The Things We Carry: Questioning Systems of Injustice
A Guest Post by Megan Adams
There are two stories that I carry with me each day. I tell them to countless teachers and students; I have used them for training purposes as well as instructional tools. Yet what drives me to be a better educator and a better person is the memory of the two young men who are the main characters of those stories.
One, Ced, should have graduated in 2008. Ced was motivated, driven, and athletic. He had several scholarship opportunities. However, he took the Georgia High School Graduation tests for the first time in 2007 and failed all five of them. He tried a second time, and passed the writing and science portions of the test. He tried a third time, and did not pass any additional tests.
The fourth time was the spring of his senior year. By now he was panicked. We worked after school each day before football practice. That spring, he passed mathematics. However, failing the social studies and language arts portions for the fourth time meant that he could not graduate with his class.
By May most of his teachers were deeply concerned. Ced had lost interest, and felt that he was not capable of passing the tests. He said, “if I can’t pass the tests, ain’t no way college will work for me.” Yet he tried again that summer.
He managed to pass English Language Arts, but failed Social Studies for the fifth time. His score dropped so dramatically that all of his teachers were at a loss. Yet once the fall of 2008 came, he was back again. He gave a shy smile, and said, “I’m not going to quit, yet.” He came back for two weeks to review for the test.
The weekend before he would have tried to pass the Social Studies portion of the Georgia High School Graduation test for the sixth time, he got into an argument with his father about chopping wood.
His father shot and killed him.
Ced, a child who made good grades and did everything right in his early years of high school had all of his hopes stripped from him by testing, the failure of a school system to prepare him, and the environment in which he was raised and never escaped.
Soon after Ced’s death, however, another young man, Rico, came into my classroom. He was another football player, and was a junior in high school. The death of his former teammate shook him into reality. He asked me to calculate his academic grade point average (GPA) in order to calculate his National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) eligibility.
He was a complacent student during his freshman and sophomore years of high school, and was far more interested in popularity than grades. His GPA was a 1.7 out of 4.0. He asked what he could do. “How will I get out of here?” I told him that as a junior, his only option would be to make all As.
He scoffed, but there was a look I couldn’t place in his eyes. Over the course of the school year, he indeed made all As. I was shocked. His GPA continued to climb, and his scores on the ACT were high enough to get into college. Rico passed all portions of his graduation test by the end of his junior year.
What is the point here? As teachers, what can we take from these stories?
It is easy to blame the system; it is no secret that the state of Georgia has changed our education standards and assessment measurements too many times over the past fifteen years – something teachers across the nation can relate to, despite where they live. The teachers can barely keep up. Clearly the system is not working for students.
It is also easy to blame the difference in students’ home lives. But, is that it?
I think there is a deeper, darker issue at play in these stories about social justice. The high school these boys attended was predominantly Black and one hundred percent free and reduced lunch.
There was neither a regional outcry brought on by the first story nor regional shouts of victory brought on by the second. They are just two more students, struggling to overcome a system that is not designed to support them. That system might work, but it might also end in tragedy as in the case of the first child.
Is there nothing more we can do to change that?
Megan Adams is currently an Assistant Professor of Reading Education at Kennesaw State University. Her interests are in researching youth identity and perceptions of empowerment, particularly in the rural, southern United States. She is also interested in taking that work and assisting pre-service and in-service teachers as they improve their reflexive practice to foster social justice teaching. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.