As a St. Paul resident who kept her two sons out of urban public schools, I’ve been following the rising violence in my city’s beleaguered school district more closely than many empty-nest parents.
I’ve been recalling — no, justifying — why I commuted to the Twin Cities from Northfield for 20 years. I wanted my sons to have a well-funded, academically challenging education, and stories and statistics such as these frankly scared me:
- Less than one-third of Saint Paul Public School graduates earn a two- or four-year college degree within six years after leaving high school.
- Only 68 percent of high school students of color graduate on time — 13 points less than the 81 percent graduation rate for whites.
- In December the Saint Paul Board of Education voted to expel a student who, six weeks earlier, had brought a loaded gun to Harding High on the city’s east side.
- Since then teachers have been shoved and assaulted, and district officials learned they face a $15 million deficit.
If all I did was read the paper or watch the news, I would have but a single story about the Saint Paul Public Schools — a story of dysfunction and disrespect. But I know more than I hear or read in the media, thanks to my volunteer work last spring with four then–high school juniors at Harding High.
Here are their stories, the ones they shared and shaped with me during our work together on college-application essays.
An aunt at age 15
Faith was the most disciplined of my four mentees. She turned in her assignments on time. She asked me questions via e-mail, something I could not convince the other three to do. She had the most obvious writing talent.
A self-motivated girl, studious and somewhat shy, she had a knack for writing and a mature ability to see the meaning in her personal struggles and sorrows.
Push, Leah! Push! is all I heard as I stood behind the curtain waiting impatiently. As I heard my 18-year-old sister screaming and my dad talking to her as if she was back on the softball field, I knew right there that my life was going to change. I had another responsibility, to be the best aunt I could be to this newborn baby boy.
She titled her essay “Family Matters.” Her dream was to be a wedding planner. Personally, I wished she would aim for a more intellectual pursuit, and then I remembered what I taught my own sons: All work is honorable.
The five of us become acquainted by sharing our favorite food, sport, car and college dream school. Faith was the only one to choose a private liberal arts college. She comes from a white, working-class family for whom the tuition would have been a stretch, but I believed she could cut it academically.
I recommended her for a scholarship to attend a summer writing camp through the ThreeSixty Journalism program. She passed it up so she could go camping with her family.
Hopes and dreams
My own mentor in this project, a former Saint Paul Pioneer Press colleague named Lynda McDonnell, urged me to keep my fears and feelings in perspective while appreciating the chance to be exposed to other priorities and ways of being.
“Most of us are fairly segregated by income, education and age,” she wrote me after the project concluded, “which leads us to make assumptions about each other that often are narrow-hearted, fearful and flawed.”
I saw that in my assumptions about Yasuhar, a Latino boy who called himself Joshua and whose dream school was Dunwoody College of Technology. He loved soccer, as do my own sons, and so I made a real effort to connect. But he disappointed me, time and time again.
I couldn’t figure out why Joshua kept neglecting to e-mail me his assignments on the iPad his school provided, until he conceded, finally, that he had no Internet access at home.
Do you live near a library? I asked him. “No.” Near a coffee shop? He shook his head. “I live by a McDonald’s.”
Do they have Wi-Fi? I asked, grimacing at how privileged I sounded.
Joshua’s college essay was about his efforts to get a driver’s license. At first, I hardly saw it as an achievement. Weeks into the class he told me that his father — who’s “never really been around as I’ve grown up” — praised him by phone for the accomplishment.
His uncle taught him how to drive. Joshua learned to ask for help. “Getting my license,” he wrote, “has taught me to take advantage of time and the resources around me.” He also wants “to be someone in the future and [be] successful.”
And then the clincher: “Most people say they really don’t see it in me.”
‘A single story’
I heard the phrase “a single story” in a 2009 TED Talk that I happened to see only a few weeks ago. It’s a graceful and gracious argument by Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about why a stereotype — a single story — is so dangerous.
“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person but to make it the definitive story of that person,” she said.
I learned from my too-brief experience as a public school volunteer that knowing the people who shape an institution is a sure way to dispel stereotypes and soften judgments.
Dennis, a Hmong-American boy who recently had made the B honor roll, wrote his essay about the discipline and domestic skills he learned from his beloved aunt, whom he hasn’t seen since he was 10. I learned to overlook the grammatical errors (our project leader called them “lower-order concerns”) so I could find the true heart of his experience:
During my childhood years, I lived with my aunt and uncle. The things that she taught me was useful for my family. She also teach me good manners with a positive attitudes. She is always there for me, and I always thought we would always be like this.
Aileen wrote about her Quinceañera, “the day I had been waiting for since I was younger!” The Latina transition into adulthood, traditionally a preparation for marriage, includes dancing, a church ceremony, a pretty dress and a father-daughter dance.
“It’s a tradition that is passed on to each girl in the family,” Aileen explained. Part of being an adult now, at age 15, was working to contribute income to her family.
My mentees did their best against difficult odds. I was inspired by their talent, exasperated by their apparent apathy and touched by their vision of a better life.
All four aimed to finish high school and get “a good job,” something that would allow them to raise children and buy a house. I had the opportunity to hear their truth — unedited, unvarnished — and to witness how my “single story” only limited them, and myself.