by: Chip Carter
She had no hands.
They were gone the wrist area up.
In my 41 years of teaching, I have attended so many meetings about the progress and well-being of individual students. Mostly, these meetings are fairly run of the mill.
At times, however, the specifics can be distressing. Family strife, substance abuse, emotional or mental health problems, parental abuse or neglect, anger and outright defiance- any, or any combination, could make me leave a meeting sad and simply hoping for the best from a bad situation. They can take a toll, but almost always they fade from memory.
But this meeting, before the births of my current students, has never left me.
It was simple really. It was a mother simply checking on her boy. Was he learning? Was he giving effort? Was he doing the right things? Was he taking advantage of the promise and opportunity of education that had not existed in their homeland?
And, yes, this mother with no hands, from Sierra Leone, was comforted that her boy was doing all those things that good students do. Her resulting smile and gratitude were not simple pleasantries.
This family had survived civil war. They had survived terror. They had survived the mother, like tens of thousands, having her hands chopped off by rebels.
I can never know all they had survived, but they had survived and come to America.
It is too easy to take for granted the opportunities we have. Those from other places or times might consider them blessings more than opportunities.
I will always remember a 17 year freshman, a “Lost Boy” from Sudan, who also escaped civil war and death. He wept as we read aloud from George Orwell’s Animal Farm. He coaxed me to the hallway where he requested the opportunity to speak to the class.
He told his classmates that the story was not fiction, that he had experienced similar intimidation and daily fear. He had witnessed the slaughter that often goes with power struggles. He and his younger brother had escaped and hidden in the jungle to avoid having to prove their allegiance by killing others with a machine gun or machete. He asked his classmates to treasure their security and freedom.
Earlier this year, The Eagles’ Eyrie told the story of Godwin junior Sobia Abed who escaped possible abduction or death from the Taliban in Afghanistan. Her offense, in their eyes, was simply that she, a girl, was attending school.
I grew up among adults who were then considered “blue collar”- welders, pipefitters, simple laborers. They were children of the Great Depression when one of four Americans had been unemployed. Only the truly privileged escaped what we would now call trauma. These millions of Americans of all races later shared a common measuring stick of success- “ I was able to send my kids to college.”
As I come closer to the end of my teaching career, I worry. I worry about what we value, and what teachers see daily.
I worry that we too often have to fight students to give them for free what others often risk lives for. I worry about the drastic deterioration of attention span and simple work ethic as the smart phone has become another bodily extension.
I worry whether our students, especially our high achievers, are truly here to learn, or to get a grade by any means necessary. I worry that we are no longer reading the great books, but shortcutting by just reading about them. I worry that, in the most connected time in the history of the world, so many of our students feel isolated and lost. I worry that at the same time grades and AP enrollments are rising, student skills continue to deteriorate.
And, I worry that colleges continue to reward what we in high schools know is bad practice- that “loading up” the high school transcript leads to less actual learning and more problems with student mental and emotional health.
It will take communities- parents, teachers, students, school administrators, and colleges and universities- together to address these issues and more. It should not take chopped off hands, hiding in the jungle, or a Great Depression, but it will take collective courage and sacrifice to once again take advantage of our blessings. I worry.