Things I Can't Fix
Let me start out by throwing some statistics at you for context. Although numbers may show you a skewed view, for the most part “numbers don’t lie.” The majority of America’s 73.7 million children under the age of 18 live in families with two parents (69 percent) and the second most common family arrangement is children living with a single mother, at 23 percent. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2018). However, more than 72 percent of children in the African-American community are born out of wedlock (Lemon, 2013). Let that sink in for a minute. Repeat those numbers to yourself. 69% of kids in America live in 2-parent homes yet 70% of kids in the Black community live in single parent homes. Let’s dive deeper. Of those below the poverty line (12.7 percent of the population) nearly 5 million were moms or dads heading single-parent families; 8.7 million were children under 18 in these single-parent homes (Samuelson, 2018). Meaning single-parent families and their children totaled almost 14 million people, which is roughly a third of all people in poverty (Samuelson, 2018). Another report in 2017 states 58.2 percent of all poor children lived in single-mother families (Child Poverty in America, 2017). Poverty and single parent homes are linked and the link doesn’t exclude race. White, black, hispanic, etc. Poverty and single parent homes are intercorrelated.
My thoughts, especially as a black man? I’m truly blessed. I was raised in Akron, Oh. Went to school in the inner city and came home to a loving family where my parents were and are still married (30 years and counting). Both had jobs. My father, a respected Sergeant within the Akron Police Department and mother, teacher, massage therapist, sign-language interpreter and more. Although I was surrounded by poverty I didn’t go home to it. I witnessed it, but I wasn’t subjected to it. I vividly remember going to play basketball at Summit Lake (where the legend of Lebron James began) and after the game my father telling me to be thankful and have an awareness of the situation around me. He said “you get to go home to a warm meal and comfortable bed. The kids around you are wondering if, when and where their next meal is coming from”. I remember him telling me “the reality is a lot of these kids won’t make it.” Unfortunately he was right. Over the years a lot of guys I grew up with didn’t make it. Whether it’s been jail, no financial stability, poverty stricken, having children and not being able to support them, and even worse, too many of them have been killed. It’s a vicious cycle that has not been broken.
I can’t fix this. I alone will never be able to fix this. I can’t fix broken homes. I can’t fix children being born out of wedlock. I can’t fix poverty. I can’t fix unfit parents. I CAN’T DO IT. We as educators can’t fix this. We as educators can’t fix broken homes, children being born out of wedlock, poverty, unfit parents. WE JUST CAN’T. IT IS OUT OF OUR CONTROL. But…… Yes there’s a huge but in all of this. I’ve taken a lot of slack over the stance I’m about to share. I’ve had family members stop talking to me, lost a few people who I thought were close to me because of the heated discussions and debates. I even argued with my wife on this (we both came to an agreement :-) And that’s ok because I stand firmly in my belief which is this. It’s not that it doesn’t matter. It’s not that I don’t care. It’s just NO LONGER AN EXCUSE!!!
How many times are we, as educators, more importantly as a society, just going to say “ok, they have a rough and difficult life at home so they have a reason to fail.” “These kids have no guidance, no parental support, and no hope.” “They just don’t have the foundation and I can’t teach them because I can’t get to the other capable students.” Or continue to lower the expectations “all they have is sports so we should lower the GPA so they can play because they have nothing else going for them.” I’m not accepting these excuses anymore.
The knock on my stance is “It’s not fair for you to say or feel that way because you don't understand. You had both parents. You grew up with support.” True. I did. I’m very blessed. But that’s something I couldn’t control and if I could control it I wouldn’t change it. What I can control is having high expectations for every kid I come in contact with. What I can control is believing in them. What I can control is doing my best to guide them. What I can control is not giving them another excuse to fail. What I can control is not accepting the false narrative of they’re already lost. Life isn’t fair…. SO WHAT.
When I was coaching I had a kid who’s home life is terrible. I say is because he's still dealing with the drama and trauma as you read this. Multiple siblings. Mom doesn’t work. Dad is nowhere to be found. Grandma does what she can but she doesn’t have much to give. Living in deep poverty. His clothes are dirty. Hair unkempt and although he is more than capable, his grades are slipping. All he wants to do is play basketball and go to college. He arrived late to practice and I ran him, hard for 20 minutes and then suspended him for a half per our established rules. Some said I was too hard on him because he had to walk a mile to practice. My response was simple, if he’s late to a job what will happen? Will his boss say “oh he has to walk to get here so I’m going to give him a pass.” No, they will fire him. Also as a leader what example does that set for everyone else. Life is tough. He has to learn to overcome his challenges. I'm more than willing to help him, but I'm not going to enable him.
After practice we had a long conversation as he said “Coach can I get a ride home.” My first response was “the same way you asked for a ride home, why didn’t you ask for a ride to practice.” His response, “I have your number but I don’t have a phone” which prompted me to say, “Isn’t there a community center very close to you? Couldn’t you go there and call me.” He simply lowered his head and said “Yes sir.” He said he would’ve been on time but their was a fight between his mother and siblings and he had to break it up. I asked him if there were a lot of fights and he said “all the time.” So I asked him, being there or not are they still going to fight? “Yes” he said. I finally asked him if he really wanted to get out of his situation and break the cycle? He said “Yes coach I’m determined to change things.” Then I told him to stop letting his circumstances be his excuse to fail. I told him if he needs a ride to find a way to call me. "I’ll go out of my way to get you. If you need help ask. If you need to vent I’m here." From that moment on he didn’t miss or come late to another practice. He worked for me part-time training and mentoring younger kids, to earn a few extra dollars. He started doing better in the classroom. I never babied him. I pushed him to the limit every chance I could. I praised him when he executed and challenged him with new goals. He knew my expectations which in return he expected great of himself.
I can’t help but ask what if I accepted his excuse because of his situation? How would enabling him help him? You tell me what you think? I’m not saying don’t have a heart and don’t have empathy but I am saying you have to draw the line.
Another quick story. I went on a bowling outing with a few colleagues. This was a great time. Lots of laughs, food and all around good camaraderie. I noticed a young lady bowling by herself. Bowling strikes, and strikes, and strikes. I left the group and walked over because she had bowled about 6 strikes in a row and she was doing this effortlessly. When I got closer I realized who she was. I had seen her in the newspaper for winning a High School State bowling championship and being the 1st female bowler to bowl a 300 in the High School’s history. When she finished up I asked her "what are you doing here?" She looked at me confused, and rightfully so. Some stranger at the bowling alley walks up to you and asks what are you doing, would be pretty confusing to anyone. I quickly apologized and told her who I was and followed up with asking why are you not bowling in college? She told me she had some opportunities but really didn’t dive into it. I asked her a simple question “Do you really want to bowl in college?” Her response was “Yes, I do.” We walked over to her mother and had a conversation. Her mother told me she would love for her to go but knows she couldn’t afford it all. I asked if she could get a scholarship would she (mom) be all in. Mom said, “Absolutely.'' I told them “I know nothing about bowling scholarships but I’ll do what I can to make something happen, but you (the bowler) are going to have to put in the work as well. I began calling frantically and sending emails to people who I know were bowlers and bowled in college. I emailed college coaches to get information on what to do. I was told to get stats, profile sheets, ACT scores, videos and more for a portfolio. Once I got the information we went to work getting everything in order. Long story short, she was eventually offered a partial scholarship for the following school year. I tell you this story because I don’t simply feel we can’t use these excuses anymore, but I’m putting my feelings into action.
I’m not using or allowing these excuses to be reasons to accept failure. As educators when students with these difficult backgrounds come into our building and our classrooms, as a society when these children come into our lives, we can’t use these excuses as reasons they fail. If they fail it’s because we failed them. If they aren’t successful, it’s because we failed them. If the other students who are capable are not succeeding it’s because WE FAILED THEM. We can’t change the things we can’t fix. We can’t change what they endure outside of our care. We can change what they experience when they are in our care. We have to own that responsibility. Yes, it’s going to be difficult and frustrating but think about what we get to go home too and what they are going home too?
I listened to a speaker the other day, Kenneth Williams @unfoldthesoul, and although I always had this feeling, I didn’t have the words. Ken Williams gave them to me. “Remove judgement and context. They don’t matter if we set the bar. Setting the bar is equity”. He said you have to work with what you have. Setting the bar means “whoever comes into your classroom this is what they need to be successful moving forward. Now some may go over the bar and that’s great. Some may come in already at or above the bar. But no matter what, this is the bar. ALL STUDENTS get to the bar or above. That’s equity.
I can’t control your home life but once we establish the bar I can control getting you there. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them (William Shakespeare). I’m not here for average. I’m not here to make excuses for failure. If they fail, I fail, and I’m on a mission to see them succeed regardless of what they’re going through.
Child Poverty in America 2017 - childrensdefense.org. (2018, September 28). Retrieved from https://www.childrensdefense.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Child-Poverty-in-America-2017-National-Fact-Sheet.pdf
Lemon, D., & Cnn. (2013, July 27). CNN's Don Lemon says more than 72 percent of African-American births are out of wedlock. Retrieved from https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2013/jul/29/don-lemon/cnns-don-lemon-says-more-72-percent-african-americ/
Samuelson, R. J. (2018, March 18). Don't deny the link between poverty and single parenthood. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/dont-deny-the-link-between-poverty-and-single-parenthood/2018/03/18/e6b0121a-2942-11e8-b79d-f3d931db7f68_story.html?noredirect=on
US Census Bureau. (2018, April 10). The Majority of Children Live With Two Parents, Census Bureau Reports. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2016/cb16-192.html