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The Most Important Advocate

The words stung—the action as devastating as a Mike Tyson roundhouse. The guidance counselor, charged with gathering up official transcripts and recommendations for the scholarship application I was submitting, insisted that because she didn’t think my grades and SAT scores were good enough to win, she couldn’t be bothered with photocopies and praises. That I was a straight-A student who ranked 20th out of a senior class of more than 600 was of no consequence to her. The local community college. That, she made clear, was where I belonged.

I had bigger ambitions, though. Bigger than community college. Bigger than the small Long Island town where I grew up. Bigger, obviously, than what that guidance counselor envisioned for me.

Still, I couldn’t count on my parents to explain this to her. In the minds of my working class mom and dad, who had little money and less education, the sole stretch between Suffolk Community College and Yale was the mileage between their physical locations. And if the teachers and counselors, whom my parents trusted like they did their doctors, said I should take whatever class and participate in whatever extracurricular activity and go to whatever college, well, who were they to argue? Those people up at the school taught physics and algebra and got kids to college, for goodness sake. Surely, they knew what they were talking about.

A few weeks later, that same counselor refused to release documents I needed for a second scholarship for which I wanted to apply, an action that moved me to put in a teary collect phone call to my mom. I begged her to step in. She did. And, after a closed-door meeting with the principal, she left not only with my transcripts, but the cash she needed to send in my application via overnight mail.

I won that scholarship.

And we learned a valuable lesson—both my mother and me. For her, the lesson was in the power of speaking up on her child’s behalf. For me, it was learning that it’s never a good idea to leave the educational destiny of my children solely to the teachers—that as a parent, it is my duty to watch, listen, ask questions, work the system and speak up for my kids.

Now that I’m a mother and I’ve spent a few years sitting in the little chairs at parent/teacher conferences and room mom’d my way through five of Mari’s six years in school and all four of Lila’s, I recognize that not all parents think this way. That for every day I’ve spent in the classroom, getting to know the teachers and the principal and, most importantly, letting everyone within earshot know that my girls are brilliant and willing and able to learn and I expect nothing but the best for them, there are 10 parents who barely pay attention to their children’s homework, never come to parent/teacher conferences, and put in the absolute minimum when it comes to volunteering in their children’s classrooms.

I’m not going to lie—I’ve stood in judgment of those parents. Like, what does it take to check a third grader’s homework? Or donate some chips to the class party? Or talk to the teacher about what the standardized test scores mean for your kid—before critical decisions are made about your child’s future? I get it: parents are working/inundated/intimidated. But shouldn’t participating in the education of your child be at the top of the list of parental priorities? Eat, exercise, sleep and learn. That’s what kids do. That’s what we parents are supposed to help them do.

This has certainly been on my mind lately, as details of a huge standardized test score scandal sweeps through the Atlanta Public School system. A state report revealed that almost 200 teachers in dozens of schools throughout the huge district have been giving answers to students and changing answers for them, too, on the CRCT tests for years. Teachers and principals implicated in the scandal say they did it to protect their jobs; passing CRCT scores meant students got promoted to the next grade, which meant the kids were learning, which meant the teachers were doing a good job teaching them and being rewarded for their efforts. But while the teachers who cheated were winning, it was the students, ultimately, who lost. And that is the shame of it all.

Of all the coverage I’ve read on the scandal, the quote that stood out to me was from one teacher explaining why she participated: “I had to give them [students] the answers, those kids were dumb as hell.”

As a mother, that hurt me to my core. Because this woman was in charge of those babies. And thought nothing more of them than that they were unteachable idiots who didn’t deserve to be taught.

I’d like to think that my mom Spidey sense would have sniffed this woman out—that I would have instinctively known this woman meant to do my kid harm and that something wasn’t right if my child was coming home with failing grades but passing the CRCT with flying colors.

This is what parents do. You pay attention and you stand up for your kid.

I talked about this with my friend Gretchen, a former middle school teacher who, as an instructor at a local university, readies college students for elementary classrooms, and she made a salient point: for all-too-many poor urban and rural parents, teachers, like doctors, are gods. You don’t question them. You do as they tell you. And when the bill—or, in the case of your child/student, a report card—comes, you put it in the pile and deal with it when you can, if and when you have the means to deal with it.

And I get that. I do. Because I came from a home with parents who didn’t understand algebra and physics and biology, who knew nothing about personal essays and college applications, who didn’t know the difference between Suffolk Community College and Yale. Who simply trusted the teachers and the counselors to have their child’s best interests in mind.

Well, not all of them do. 

And while there should be shame for those teachers, I really wish that the parents of the students had been paying closer attention to what those teachers were doing to their babies. You don’t need to know algebra to do this simple math: you can’t fail 3rd grade reading and arithmetic, but pass standardized reading and math tests with flying colors. I guess wishful thinking would have you believe that maybe some brilliance snuck into your kid’s head the night before the standardized tests, even though she’d consistently done poorly on classroom tests throughout the year. But reality should tell you this simply is not likely.

My gut tells me that someone should have caught this long before the state of Georgia did. I wish it were the parents.