stupid.

The fact is people learn differently and knowing how some one learns can contribute greatly to them being a success in standardized education. I think we as a nation are JUST starting to get that. Anyway as always thanks for enlightening us!!


Truthiz said...

Yeah, that picture really does grab one's attention!

And WNG's response really does sum it up for me.

Well said WNG!

WNG said...

Yea! Compliments!
I understand your concerns, Big Man, I have them too. I think that the people involved in each program matter more than whether the child is pulled out of the 'regular' classroom. Talented, skilled and passionate teachers can make a world of difference. Sadly, not every program has them.

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des said...

Big Man, if you haven't already, I recommend HBO's " Hard Times at Douglass High". It documents an entire school year at Douglass High School in Baltimore. If you thought the " no child left behind" act was a joke before, this will confirm it, but more than that, some of the kids will either make you angry or make you weep. And you'll wonder when they lost the spark just the young man in the picture.

Raving Black Lunatic