By Stacey Carlough
This is a piece that Stacey wrote in spring 2017 and shared with our group in May.
It’s the time of year when baby birds fall from nests. You’re walking along the city sidewalk, lost in your thoughts about the day ahead or the day that’s done, and there, a step ahead, lies a fuzzy broken body of potential, gone. Light, extinguished. You wonder for a moment how this fragile fledgling fell, what series of events led to its death. Was it the accidental knocking of a sibling’s naked wing? Some sloppy, inefficient predator? An overwhelmed mama bird driven to desperate infanticide? Or is it just something that happens. One of a statistically predictable batch of baby birds that just don’t make it. We accept these deaths because the majority--those with better built nests, access to more nutritious worms, protection from bored cats on afternoon joy rides--they survive. We don’t remember the hollow skulls smashed against the pavement because we see the survivors flying high and free above our heads, and we maybe even envy them their freedom. So we step over, and we keep walking.
It’s no small coincidence that this is also the time of year when the reckoning comes for many of our high school seniors. Unexcused absences, chronic tardiness, messes of missed homework assignments and failed assessments can no longer be ignored or promised away. The numbers speak, and they say to our students in no uncertain terms that they didn’t cut the muster. They aren’t, apparently, College and Career Ready. And we sit at tables and talk about why and how. We blame them. We blame ourselves. We blame the system. Black Lives Matter, right? Make America Smart Again, right? But we’re exhausted. We’ve all been doing our best, even if those bests contradicted each other at some point. And they’re exhausted. They’ve been doing their best, or they haven’t been for some reason or another. And it’s one month till graduation and we’ve got to figure something out because as it stands, one-third of our baby birds are about to fall hard and fast from this here nest.
So we look to the sacred gradebooks. We evaluate the weighting of projects and essays and fiddle with recalibrating points and percentages. We consider extra credit and study groups and extensions and revisions. But what about all those chances they already had? What about the teacher who came in Sundays for months for the fistful of students who bothered to show up? What about the opportunities for purposeful relearning and growth they squandered time and again? If we rewrite history with our school community as the villain who failed them, and pass them along to colleges or the workforce, who are we serving? Surely not the students who haven’t actually learned the value of a deadline or that writing a powerful paragraph isn’t supposed to be easy. That teachers don’t give grades; students earn them. If we give in and say, well, yeah, we really could’ve, should’ve, needed to’ve done this better, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, then our graduation rate stays within a respectable range and the overlords won’t come snooping. No one will ask why we’re dropout factory-ing the poor brown kids. And you know what, though? We need to ask this question. We need to ask it of ourselves, and of our schools, and of our cities and of our parents and of the students themselves. And we need to examine why they’re struggling to fly and work, as a community, as a city, as a nation, as a people, to fix it. It’s bigger than us, sure, but it’s also right in the palm of our hand. A hundred tiny, frantic hearts beating wildly and a hundred pair of tiny eyes staring wildly out over a foreign horizon. Our students deserve better than even the most well meaning nudge over that precipice.