Today I was once again reminded just how out of touch it is possible to be.
I'm not talking about my students; mostly, when my students are out of touch or ignorant, it's not their fault (though occasionally--and I confess there are certain faces coming to mind right this minute--this is indeed the case) but simply a lack of opportunity, or worse yet, an active failure by the very people who are meant to guide them.
A classic example is the final placement test I administered this morning. This exam is chosen, written, and graded by unseen committee. Not only am I not a part of this committee, I don't even know who is, so I don't know who to blame for this incredible act of cosmic stupidity.
It's all well and good to give urban community college students a brief (2-page) essay about crime invading the national forests. People go to Idaho and grow massive tracts of weed in the middle of the Sawtooths. They really do. (Washington is the Evergreen State, but I'll tell ya--it ain't because of the tree.) People rob other people of these drugs, or the profits, and even sometimes kill each other over it.
It's even okay to ask these kids guided questions about their reading comprehension of this article, as well as their ability to interpret causal relationships in the article and make their own conclusions based on it. Great. No problem. The students who emigrated here from Guatemala and Colombia know from the time they are very little that the forest is a dangerous place. You don't go into the jungle, because rebels and bad men live there. They get that. Even the kids who grew up in the barrio here can postulate that one reason criminals go to the woods is because it's easy to hide there. You can't put a moose on the witness stand. Dead trees tell no tales.
But for God's sake, I entreat you, listen to yourselves before you ask the long-essay question that will determine the course of their academic future. If this entire course is based on the two parts of this test, those two parts had better count. They'd better be good. You'd better ask them something they have a prayer of understanding.
Do you know, for instance, that the average urban community college student who has never left his greater metropolitan area cannot possibly have any idea of what a national forest really is? Therefore, you simply cannot ask them what they think should be done to keep US national forests safer. Because they won't have a clue what to answer. Their idea of a "forest" is the median strip on the turnpike. Or, at best, Central Park. I seriously had students suggest that we put more lights up in the forest, so it wouldn't be so dark at night. Or that we put cameras on trees. One forward-thinking student even went so far as to opine that all forests should have only one main entrance.
And this spectacular failure of comprehension is entirely the fault of the people who wrote this exam and failed to take into account that our lives are completely foreign to our students. And it's not because of the language barrier, but rather because of our persistent inability to understand what it's really like to be them. When I ask them to write about gang violence, or racial, sexual, or ethnic discrimination, they pour forth page after page of painfully eloquent--though misspelled and grossly mispunctuated--prose. Every semester, the persuasive essay assignment brings at least one student to confide in me about either their own or their girlfriend's abortion. They write searingly about coming to this country with no money and no language skills at the age of 3, with just one stuffed mouse, and how when they were 8 and their house burned down because the landlord couldn't bother to fix the wiring for a bunch of "fucking Latinos", they ran inside the flames to rescue that one precious thing they had brought with them from home. They struggle to understand why they are here, why they have been given this chance to go to college when their parents, so many of their friends, and three-quarters of their high school friends did not get this opportunity. They tell me what it was like for them in jail, and how they ain't never going back, because in there it's mad violent, in there they'll fuck you up for a cupcake, and while they were sitting in solitary 23 hours a day, they saw Jesus and realized their life was worth more than that, so they're getting off the weed most of the time, and they coming to college, because they don't wanna be no janitor forever, man,
--but they cannot write about how we should keep our national forests safe, because some of them have never even seen a mountain, let alone the grandeur of trees stretching for farther than they can imagine. You tell them to dream big, and they think about getting out of Union City and moving to Belleville, or maybe even New York. You can't tell them that there are forests out there bigger than New Jersey, because they don't even know how big New Jersey is. All they can imagine is Tonnele Avenue, stretching for miles into the smoggy distance. And you can't even blame them for it.
And that, my friends, is where we have failed them.