What’s at Stake

What’s at Stake
Ryan Maquinana, 04.20.09

On the way home from work today, I took the same route I always do, which is down S. Central Avenue toward the 105 West. If any of you have taken this road to the freeway, you’ve probably seen the middle-aged couple selling mangoes and flowers across the street from Verbum Dei High. I’ve been working in Watts for four years, and I can’t recall a day where I haven’t seen them on that same corner waiting for the stoplights to turn red so they could make a living.

Unlike most days, this one stood out in the sense that the heat was remorseless (98 degrees to be exact). I can only imagine the amount of sun they endured out there today, not to mention the weight of standing on their feet while peddling their wares in both arms, which probably turned into anvils as the minutes turned to hours.

Believe it or not, the thing that always strikes me the most is not this husband-wife merchant team. Rather, it’s their two children, one boy and girl about late elementary to early middle school-aged, nestled in a crevice of earth under an umbrella behind the sidewalk. And they are always doing their homework.

Today was no exception as I observed them turn the pages in their respective books. Deep concentration. Pensive expressions while ballpoints furiously acquainted themselves with paper. Heat? What heat? It was business as usual.

This, of course, refocused my attention on their parents, where now beads of perspiration inundated the asphalt as they frantically maneuvered from window to window at the sight of the train of brakelights. At this point the only thing on my mind was how hard this job must be–to be dedicated enough to stick it out there each day with no promise that business would be good to them that day.

But one only needed to look so far as the umbrella-shrouded dugout to understand the driving force behind their sacrifices. Each day they have toiled outside in the hopes that their children have gotten them a step closer toward realizing why they came to this place where everything from the language to the customs is foreign.

And that’s what kills me. From the perspective of an inner-city public school employee, I only hope that their teachers are leading these kids in the right direction, because while I’ve seen a myriad of excellent educators in Watts, the fact of the matter is the amount of potential their children will tap into is basically at the mercy of the quality of their school, for better or for worse.

This vulnerable hope and faith that their parents exude in the public school system is often tempered by the despair that plagues teachers and staff in the forms of pink slips, unmanageable class sizes, and limited support or resources. In addition, there is the epidemic of teachers who have either given up altogether or have a multitude of other priorities like tending to their families, who often are dragged into an epic tug-of-war with the students for the teachers’ time and energy.

Let’s face it: in the inner-city, to do a halfway decent job, teachers must put in way more effort into their craft as far as creating effective and engaging lesson plans, building relationships with students and parents, and gaining the trust of the community at large. (Oh yeah, better get those test scores to appease administrators as well.) In other words, it is not as fair of a fight for these kids as one might think.

Besides the obvious gauntlet of gangs and drug abuse in the inner-city, this is what the children on the sidewalk are up against on an academic level: a two-front war that consists of an underfunded public school system combined with a corps of teachers of whom several are not up to the challenge for a variety of reasons mentioned above. And the saddest part of all is that the kids don’t even know it.

Today’s events came on the heels of a parent conference I had for one of my students last week. This girl is nine years old, and yet is the only member in her family that can read, write, and speak English at a communicable level. Can you imagine the immense pressure this little girl will be under, from now until forever? Not only does she have to translate everything, she utilizes the same books and CDs from our fourth grade curriculum to help teach her parents how to read and write. How many kids do you know that have those chores?

Wait until she’s faced with the inevitable decision of college or work in 2017, if she makes it that far. Hopefully by this time, she’s won the game of catch-up to the point where her grades and skills will be sufficient enough to earn a scholarship, while at the same time developing her parents’ English skills where they could get by without depending on her. While her counterparts in more affluent areas will have the opportunity to defer their acceptances or spend a year traveling abroad, she will probably find herself in a race against time, to finish school as soon as possible to support her family. But I digress. We’re still a long way from that point.

As stated in the first case, the ultimate responsibility as far as her academic development in 2009 falls on the teacher, a.k.a. me. I really hope I’m doing my job.

In both of these instances, I couldn’t help but think of my father and how he came to this country with nothing but a $20 bill in his pocket over 30 years ago. Even though he had a college degree, it still wasn’t enough to earn the respect here that would warrant similar job offers in the Philippines because of his diploma’s origin and/or the color of his skin. As such, he had take the long way to reach his goals, a road that sharpens his tongue every time he reflects upon it.

That said, I understand how lucky I am that I never had to bite my tongue to get where I’m at, and where I’ve wanted to go. And I’m sure my father didn’t go through all of that to see me throw away what he’s worked so hard to obtain, something more important than the zeroes in one’s salary or the size of one’s house and car, which has seemingly become the norm in this era of instant gratification.

What has always been at stake is one thing: genuine, and not perceived, equal access to opportunity. In the case of the children of Watts and inner-city communities in America, the fight for this right will continue from its classrooms to its sweat-drenched sidewalks.