Mourning Brings Clarity

“Mourning – an act of sorrowing.” From

Though mourning is often associated with death, it may also be applied to other kinds of deep loss. This kind of sorrowing can provide a clarity that is unattainable in easier times. We become distracted by the comfort of happiness and the assumption that it will continue. When the starkness of sorrow interrupts our satisfied state, we take inventory of the good that is (we hope) remaining.

In light of recent sorrowing, I deeply questioned my professional choices. Upon much reflection and analysis, I found that my choices were made with integrity and a full understanding of the personal responsibilities I was serving at the time. Those personal and professional priorities are still intact.

I share an anecdotal piece, written 7 years ago, that I came across in reviewing professional documents. It has inspired me to vigorously pursue an agenda I had allowed to fall by the wayside. Sometimes adversity is a catalyst, though the losses still sting.

Excerpt, 2007:

The world is dark, and light is precious.
Come closer, dear reader.
You must trust me. I am telling you a story.
~ Kate DiCamillo (2001), The Tale of Despereaux

Working class, middle class, upper class, educated class – all those terms swirled around in my head as I sat in the front row of Sociology 101 listening to the professor regale us on the rarities of escaping the class to which we were born. It had been a long fall already. Early September had found me at the large university where I had gone on a hard-won architecture scholarship; late September saw me in the university‘s bursar‘s office signing away my access to that free education. The air was already cold and crisp and I was wearing the heavy cabled sweater I got for my 18th birthday three weeks before, the one I thought made me look very casually collegiate.

I walked through the large wooden doors, up the curving stairs to the window and asked how to resign from college. The woman behind the glass handed me a form; I entered all the pertinent information and signed it. She took it from me without a word and I was out. I called my mother to come and get me. She cried. I cried. Now here I was at the local community college, trying to rectify my hasty decision by immediately signing up for freshmen classes.

It is only in retrospect that I can understand what happened. Fear. Gut-wrenching, sweaty-palmed fear. Fear of failing; fear of being found masquerading as a competent college student. A bit dramatic? Maybe, but it didn‘t seem so at the time. My mother worked as a secretary by day and at a convenience store by night to give my sister and me some appearance of higher means. My neighborhood sported graffiti and violent outbursts that I tried to ignore. My friends aspired to leave home immediately upon high school graduation and many of my acquaintances from elementary school had already disappeared from the high school radar screen. College was a dream only a few of us “teacher‘s pets” had, and mine were big dreams.

Architecture school was for me; it offered the appeal of financial success as well as the added affirmation of “making it” as a female in a male-based field, and I was after all, already an award winner in the technical drawing I took for four years in high school. But all I could think of those first few weeks of college was that I did not belong. I would never make it and I would be humiliated when others found out what an imposter I was. I could never do the math and science necessary for the field; never handle the pressure of the work schedule imposed by the school to weed out the weak links. So before I could fail, I quit. I didn’t know that my thoughts might be normal to any student in a new environment and that it might be lack of knowledge in how to navigate through the unknown that doomed me.

Later I would come to know that I had been bred to question my abilities in a way other students did not, but it was only after I entered the teaching field myself, years later, that this epiphany came.
I was a product of an environment that did not offer me the cultural lessons it had offered more affluent students, ones from the right side of the tracks. My family approved of my college plans, but the reality was so foreign to them, that they could offer little practical help. Few from my junior high school made it to college, so no time was wasted by counselors at that stage discussing my plans or aspirations.

My large high school had just imported the students from my side of town a couple of years before and the prior inhabitants were not thrilled. The school personnel – counselors and many teachers – concentrated their college efforts on those whose parents pushed the system for the information. My family did not know to do that. I applied for my college admission and scholarships on my own with the advice of one friend who was also doing the same thing by herself. We did the best we could, but many pieces of information fell through the cracks.

There were application deadlines, not only for the colleges themselves, but for the financial aid and/or scholarships that would make it possible for those of little means to make college a reality. Even more foundational to college preparation was the selection of the “right” courses in high school, the advanced courses to which there was limited admission and in which were few of my friends. Add to this list the information about the (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) and Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), when to take the tests and the costs involved, how many times to test; this information must have been considered common knowledge among teachers and counselors, but it was not to me (College Board, 2008). For instance, I didn’t know that National Merit Scholars were chosen from the high scorers on the PSAT until my own daughter took that test 25 years later; and who knew you should take the SAT more than once (National Merit Scholarship Corporation, 2007)?

With the help of a few teachers along the way, I learned enough to gain admission as well as the scholarship necessary to attend a well-known school in a prestigious field, but it wasn’t enough. Without the support system of others who had gone before me or the true belief that people like I were capable of achieving great things, I fell right back into the phenomenon my sociology professor had described in frustratingly accurate words – future generations fail to rise above the economic station of their parents because they lack the knowledge and cultural awareness necessary to function in the next level.

My own situation was just a small example of what was occurring for others around me: tracking into non-college preparatory courses, vocational programs, work-release programs; all were repositories for my former junior high classmates. I had at least stayed in the college-bound academic track of courses, possibly due to high standardized test scores and a self-fulfilling prophesy that I would go to college, which did happen, just not as planned.

Later on, as a high school English teacher in a rural / suburban school of 1000 students, I taught 9th and 12th graders who were not considered college-bound. At that time there were only two levels of choice in English courses, the advanced track and the general track. My general students had the same basic curriculum as the students in the advanced classes, with the same state Standards of Learning to meet, but they did not expect to like English or to do well in it. They often asked me, “What good will this Shakespeare stuff ever do me?”

My students were not pulled out for college representative visits; they were not called into the guidance office and given scholarship information; I did not receive class sets of SAT information. They were, however, called into that office should a military recruiter stop in for interviews. In eight years of teaching at that high school, a handful of my students entered college upon graduation, but most did not. As their teacher I could have done more to provide this kind of information and having been denied it myself, I should have known to do so. I did provide it to individuals that I became close to and I did promote further education as something to be valued, but I did not do anything systemic within my school to change the way these students were treated.

My teacher preparation program might have addressed that it was my responsibility as a teacher to ensure my students‘ fair treatment. I might have empowered myself to fight a bit more universally for change at the school level. I might at least have pushed a little harder within my own classroom to disseminate information in a more uniform way; making sure all students at all levels knew and understood the opportunities available to them. I think I ignored the needs of these students because I felt it was too late by their senior year. The courses they needed were untaken; the grades already too low.

I sent some of my younger students to the guidance office for help with questions about college only to have most of them return with vocational and technical school information. I do not disparage a technical education, but these students were not often given the choices that other students in the school received. A specific example of this kind of thinking springs quickly to mind. A student from my colleagues‘ advanced English class who wanted to attend our vocational program as well as the college prep courses was told by our guidance counselors that he was not vocational school material as his aptitude and grades would allow him to attend college. They continued to refuse to allow him the opportunity to do both kinds of work until his parents came to school and demanded that he be registered in vocational as well as advanced courses.

Even by ninth grade, my general education level students were considered non-college materiel, even in their own eyes. Many related that they were unwilling to take the advanced courses because they were not smart enough or the courses were too much work, or none of their friends were in those classes – many of the same reasons my own friends did not enter them in my high school years. I did not expand my role as their teacher and offer my students the information they needed about the college experience as I could have done. And they deserved better.

All students deserve access to choices that are real and attainable.