Stuck in the Middle: How Education Contributes to the Business of Inequality - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Stuck in the Middle: How Education Contributes to the Business of Inequality

It was not how any of us wanted the school year to end. There, in yellow bags, were the leftovers of my twins’ 4th-grade school year. I felt sad. The year was tragically cut short as if everything stopped just before my kids’ 10th birthday. They hit double digits during the year of the pandemic was a challenge for them.

I was asked by the editors to do a story on the possible deficits that remote or online learning would have on disadvantaged kids, predominantly minority and poor white kids. I hesitated because inequality in education was institutionalized right after Brown v. The Board of Education. Historically, even without our endemic race problem in the U.S., education was never valued by our communities or by our government. In general, the U.S. Government spends almost 10 times more on military spending than on education when we add current spending. No one would ask we defund the military, but K-12 education as never been equal, and busing laws after the Supreme Court’s historic ruling was a way to ensure that minorities were kept isolated from whites.

A Father’s Tale

Painfully, my kids were all too aware. Though I am white, my kids are biracial but go to a largely white public school. The school does its best to included diversity, but when diversity is at about 10% and their racial group is far lower, feelings of difference and isolation mount. Sitting in a class of 26 kids and 1 teacher, my daughter says to me, “If I go back to that school, my head will explode.” My son, less vocal, is losing that spark in his eyes, scoring consistently in the 90th and 91st percentile on intelligence tests, he is angry and bored out of his mind. His sister interprets, “Basically, we sit in a chair all day and follow rules. They always yell because other kids act stupid.”

They like their teachers. They are capable professionals that are being asked to do miracles every day. Could any of you handle 26 kids for 8 hours, five days per week? This is not about bad teachers but about good teachers being asked to do too much.

Often, what is left out is that poor white kids also get less than opportunistic education because kids are told to do and to follow, not to lead. They also have little opportunity to build good social skills and learn how to have and manage healthy relationships.

I decided that as a dad and a college professor for nearly 20 years, such is a life and death situation in terms of my kids’ wellbeing. I had to put them in private school.

Do Your Kids Lead or Follow?

During the private school interviews and search, I am in a class. There are seven kids and one teacher. The diversity is at least 50%. The one girl comes in from a robotic class, “I keep failing,” she says to the teacher. The teacher replies, “I don’t know what that means. Can you tell me?”

The girl says, “I just could not keep the robot in the circle.” She developed the code to move the robot. She is 9, nearly my daughter’s age. There are no grades in the school because why would grades be our focus? Think about that.

The point of grading is not learning or to show a child learned. The point of grading is to show that this kid is better than another kid, and such can be okay in terms of competition. We need competition, but it kills self-esteem for those vulnerable when only grades are the focus. These kids, in private school, are active thinkers that learn to solve their own problems and that choose to work on what they need to when they decide they need to. Teachers guide; they don’t tell. In the many schools I visited, some all day, I never heard a teacher yell once. Often in public schools, my kids say the worst part is the constant yelling and the notorious bad teachers that cannot be fired, even when they lie and are physically abusive to students.

In short, these kids are our future leaders.

Being Smart and Hard Working Doesn’t Matter

But then the painful reality set in. My son scores so high that he is pretty much a shoo-in at every top school (unless he refuses to do a writing prompt, which did happen). My daughter, an honor student, is often rejected because they compare the two. Few would fair well against my son: he memorized the whole globe, knows every country, lake, province, state; he memorized the solar system and the periodic table, all at 6 years old. He corrects my pronunciation, and I often rely on him to spell words.

In the public school system, my son is expendable, a nobody. Given that his highest score in all areas of learning and intelligence is qualitative analysis, he could have a bright future if only I could fork over $40,000 per year.

As the psychologist told me when giving the test, “He just kept going and going, and I stopped once I hit what a 16-year old can do. My daughter is solid in math, the psychologist noting, “I would give her a problem, and I have no idea how she got that answer that quickly. Yet when I ask about math she says, ‘I am not good at math because math is hard.’”

Yet in this world, smart kids mean little if they don’t have money. To the private schools, my daughter, who was assessed as competent and “able to handle the rigor of private schools” is expendable.

The public school system in Anne Arundel County offers nothing for what we used to call “gifted” kids, unless one can fork over money. Even then, some programs seem more moneymakers, employing graduate students, not experts, to teach the kids. It seems a way to make money off parents.

I am not boasting about my kids. I am sure your children are very capable if they were given a chance at a real, quality education.

It’s tough, though, to witness every time my son gets into a school, he cannot celebrate, because my daughter gets rejected. She is perceptive and knows this. It kills her. Does this process seem like a good idea?

Many Capable Kids Have Social “Deficits”

But for all these upsides, my children really struggle socially. Where many kids are masters at communication and having and making friends that look and act like them, my kids have “deficits.” They look different. “They say I am adopted because my dad is white, and I say at least I was wanted,” my daughter says. She goes on, “They say I am every race, Chinese, Japanese, Black, and Mexican” but theirs. She is angry.

They are also part of the wired generation, and I sense they really want friends but have build up defenses, almost hostile, my son, saying, “I don’t like people. The best way to handle stuff is not to talk about it. That just makes me feel uncomfortable. Well, I don’t dislike people …” He is angry.

I am in mental health. I understand the signs but still feel helpless. If I don’t get my son and daughter in a better place, they may abandon learning along with their self-confidence. Such can brood bad depression and a life of alienation. Most boys lose interest in education at my son’s age. I will do everything not to let that happen.

If You Want A Gifted Kid, Teach Them to Listen and Pay Attention

In truth, being good at school is not a major factor in learning. Socialization is. We finally found a school that was different than the others. They embraced our kids, sent a welcome video, and when my children left, a few days later, cards came in the mail. After the shadow day, my daughter says to me,

“Dad, I have been learning Spanish for 6 years, and I cannot hardly speak a word. These kids are my age and speak so much better. We have international arts at our old school, but we only learn Spanish. They don’t do any countries but Canada and Mexico.”

She understands inequality. She is perceptive and has wanted to be a veterinarian since she was 5.

“Dad, I can be a K-Pop star because I am pretty, but it’s hard to be a K-Pop star, so if that does not work, I will be a veterinarian.”

They both said they liked the kids at the new school because they behaved better. As the social work quote goes, it’s “attention over behavior.” If you value a kid, they behave better when you give them attention and teach them how to actively listen, skills that few adults know. It really is that simple, but such are difficult concepts to implement.

It was yet another school. I was sure they would want the Quaker school. Both kids got into my car and said, “That school is horrible. The food is bad, and the kids push each other and misbehave.” For the first time, my twins, total opposites, agreed, looked at me and said, “Dad, we want to go to” the school that welcomed them.

Hugs First, Learning Second

I knew in hindsight that the school was right. They can be in a junior high with approximately 30 students, getting two breaks to go outside a day, or they can be in a big feeder school with hundreds and get no time outdoors, a prison for junior inmates. They will get little if any time to socialize, where any touch is a bad touch and communicating is generally bad.

In public schools, liability comes first, budget comes second, and education is third. In one hour at the private school, I saw three hugs: two sets of students and one teacher, child. I knew then it was the right school.

After getting a 50% tuition cut through scholarships, I think I can manage a second job to cover the cost, but that is over $100,000 is five years. I made such my major goal in five years, give up almost everything to fund their education.

I am happy for my kids and my privilege in having a job, but I am unhappy that such a prosperous nation robs so many kids of a decent education. It sets kids up for failure, and such failure continues through college, where students cannot think for themselves and believe that disagreement is a vile offense worth someone’s termination. The key to good education is socialization, and that means good listening skills and communication. It means accepting that people are different and will not always agree. My kids will sit in a class that has 46% diversity and about a class less than half the size of their last one. More kids will look like them.

But my heart aches because what coronavirus and George Floyd’s death tell us is that inequality is the backbone of this nation. Inequality built a nation that gave the American Dream to the privileged while selling it as a myth to those that served the privileged. My kids are a mix, ones that feel the tension of race daily but ones that have the privilege of a caring education. In a nation such as ours, all schools should be great schools. Anything less is inexcusable.


About the author

Earl Yarington

Earl Yarington is an associate professor of English at Prince George’s Community College and a graduate student in clinical social work at Louisiana State University. He is also obtaining sex therapy certification through the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. He interned in corrections statewide for a sex offender treatment program. Earl also authored a book under pen name Lolita in the Lion's Den (https://www.amazon.com/Lolita-Lions-Den-Pre-Tween-Juxtaposition/dp/1499717407) that addresses the complexity of sexual, emotional, and psychological abuse for people coming to terms with conflicting thoughts and ultimately their own identities. Contact the author.
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