When I was in high school, in a white middle class area, three consecutive junior classes had lost someone in a car crash. During my sophomore year the topic would sometimes turn to “who do you think will die when we are juniors?” Morbid? No doubt, but these accidental deaths caused students to worry about their own mortality.
Fifteen years later, as a high school teacher in Englewood, I see the same worry in my students – but it’s not about car accidents. Growing up black, on the South Side, my students are guaranteed to experience a tragic event to someone that they know and care about. Let me repeat this, my students are guaranteed to experience a tragedy. Many of them have already experienced the loss of multiple tragic and violent deaths of their classmates and loved ones.
My students are the smartest people I know. They know what route to take to and from school to reduce their chances of witnessing or being caught in a tragic event. There is no clear “safe” path, but there are better routes than others. My students, because they are from Englewood do not have the privilege of safe passage.
How is it possible to truly have the same opportunities as students in other parts of the city, state, and country when you have to think about your own mortality EVERY day as you walk to and from school? The policy leaders of Chicago actively choose who is of value and who is not. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and his appointed officials decide whose life is important and whose life is expendable. Harsh? No, just reality..
Emmanuel found the money to create plans for a $100 million river walk downtown. He found the money to create a $55 million park downtown for Maggie Daley. These improvements would be good if there weren’t more pressing needs, if there weren’t people dying in certain parts of the city where brown and black people live. Some say, “you can’t just throw money at a problem”. That’s true, but if our elected officials cared they’d develop a plan and use the money effectively. With a $100 million you could bring together experts from around the world to create solutions so that my students in Englewood would have the freedom of safe passage to and from school. With $55 million the policy leaders could create real change with programs and services in the communities where they are underserved or nonexistent.
As a teacher I know many students who, in spite of their neighborhood, family, or personal situation, were able to make it, go to college, and be successful. But as a human I want people to have the privilege to not have to hear “in spite of” when they tell their story about where they are from and where they are now. Because for every “in spite of” story we hear, there are hundreds of people who did not “make it”. Blaming the victim will not fix the tragic problem. Placing budgetary, political, and moral priority on this problem can.
As a teacher, parent, and citizen I want nothing more than to improve education in Chicago. As a teacher, parent, and citizen I also realize that before we can truly improve education we have to place priority on giving students all over of the city, regardless of zip code, the “privilege” of knowing no matter what route they take to school they will be safe. It just comes down to the question “Does Rahm Emmanuel want to truly improve education?” If he really does then he needs to improve the lives and communities of the students and families that he is obligated as mayor to represent. Rahm Emmanuel needs to give my students and every student the privilege of not having guaranteed tragedies to overcome.