Helping Inner City Students Dream and Create Amidst the Violence of Their Daily Lives

Last week into this one, I was in six different inner city elementary schools through my employer with a major arts initiative. It was a hectic whirlwind of a week, but the end result was that most of the students (with only a handful pulled out for bad behavior) each got to have an individual moment of attention from half their school and from us, with their final projects each getting praise. I was a “guest artist” coming in, and I was wowed by some of the final results. I picked out specific design elements that were impressive whenever possible, and praised the overall project when I couldn’t. And the kids lit up. They soaked all that attention up like sponges. They had created something, and that creation was getting positive attention, something that many of them don’t have.

There were so many that I wanted to take home and give them a bath, a good meal, and clean clothes. So many that I could sense the fragility behind their swagger. So many that met my eyes with a soulful gaze. All at various stages of putting their walls up. All at various stages of losing trust in adults, in themselves.

And during this week, the videos from Spring Valley High School emerged, and people crawled out of the woodwork to support the officer’s violent actions against a child 1/3 of his size. Again, people preaching compliance towards a system rife with abuse, preaching we should all “respect” officers because of the badges they carry and the dangerous job they have, and I am ashamed to say that I once said the same not because of any respect toward them but because I wanted the general population to stay safe. But no, this action is not ever okay, especially not in a classroom setting. If any adult man had touched a daughter of mine like that, I would be in jail because my revenge on him would have been swift and merciless and he would no longer have any balls because they would have been shoved down his throat after being ripped off by my bare hands, and I don’t care how rude she was to him. But no daughter of mine would get treated like that by an officer of the law because my husband and I aren’t black.

That people think this action is okay because she didn’t comply with this officer is so wrong. I’ve seen people using it as a tool to complain about millennials yet again and their rude upbringing, lumping the childhood of the inner city child with those in the suburbs, and it is not the case at all. Last week, while at one of the schools, someone was shot on the street less than a block away and the school had to go into a safety drill. This week, on the last day, one of our people noticed two men going after each other with baseball bats just as school was letting out, again only a block away. The children live in this. The parents that struggle to raise them and love them live in this. Having that level of stress, those cortisol levels raised in the brain all the time do terrible things to you. Add a difficulty in getting proper nutrition and being in an education system that’s run like a prison most of the time, is it any wonder that they act the way they do? Beyond that though, how can so many still be in denial about America slipping into a police state? How can so many willingly hand their power over to others? I don’t understand the mindset at all.

I’m glad we were able to do what we did in the schools. Maybe getting them in touch with their creative sides will give them a means to escape the reality of their lives, will give them goals and dreams to work toward to hopefully break the cycle of poverty and abuse. That positive connection to adults may be enough for some of them. But not all. And that hurts.

The Destruction of a Child

I went into an inner city elementary school last week with several people from my work as part of an arts initiative, and I witnessed something very troubling to me. While in the midst of working with a kindergarten class, in a somewhat chaotic situation, one of the teacher aides began yelling and berating a little boy who had started crying. This boy was sitting in his seat, sobbing, and the teacher aide kept going “Stop crying! You have nothing to cry about! Do you want to be taken out of here? Stop crying right now!” I felt like I had been punched in the stomach, as I was continuing to work with the other children, and all of the children surrounding this one stopped smiling and immediately blank faced, not making eye contact, not betraying a single emotion themselves. None of the other teacher aides interceded, and finally the nasty aide pulled the boy out of the room and got him to calm down and brought him back.

I had to walk away. I wanted so badly to slap the lady, to scream at her that she was causing possibly irreparable damage to a potentially already damaged child, not to mention the effect on the rest of the kids, but I was a guest to the school. And, had I done that, who knows what effect that would have had on the students? As soon as I knew I could speak, I did tell one of the people from our organization that is in that school on a regular basis, and she said “Well, we don’t know that situation. It could be a child that just cries for attention. We don’t know what’s going on and can’t judge.” So we went about our business and left. But all I could think is that even if a child is ‘just crying for attention’, it means that something is wrong somewhere, and shouldn’t a little effort be made to find out what was wrong? Maybe he was scared, or had to go to the bathroom, or has some undiagnosed SPD issues. It could be anything, and screaming at him isn’t helping him in the least.

The faces of the other children were what did me in. The total shutting down at such a young age. How often have they had their sense of “I am” destroyed in their short lives by those that are supposed to be caring for and instructing them? How many times have they been told not to speak or show emotion or disrupt what is going on around them? And how many more times can they take such treatment before they permanently shut down? And while I can’t help but have empathy for the aide, who is probably only repeating a cycle that was done to her, or maybe is just too run down with working against the odds in a neighborhood like that with so little resources, or who knows what, I can’t condone the treatment to those students. It is detrimental to all of us in society to allow these cycles to continue.

If I worship anything in this life beyond a generic “higher power”, it is the divine potential we each carry within us, the spark of creation and possibility that exists in our minds and souls. I think this is why I love young children so much. Up until sometime between age 5 and 8, their minds are so open to everything, so willing to soak in life and experience things on both a micro and macro level, and all of their possible future selves coexist in their beings. Then, at some point, the possible future selves get whittled down by outside forces and we become solidified into who we will become and breaking out of those walls grows very difficult. So when I see someone who is supposedly an authority over a young child abusing the position and not treating their responsibilities with care, it is a polluting of something sacred to me. And it hurts. A lot.

At the very least, everyone in the class, including the sobbing boy, enjoyed the work we did and got to be active participants in the program. They got to experience something they’ve never experienced before, and with a little encouragement and praise, they were beaming and excited. And maybe what we presented will be something that will get at least a handful of them through their difficult young lives and able to pull themselves out of the cycle they are currently trapped in. But my heart grieves for the ones that are lost already.

The Perpetuation of Societal “Systems”

Ah, System of a Down. This song still rings so true. And I had to include the link as thinking about the system of systems got me thinking about this song.

So much of our lives today are controlled by various systems. We have the education system, the health care system, the welfare system, the prison system, systems of belief (religions of all sort), the systems of government, energy systems, non-profit systems of various sorts, and so on and so forth until thinking about it makes your head spin. And not all of these systems are necessarily as broken as the prison system in existence in America today, but there is a major problem with all of these entities. That problem is that regardless of the type of system in place, at some point the function of the system becomes almost entirely to perpetuate that system, so that the societal issues it was created to address becomes less and less relevant in comparison to the needs of that perpetuation. And that is when the systems become at best an annoyance to society and at worst, a very real danger.

We humans are so creative and so innovative, but then we get complacent, people start to feel greedy and power-hungry, and we get stuck in a rut, not always by our own choosing. There is, I fear, a dumbing-down and numbing effect by lingering too long in these ruts, though, and that is not healthy for us as a species.

I feel so much compassion for the people caught up in these systems too. So one of the questions that most interests me when I contemplate society breaking itself out of these societal ruts and growing to new potentials is: how do we transition those caught in the machine right now? If new energy is the future, then can we take the people currently drilling and transporting oil and working in nuclear plants and train them in the new technology? If America wanted to move to true national coverage for healthcare, can those working currently for private insurers have the opportunity to become employees in the new system? How would that even work? It’s interesting to think about.

As far as the American prison system goes, I have a story. My husband worked for the city where we lived in CA, and they had a fantastic program that worked with former convicts to train them and transition them for jobs once they got out of prison. The city went from having one of the highest recividity rates in the country to one of the lowest. And then they lost their grant money, because they weren’t one of the worst rates any more. So a program that worked lost their funding because it worked too well. The moral of that story is that you are more likely to keep your funding if merely skate along and show some improvement but not too much improvement. Such a backwards way of thinking to me.

What systems trap you the most? Which ones would you break out of? And which would you like to see society eventually shed itself of? I’m curious.

Oklahoma’s Short-Sighted Decision to Cut Funding for the AP U.S. History Course

Oklahoma is the first of several states that are considering banning the Advanced Placement U.S. History class taught at the junior level in high schools across the country because of the supposed negative presentation of much of the material. Indeed, OK is even considering now banning all AP coursework under the same guidelines that they blocked the Common Core, which is so incredibly short-sighted even by normal ‘Murican standards that it makes my head hurt.

Americans should learn about the reality of their history, as much as possible, and the groundwork for that should be laid when they are teenagers – old enough to understand that the world can be awful, young enough to still question why. Candy-coating documented facts to stop your most intelligent students from questioning our way of life is totalitarianism. And it seems to me if you are a red-blooded, patriotic ‘Murican, you’d want your children to learn all the awful things that those in control in our country have done so that history doesn’t repeat itself. If you want to be a true “watchdog” for freedom, then you need to know how little of it has actually ever existed. And it’s not that our history as a nation is completely negative, but it is far easier to have a class discussion around a controversial topic, and, as I’ve said before on this blog, it is a whole lot easier to fix societal problems when you actually know that problems exist.

I took every AP course that interested me in high school, and where it differs from Common Core is that the exam is not mandatory for passing the course. It is merely the opportunity at the end of the class to score high enough for college credit. So teachers used past exams at the end of every chapter to get us used to the format, but it wasn’t the focus. Instead, the focus was on discussions and writing essays that involved drawing our own conclusions from the information learned. It was truly college level work at the high school level. And I hate the thought of states taking that away from their students.

“Preach, my dear sir, a crusade against ignorance…” Thomas Jefferson

A couple of Christmas’ ago, my in-laws bought us a Kindle.  Besides trying to support my favorite independent authors, I also use my Kindle to support a habit I started several years ago of perusing Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/) and reading old, sometimes forgotten works.  I try to alternate between the novels/novellas and project Gutenberg, and I usually read these while reading a paperback or hardcover (there are some instances where one works better than the other) so it can take a long time to get through something.  Currently, I’m working on the second volume of Thomas Jefferson’s Memoirs and Letters.  And I came across this quote that I had to share.  It’s from a letter written in France to Mr. Wythe on August 13th, 1786.

“Preach, my dear sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people.  Let our countrymen know, that the people alone can protect us against these evils [of tyranny currently in France], and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose; is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests, and nobles, who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.”

This strikes home to me.  While we don’t label them kings, priests, and nobles, we are definitely in a have/have-not situation here in the United States, where education is valued less than war and commercial gain, where it seems in the power structure’s best interest to keep us as ignorant as possible, where we are all caught in the dance and whirl of material desires and media spin.

We need to look to the nations with the top education, health care, and technology stats and emulate them if we are not to continue our descent into the dust.  We need to base our opinions on the facts (as we actually can dig them out) and be able to debate civilly on issues.  We need to do what is best for society as a whole without infringing on the rights of individuals.  And we can do it as long as we can get rid of the special interests that currently hold our government hostage.  Will we be able to?  That remains to be seen.

I think most of the founding fathers would be very disappointed with the fear and ignorance that grips our nation today, and that saddens me.