We spend a lot of time wondering about what to do about the achievement gap. But what happens when a student of color achieves, yet is neither rewarded nor even recognized? I have witnessed this repeatedly as a teacher in Minneapolis. It is indicative of a system that forces students to beg for the money to receive a college education. And sometimes, even when they do everything right, things still don’t work out. Is it a wonder so many students of color just give up?
Let me tell you about one of my students. Let’s call him Malik. He is an exceptional young man. From an early age — an age at which most of his peers were struggling with subtraction — he “saw” numbers and was able to multiply and divide effortlessly in his mind.
He’s led a tough life. His mother is raising six children on her own. The family frequently has been evicted from apartments, has sometimes lived in a shelter and often has relied on food shelves. Malik has persevered, achieving high marks and staying on the straight and narrow. Last year, he decided to challenge himself further and signed up for five International Baccalaureate college preparatory classes here at Patrick Henry High School. They were the toughest classes he could take, including algebra-trigonometry, English, U.S. history, and chemistry. He aced them all.
Malik’s cumulative grade-point average as a senior stands at 3.75. He is a member of the National Honor Society and a varsity football player. He is known for his infectious laugh and his willingness to help classmates with math or chemistry problems.
Have I mentioned that Malik also works 30 — 30! — hours a week at McDonald’s and at the Mall of America (an hourlong bus ride each way), and that he gets up at 4:30 a.m. to do his homework, because at 11 p.m., when he is returning from work, he is too exhausted?
Have I mentioned that he has helped to support his entire family on his two minimum-wage jobs, while still maintaining his excellent grades, and that he is one of our most enthusiastic volunteers for National Honor Society community-service projects?
Have I mentioned that Malik wants to be the first person in his family not only to go to college but also to graduate from high school? Have I mentioned that he has no idea how he is going to pay for college, and that he is unwilling to acquire a mountain of debt in order to do so?
Have I mentioned that he has applied for nearly 20 scholarships and thus far has been met only with rejection?
I am so angry at our society for selling us this idea that kids in poverty don’t work hard — that if they just applied themselves, their problems would disappear. Malik has done everything right. The Gates Scholarship was his best hope. The application was 28 pages long. He wrote and revised and edited and revised once more. I read his application; it was excellent.
But you know the rest of this story. A few weeks back Malik received the “we regret to inform you” e-mail. Despondent doesn’t come close to describing how he feels.
In Canada, Sweden or Germany — heck, in Mexico — his tuition, books and expenses at any university would be covered. In those nations and many more a student like Malik would not have to worry about whether he can pay for the education he wants and deserves.
But here? We wonder where our future leaders are. They are waiting. They want to know which corporation or wealthy Minnesotan wants to sponsor their college degree. Anyone willing to bet on this fine young man?
Eva Lockhart is a teacher in Minneapolis.