Wednesday, March 13, 2019

My Spot

For a long time, we've listened to white students complain about Black students taking their spots in college admissions, blaming affirmative action for their failure to get into the college of their choice. They rail against "reverse racism" and being treated unfairly, as if this spot at their ideal university is somehow guaranteed to them, and the only reason they didn't get it is because someone cheated them out of their birthright. This is one of the effects of privilege, the idea that something is owed to you, especially with a racial context, or the assumption of another person's inferiority, again, especially based on race. To be clear, it is prejudiced and privileged to assume that you didn't get into a specific university because some faceless Black student took the last seat in the classroom, and further assuming that this stock photo Black student must have been less qualified and therefore only got in because of his or her race. And now, the real fraud and "affirmative action" is coming to light.

Recently, all the scandal involving rich white parents committing outright fraud, plagiarism, and cheating to get their kids into elite schools has highlighted the real effects of privilege and discrimination. To be sure, not all of the privilege is connected to race, and more of it is connected to class and wealth, but I'm still waiting for the families of color to be indicted or exposed in this cheating ring, as opposed to the LITERAL Aunt Becky. The truth is, if there were any under-qualified and undeserving students stealing your spot at a university, they were far more likely to be white and rich than Black and poor. These families were sending ringers in to take the SAT test for their kids, or paying officials to change their scores. They were falsifying athletic records, including photo-shopping their kids' faces onto real athletes' bodies, in order to get them a rowing scholarship or a polo scholarship, or whatever other rich kid sport you can think of.

On a side note, can you think of a more elitist, rich snob sport than polo? It's as if they looked at soccer and really wanted to play, but my goodness, all the running!

The truth is that these kids already had every advantage over poorer students, and it still wasn't enough to get them where they wanted to be without cheating. They went to the best prep schools. "Prep," by the way, is supposed to stand for "preparatory," which is supposed to mean that these families pay exorbitant amounts of money for a school to get them ready for entrance into the top universities in the country. Even then, these kids have to cheat to get in. They have the best teachers that money can buy, while poorer kids struggle with the teachers who are willing to work for half the salary. Prep school kids have the best resources available to them, while poorer kids have obsolete technology and limited access to scientific equipment. These rich kids have the safest and most luxurious facilities for learning and sports, while poorer kids have schools that are falling apart. Rich kids have access to tutors and all sorts of programs to help them boost their scores on standardized tests, while poorer kids have outdated software and study guides in their libraries. Rich students take week-long field trips to Europe to soak up culture and history, while poorer kids who want to go to better schools take a two-hour field trip every day, riding a bus sometimes an hour each way, just for a better education.

And even then, many of these rich kids are so incompetent and so unaware of the advantages they have, they still don't have the grades or the test scores to get them into the universities that were basically built just for people like them. If one of the poorer students does have the drive to apply their intelligence in the classroom and achieve higher grades, and is willing to put in the hours after school to study independently to fill in the gaps in their education, and is either naturally good at testing or consumes every prep tool he or she can find, and has the confidence and boldness to apply at an elite university, there's a high chance that a rich kid with lower grades and a lower (honest) SAT score will get in instead of him or her.

Just consider for a moment the real function of the SAT and ACT tests, and the reason they have become such a controlling factor in college admissions. There have long been accusations about the test being culturally biased in favor of white male students, and there's a lot of evidence to back them up. The test makers have definitely responded to these issues, and the test is fairer in some ways, but that doesn't change the fact that the test still exists basically as a filter to keep poorer students out of college.

I know that sounds outrageous, but what other function does the test have? Studies have never conclusively proved that there is a clear or causal link between high entrance test scores and higher college success. For years, teachers, students, guidance counselors have been asking why college admissions can't just be based on GPA and actual school performance, and why so much emphasis is put on this limited window into a student's aptitude. The problem is that not every school gives the same quality of education, and straight A's in a low-performing school with a low rate of graduation is not the same as in a school with more rigor and more advanced classes. It could even be said that straight A's in the former school should count for less than A's and B's in the latter. The SAT and ACT are supposed to provide a measuring tool for all students, regardless of the quality of their high school education.

But the problem with this is that, while the test is intended to promote students who are truly ready for college and block those that aren't, it doesn't deal with the problem of disparity in education. Instead of making sure that the poorer kids in our country get the same quality of education as the richest, we rely on this test to weed out poorer students who have otherwise done the absolute best they could with the educational opportunities that we provided them. We put so many obstacles in their path to higher education, and then, if they overcome all of them, we make sure that there's one more gatekeeper, one more bouncer at the door of the club who says, "you're not on the list."

This is what boils my blood about this whole scandal. If these rich kids are having to cheat a system that was designed to promote their privilege in the first place, then how incompetent must they be? If their parents are willing to pay this much money and commit these kinds of frauds to get their kids into college, then isn't it logical to think that they are encouraging cheating and plagiarism in the classroom as well? We know that academic dishonesty is rampant in schools today, and higher in more elite high schools. So with all that natural and unnatural privilege and advantage, you mean to tell me that these rich kids still don't have the credentials to get into an elite university? And with all of this going on, we're still pointing the finger of unfairness at Black and other minority students, as if they're the ones cheating the system?

I hope that this scandal helps to change the way we perceive college admissions, and maybe even the system itself. I hope that we improve education for all our students, instead of placing more obstacles in their way. I hope that when middle and lower class white students think about their place on campus and their chances in college admissions, that they focus on their own talents and accomplishments and make the best of the situation, instead of worrying about the schools they didn't get into. And I hope that if they do feel slighted or cheated out of a spot at their favorite college, the start looking at the kid who pulls up to campus in a BMW instead of the kid who takes the bus.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Long Time No See

I know. It’s been months since my last blog post, and shame on me. If it helps, a lot has been going on, and there’s been a lot of changes in my already complicated family.

I took a break from the blog over the summer to work on a book, kind of a memoir of a lot of the things I put in this blog, and a lot of more personal things that I don’t. Because I took a teaching position at a new school, my dream school, really, I had the entire summer off for the first time in almost two decades, and I decided to focus on a writing project as well as some volunteering and time with the kids. After some strict scheduling and solid effort, I got over 65,000 words into the project by the end of the summer, and continued making time for it throughout a rather busy year at a new school. The major problem I’m having with the book though is figuring out an ending.

For a memoir, that sounds like a really stupid thing to say. At the very least, I can say for sure that there’s one way I don’t want it to end, and that’s with the protagonist’s death. I’m trying really hard to keep it from becoming a high tragedy. Or a low tragedy or any tragedy, for that matter. But that’s the thing. As I’m writing about my life, life keeps coming at me. Fast. And if I’m honest with myself, the reason I stopped blogging is because I had to get my head wrapped around some of these changes before I could write about them.

Last year, towards the end of 2017, my seventeen year old daughter got a part time job, which happened to be on her mom’s side of town. She started asking to spend more time over there, which made some sense. It was close to school and close to work, so she could get from one to the other quickly, instead of wasting time that could be used for school work or sleep. Also, she had her own car, put her own gas in it (mostly), and was showing some independence. I agreed, even though it bothered me that I would be seeing her less and less. At least I saw her in school during the day, since she attended the private school where I taught.

Then in February of 2018, her mom called, which was a rare occurrence in itself, and asked if she could bring my daughter by the house. She had something to tell us. That something was that she had been keeping a boyfriend secret from me for almost a year, and that she was pregnant.

How much her mom knew about it and when were just two of the questions in the front of my mind, and I’ve dealt with them since, but in those first couple of weeks, it was mostly just shock and anger. I moved my daughter back in with my wife and I, put some stricter rules around her, and arranged a meeting with her boyfriend. Then I had a difficult talk with my principal at the private Christian school about what would happen to my daughter, and to me. Thank God, they showed such love and compassion, letting her finish out the year with nothing but support and healthy, loving rebuke. They made it clear that I was a valued teacher and welcome to stay on, that this development didn’t affect my standing there. One setback and one blessing.

This development was especially hard on my wife. We had been trying to have another child for the past two years, without success. We got pregnant twice, but then miscarried twice in the same year. Ultimately, I had to tell my wife that I just didn’t want to do this anymore, that I thought that we were pushing our luck in terms of our age, that we were just setting ourselves up for continued heartbreak. I’m still not sure she agreed with me, but she acquiesced. We went back to using contraception about as haphazardly as we always had, and when we didn’t get pregnant again, we threw away that away too and just settled into the idea that it wasn’t going to happen, and this was our life now. While that was still settling in and the loss was still healing over, now my wife has to watch her too-young and foolish stepdaughter go through the pregnancy that she had been wishing and praying for. Even to me, it felt like a cruel joke from God. I can only imagine what my wife didn’t tell me about how she felt about it during that time. Still, through all of her struggle with it, she showed my daughter love and kindness and forgiveness, helping her through her pregnancy every step of the way.

In the middle of all that chaos and tension, my son, my oldest, had a real falling out with my wife, his stepmom, and moved out. He was twenty years old, and we knew he would strike out one day, or move in with his mom, as it turned out, but we never thought it would happen on such ugly terms. It was a lot for me to take, having been so close with my kids for so long, when it was just us. I don’t think I communicated just how difficult it was to my wife at the time.

Soon after that, I decided to take time off the blog and concentrate on writing the memoir. At first it was difficult, digging up a lot of painful memories that I tell very few people about. But soon, it was more cathartic than painful. There was something about tracing the events that had led me this this year and all of this chaos that put a frame around it all, helped me to see it in a different way. Remembering all of the things that my kids had gone through while I was suffering through a failed marriage and betrayal actually gave me a lot more patience, and ultimately forgiveness. It took away all of the sting of believing that these decisions and sins had just surprised me out of nowhere, because they didn’t. It helped me to refocus on the fact that I would have to put more effort into rehabbing this family, just as much as I would have to hit the gym harder in order to rehab a broken leg.

And then things changed.

In April, a new school offered me a position, one that I had been trying to get into for years. It felt bittersweet to get my dream job, and not to be able to take my older daughter with me to finish her education there. But I decided that, while I forgave her and loved her, I just wouldn’t connect my career to her decisions again.

In early September, my granddaughter was born, and she’s beautiful. In a lot of ways, she’s made my daughter more responsible and brought her closer to Christ and the church. Jesus told us that whoever is forgiven much, loves much, and I’m watching that happen in my daughter’s life. She’s a beautiful five-month-old baby now, and she loves her Papa. We prayed and prayed for a baby to love, and God gave us one. Maybe it wasn’t the vision we had, but how mad can we be when God answers a prayer, in His own way?

Then in October, my wife starts feeling very convicted about reaching out to my son. He and I had made sure to spend time together with his sisters, but he hadn’t showed any interest in reconciling with his stepmom, so this was a real risk for her. She put in a ton of effort, going over it with a family counselor who had been helping her with some of her grief and anger, drafting and redrafting a letter until it was exactly the message and tone that she wanted to send, and then emailing him, with the invitation to respond when he was ready.

Pretty quickly, he responded with so much positivity and love that it was hard to believe that it was the same young man who had basically moved out in the middle of the night in a huff. He recognized that most of the problem was on his side, that he had been overwhelmed and stressed out and possibly a little depressed at the time, but that he had worked through those things and wanted to be a part of the whole family again. He said that he was sorry for the lost time and for forgetting all of the kindnesses that his stepmom had showed him over the years. He didn’t want to move back in, but just to make an effort to reconcile.

By Thanksgiving, the baby we thought would be the end of our daughter’s life turned out to be a blessing and so loved, the daughter that we thought was lost is more interested in the church than ever, and understanding her need for spiritual community, the son that we thought had closed himself off has returned to the fold again, with a whole new attitude and a much more mature and manly way of going about it, and I’ve got a new job in a ministry that’s both supporting me and challenging me to get closer to Christ than ever before.

And then in November, the biggest bombshell of all drops. After about a year of listening to my wife complain about symptoms of menopause, she’s got a surprise. We’re pregnant again. As I’m writing this, we’re over five months, going on ten, with nothing but positive checkups, and set to deliver in June.

So I’m still trying to find a place to end the story, at least for now. When I was twenty-five, the story was about getting married young, having my kids young, kicking them out of the house by the time I turn forty-five and enjoying my life.

Now I’m forty-five. Too young to be a grandfather, but here we are. Too old to be a new father, but here we are. And I’m enjoying my life. When I’m sixty-three, my youngest (for sure this time) daughter will be walking across a platform for graduation, God willing, with my granddaughter right after her, her brother and sister in attendance, both in their thirties. And God will have something else for me then, too. How He knows what to give and what to take away is beyond my understanding, and sometimes it makes me angry when He takes away, but this year has taught that if I wait long enough, and watch closely enough, it starts to come into focus.