Preparing to Learn

21 03 2013

Our Thai son is an excellent student, i.e., seriously hard core about his grades. He has to study twice as hard in order to translate his classes to Thai, and he spends most of his waking hours working on this task. He has to plan ahead to take time off on the weekends when we want to take him out to explore Detroit, or to an American football game, etc. These outings sometimes mean that he then stays up late into the night to catch up. Image

The first time that I went to his school it was for an open house event, which I thought meant parent teacher conferences. it was really just an open house for parents to get to see what their student’s schedule was like on a daily basis. As I walked from classroom to classroom, I greeted each teacher in an empty or almost empty setting. I got their undivided attention, since so few parents had appeared, and all of them had nothing but praise for our ‘son.’ “He’s such a joy,” I often heard, “so happy and interested!” I knew then that we had little to worry about.

Recently, we’ve been talking more about school. Despite Bank’s eagerness to succeed, he is facing a classroom where this is not the norm. In algebra, he explained, the teacher does not teach, because the students do not want to learn.

“They talk, they fight, they ignore teach-rr. Student no listen to teach-rr.” Only Bank, and 2-3 other students sit in front and wish for the teacher to actually talk about their assignment so that they could learn enough to go home and attempt the homework.

This is perplexing for our exchange high-school-er. Where he comes from, education is greatly valued and performance is strictly enforced.Image

“Not every student is lucky enough to come to school prepared to learn,” I try to explain. “It’s hard to focus on school when your belly is grumbling, or your mother just told you last night that your family is getting evicted next month.” Image

“Ahh!” he says as he twists his forehead to contemplate. The physical factors play an important role in being prepared to learn, I go on, and this makes it challenging for some students. Plus, some students have been disadvantaged for a long time, and it’s much easier to say, “I’m bored,” than it is to say, “I don’t understand this and I need help.”

Bank seemed to understand this concept, but asked me, “Why are Ypsilanti students poor?” At this, I sighed from across the room, as I prepared to serve myself a second helping of a kale-stuffed, non-rGBH cheese, whole wheat tortilla quesadilla onto my plate. “It’s complicated?” he quickly read into my lack of response. “Yes,” I replied. It’s complicated.

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I went on to explain the concept of how one community could be so affluent, which actually drives lower income residents out to neighboring communities. This was partly a result of a major university that attracted well-to-do students and professors who could afford to pay more for things, like rent and dinner, but this wasn’t the whole picture.

With perfect timing, our housemate, Greg, walked into the dining room, and seamlessly slipped into the conversation. “Well it doesn’t help that there was a booming factory in Willow Run that is now dilapidated,” he observed. Exactly. People who were once middle class, but not college-educated, suddenly found themselves jobless and hopeless. And thus, we found our little town with a sharp schism between affluent and despairingly poor. Another life lesson for our Thai teenager.

What’s amazing to me is that we often think of Americans as having some amazing lifestyle, so superior to other countries… yet, it’s all about where a country places its priorities. The fact that we can live in such a great community, yet still have students coming to school unable to physically receive knowledge, is a horrible tragedy. I may not have kids of my own, but I know where my future is coming from, and it terrifies me at times.

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