Among the many gifts my parents gave me, both the most powerful and the most mysterious were the books that lined the shelves on either side of our stone fireplace. My dad built the fireplace as a source of heat in the large room that he added to our trailer, and its heat and light provided an ideal place for a child to read the books that arrived through the mail in boxes with exotic labels like Works by Jules Verne or Disney’s World of Fantasy. Even the books I could not read haunted me with the words I deciphered on their spines, such as Native Son, The Way of All Flesh, and Sense and Sensibility.
“The smartest countries tend to be those that have acted to make teaching more prestigious and selective; directed more resources to their neediest children; enrolled most children in high-quality preschools; helped schools establish cultures of constant improvement; and applied rigorous, consistent standards across all classrooms.”
— “What America Can Learn About Smart Schools in Other Countries,” The New York Times
My seniors are writing letters to themselves today, an activity I have students do every year just before the holidays. I will mail these letters to them, as I do every year, when they are 22, only five years in the future, but a universe away. The idea of the adults they will become receiving a letter from their former selves fires their imagination. They write and talk for the full period, describing friends, families, passions, habits to break, or, perhaps, habits to form. I watch them while they work, and on their faces is a pensiveness made of equal parts anticipation, hope, and uncertainty.
One in 30 American children are homeless, and, overwhelmingly, the two most common causes are economics and parental abuse. That’s the statistic I heard driving to school Monday morning. The outside temperature, 21 degrees, was a stark contrast to my car’s heated seats and comfort. In the three months since school began, I have known four students who have been without a place to stay. I hoped they were somewhere warm while I was listening to this radio report.
I grade about 2,000 essays a year. I do so because I am a high school English teacher, and because I also score Advanced Placement essays for a week every summer for Educational Testing Service. The first year I worked for ETS, by the second day of scoring, I had blurred vision, a stiff neck, and a dread of reading the words “relatable” or “cliché” one more time in the student responses to the essay portion of the test. But something happened the third day, the same something that happens when I read my own students’ work. Call it renewed vision. Call it human connection. Or call it fatigue hallucination. Whatever you call it, I began to read the essays as if they spoke directly to me, and what they said was that adolescents are as hungry for decency, hope, and goodness as any generation before them.
Absenteeism in American public schools has reached epidemic proportions. Six million students, one in eight, miss 30 days of school each year and are considered chronically absent. Children of poor families are four times as likely to be chronically absent than their peers and, by ninth grade, seven times more likely to drop out.