Powerful people - FamilyEducation

Powerful people

November 09,2010
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

This is the time of the semester when I get desperate. I pull out all the stops when it comes to begging and pleading with my students to get it all together in time for final exams, which are only three weeks away. I try and weave inspirational stories into my lesson plans; I become more of a motivational speaker/coach and I expend vast amounts of energy trying to get my students across the finish line. Some will make it, others will not. Yesterday we had what I thought was a compelling discussion in my classes about the power of appeals--written and verbal. We talked about how many of my students had been to court, to appeal traffic tickets and parking violations. We talked about appeals over bill payments, and appealing injustices at work or school. Part of the challenge--a huge part--of teaching my students is getting them to realize that there is a world beyond college out there, a world they have the right to be successful in, a world in which they will have to write out and speak out to be heard. Even though the study of disciplines once thought so important--language arts, literature, classical art, philosophy, and history is becoming increasingly devalued, I still believe that a person's success is directly connected to their ability to be articulate. Many of my students don't get this; they are protected in the safe bubble that is their college experience. They have found safety and communion on this historically black college campus; many are, for the first time in their lives, enjoying access to an education that leaves them feeling both empowered and, ironically, cheated. For in realizing what they can do now—how they are empowered and what is expected of them, they also realize all they were told they couldn’t do. My students, like many of their peers elsewhere, have dreams about jobs that they are convinced will have nothing to do with writing, or reading. Yet, unlike their peers at historically white colleges many have not experienced, first-hand, the ability of words to make change; their disconnect with how empowering language can be stems from years spent in an educational system that is, I believe, still very unequal. I spend a semester exposing my students to stirring examples of the power of writing--from the ordinary to the profound but I've found that instead of trying to convince them that they will need writing skills in forensic science (they will) or as a personal athletic trainer (they will), I've had more success convincing them that competent writing skills will help them in life--to bridge divides, and barriers, and help them pass on this legacy of language to their own kids. In my last class of that day--a class filled with students who are struggling in many ways, for many different reasons, I looked out at my students and told them about how many letters and appeals I've written in the years since my son started elementary school. I told them how many other students I've come to know whose parents literally can't write those types of letters. I told them about students at both my children's schools who are falling through the cracks, who are stamped down by labels. They are called "troublemakers" or "lazy" or "out of control" and they have learned to live the labels; the labels have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one has ever written a letter on their behalf--maybe not for lack of love, but certainly for lack of skills. I've been teaching for long enough now to tell when something I tell my students hits home; just as I know when as a parent I have finally, finally reached my child. My students nodded. They listened. I didn't need to talk with all of them personally to know that if you stripped the years away from many of them you'd find a young third grader hiding behind the big defensive attitude; a kid who couldn't do anything right at school; a kid who still has learning challenges that have never been diagnosed; who has been failed by the adults in his life: the adults who looked the other way when the labels came down hard, and the adults who couldn't speak for him, because they couldn't even speak for themselves.