January 3, 2010
Lost Boys Revisited
We are losing our boys. The fathers of our future generations. Removed from the learning process and disenfranchised from education altogether, it’s time to acknowledge this social problem that has been dumped on the schools. As a teacher I’ve noticed an alarming trend, one that has been present far too long in the cavalcade of statistics that now finds itself a prevalent elephant in the living room that is public education.
It’s no secret that kids are succumbing to boredom, drugs, alcohol and poor peer and life choices in record numbers. If we can’t get to them before they drop-out of high school, it costs them at least ten years to get back on track, if at all. Is this a problem created by the schools? Though a convenient thirty-second, pat answer sound bite, schools are hardly where the problems emanate, but they serve as an early warning system for identifying the problem. The teachers? A convenient group backed by a union they are an easy target to scapegoat, nevertheless, an inaccurate supposition. Our culture? Certainly a contributor, but definitely dwelling in the derivative category at this juncture.
Plain and simple the client has changed. Our kids have truly distinguished themselves as a unique generation, different from the ones that preceded it. They are denizens of technology, many of them keyboarding efficiently at about the same age that we were planning who to sit next to during snack time. We certainly can’t solely attribute this trend of losing our boys on the fact that our kids know that hacking doesn’t refer to what you do when you have a particularly brutal case of bronchitis. It’s a simple time in some ways, namely, that so much is available. Bounty abounds, but the choices are overwhelming for our children. Being normal doesn’t seem to be enough. We have kids who are bored, but overwhelmed. Seems like an unlikely combination and yet I’ve seen it time and time again.
In a perfect world, everyone’s family would be functional and all needs would be met for everyone in the household. A kid’s biggest problem would be that yet another goldfish experienced its last gasp in the dirty fish bowl that was supposed to be cleaned by the child who begged for that very same fish. But things don’t work that way and needs getting met should be a goal, not an ideal. There is a difference. The goal can be met, the ideal seems to just get talked about. And, yes, schools can be a mechanism of delivery for these needs. But it should look different than the pattern of failure the child has already experienced. Academics and punishment do not motivate everyone.
As the bureaucratic wheels grind, our children are trapped under the wheels as misdirected political vehicles roll over our best resources – our kids. And I’m not talking about those kids who have astronomically and seemingly impossible grade point averages of something like 4.8, what we refer to as the “top level kids.” The kids I’m referring to probably reside somewhere in the mid-range on the educational mapping system, though they are often our brightest on the intelligence chart. I’m talking about the kids who find failure easy and success as elusive as garnering help.
Some schools don’t even offer Language Arts tutoring from credentialed teachers. Oh, sure, students seeking assistance can go into a classroom where the “smart” kids congregate, tutoring other kids who haven’t been demoralized enough by their lack of success, so they’re going to choke down their humiliation as another adolescent their age tells them, “Good job!” and lauds them for their efforts? Why do we do that to our kids?
I’m a mom of two daughters, but I’ve had the honor of “mothering” many young men, as a high school teacher. While it’s not too late for interventions at the high school level (never say, “Die!”), we’re losing them way before that. Disturbingly, we tend to lose our boys as early as elementary school, which is when they begin their long, slow trudge to apathy. While correlations to lack of reading skills, learning disabilities and human development principles may apply, it’s not that simple. About the same time that girls find themselves subject to unbelievable peer pressure that has their academic excellence negatively labeling them a “brain,” it can perhaps be noted that boys face the bane of their existence: reading. The former encourages a majority of females to eschew their previous practice of acing all Science and Math tests and the latter has boys checking out of all things literary and thereby, “girly.“ When our backs are against the wall, we posture, even as children.
Schools operate on rules and regulations so, often, school meetings address a child’s lack of progress with a punitive solution: Boot ‘em on over to a basic 3-R,“Readin’ Ritin’, and ‘rithmetic” school and get ‘em some learnin’. (What about the misspellings brought on by those 3-R’s?) Is that what we’re reduced to in our socially savvy culture? Is that the kind of village we want to be raising our kids in? The Village of the Damned? I’ve taught in these programs and I’m here to tell you that you can’t help children when both you and they are in the muck, without any sort of program and I’m not referring to just an academic program. If you have a moment and you’re not jumpy from overcaffeination, visit an alternative school classroom some time. It can be a frightening reality check. Each child has been less successful than the next and they all commit a reverse move on the old axiom, “The cream rises to the top.”
Many young men live, breathe and matriculate failure early on and sometimes we notice, but the process of intervening seems to hogtie even the most adventurous of educational good samaritans. How do we help? More testing, more homogenous grouping, more interaction with other peers who aren’t cutting it. What happened to good, ‘ole study hall?
Testing isn’t the answer to our collective academic pain. Would we do that with adults? “Well, Joseph, you’re obviously feeling the pain of loss, academic anxiety and facing a particularly nasty challenge with that learning disability. By the way, sorry to hear about your recent divorce. Please show up in the lunch room next month and we’ll subject you to a long, mind numbing test for which you can see no real purpose and we’ll threaten you with those results, so that you won’t be able to advance our promotional ecosystem. By the way, we care, but I’m sure you just know that.” A ridiculous scenario, I know, but sometimes it takes traveling to the heights of ridiculousness to level off at the plateau of reality.
We must not assess blame, but rather broaden the category to classification as a social problem that we can address. Many of us who work in the educational system agree on this tag, knowing that schools are the last bastion for delivering what many do not receive at home, namely, structure and accountability. Throw in, boundaries, consequences, compassions, attention and programs that deliver all or some of that too. Notice nowhere in there was any mention made of stanines, state standards, test results or longer instructional days. I say this, not because I have impressive “ph-type” letters behind my name or an “I hate testing!” bumpersticker on my car, but because I have seen the wreckage firsthand.
Though I’ve devoted years to working with at-risk youth, I would like to humbly divulge to you that I have often failed in my attempts to deflect and deflate the continuous onslaught of anger and hostility that presents itself in the form of an often six-foot plus, raging, adolescent student who has no use for academics. Regardless of how much training we have, there are less and less of “us” to go around, “us” being defined as teachers, counselors and our ilk. We struggle to get these kids to attend school, even three times a week, and are hammered by impediments like the exit exam, even at alternative schools. These young people are as mired in the educational muck as they are in bureaucratic red tape. The exit exam becomes much more of an ironic name when it is applied to children whose feet are poised at the exit sign of every school door they’ve ever walked through.
We live in a time of political correctness which, unfortunately, is also hurting our children, specifically, by not fulfilling their needs. I bet you’d be surprised to learn that high school students can be pretty darned affectionate. I often kid around with my students saying, the day I can’t hug my students, is the day I’m really done teaching because they need that attention, those hugs. They also need to know that they’re accountable. They need community. These are not new ideas, so why is it we must bring back that which works but has been rendered obsolete for a variety of reasons, funding always being the answer to the query?
What I see is a huge need for mentoring and a system that delivers possibilities in a different way. What helps? Providing purpose, connections, someone to talk to in an environment that hasn’t already been established as negative. These kids frequently don’t have anywhere to go. A place to fit in.
At seven in the morning I often see teenagers, up to no good, already up and “At ‘em!” Do they like to get up early? No, but often the reality of their existence is they either have nowhere to go or nowhere good to go and what they come up with to entertain themselves is not something you’d be too thrilled to know about in the specific. High school becomes the Last Chance Saloon for so many of these young men and the excuses that “my teacher doesn’t like me,” “I don’t like this class,” or “I’m not going to college anyway” has been played out. They’re beyond even offering up excuses. They feel hopeless and it doesn’t seem very healthy to just keep looking the other way.
After school programs and programs linking youth with adults, often in the form of business outreach are crucial. How important are they? Imperative. Even in my small community these kids wander around, left to their own devices and the devices of worn-out social workers and beleaguered teachers. Parents long ago threw up their hands shouting, “I don’t know what else to do.” I have been privy to these conversations time and time again. What can we do? Plenty. It’s tough for a teacher to make a student accountable when they’re with them only in the daylight hours, so that’s why it’s critical to bring supportive relationships into play.
We need to call this situation for what it is and stop this culture of blame. Take responsibility. Okay, so sometimes it doesn’t feel like it should have to be your responsibility, but you don‘t feel as though you should always be the one to load the dishwasher and you do it anyway, don‘t you? Otherwise, paper plate sales would be way higher than they are.
They’re our kids in our communities, so you see, and there’s no escaping the connectivity. Companies can sponsor nearby schools and many communities already do this. It’s a great way to make sure the generation gap remains a gap and not a chasm. These days, it really isn’t just about the money. It’s about time, wisdom and patience. Be ready when you interact with teenagers because while many are amazing, the ones we’re talking about, the ones we’re losing, will not have the welcome mat out.
How long do we just sit back and ponder this alarming trend? Yes, truancy laws and other punitive methods might take a stab at accountability, but it’s temporary. you know what really helps? Mentoring, mentoring, mentoring. We must, not only identify what works and get programs in place, but maintain these treasured programs, while also giving participants the tools they need. This is a great plan for success. Oh, yeah, and the best thing that works? Not cutting the programs that do work, but instead accelerating the proliferation of others. Vocational programs have taken a major hit and that is a big mistake. We will take the major hit for that. For those who are not motivated by academics, where are they to go? This question becomes rhetorical.
Homogenously housing kids who have been unsuccessful in school is a rollover that seems convenient, unless you‘re trying to help these kids. It’s not the answer. Being accountable to our young people and making a pact with one another that we will keep trying, is what will lead us down the correct path at this fork in the road. We are dramatically affected by one another’s successes and failures and that shouldn’t be a lesson we’re taught over and over again.