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Requiem for a Dropout


I watched the large chicken jump and down on the cold sidewalk, flapping its wings at passing motorists. A few cars stopped to snap photographs of the large hen and one teenage boy yelled "Get a real job!"

The fast food restaurant was getting ready to close when the chicken came inside. The bird sat opposite me at an empty table and I felt a little self-conscious eating a roasted chicken leg. The chicken sat slouched at the table, its head weighing forward. The person inside the costume was obviously exhausted from standing and flapping its flightless wings all day. A teenage waiter emerged from behind the counter and placed a large cup of soda in front of the worn out bird.

"I need a long straw," the chicken asked.

"Just take your stupid chicken head off," the waiter replied.

The chicken paused for a moment and looked around the small dining area. I assume the hen was checking to make sure no young children were still in the restaurant before unmasking. The beak was pointed in my direction.

"Relax," I told the chicken. "It's just the three of us in here."

The face of a young man with curly blond hair and high check bones appeared from behind the mask. He looked to be in his midtwenties but it's hard to judge the age of a person covered in feathers. I did not expect to see a young adult performing the type of minimum wage work best suited for teenagers or college students. I thought about President Obama's address to the Joint Session of Congress on February 24th, 2009.

"In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity - it is a pre-requisite.
Right now, three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma. And yet, just over half of our citizens have that level of education. We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation. And half of the students who begin college never finish"

I promised myself that I would relax and enjoy my one week break from traveling and not ruminate about the present state of American public education. But then the chicken came into my life.

"In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge..."

What skills or knowledge could this young man sell in a global economy? I didn't know anything about him, but any adult willing to wear a chicken costume in public had to be either courageous or intoxicated.

"How long have you been working as a chicken?" I asked.

"Only a few days," the young man answered.

"Enjoy the work?"

"Not really. But I need the money."

The life-sized chicken was honest and hard-working, but sadness glossed his eyes. I learned that he had been working full-time in a supermarket until being fired. Getting fired from the local A&P is a euphemism for failing a drug or alcohol test. He never finished high school or completed a GED.

"Right now, three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma."

The young man, according to President Obama, was ineligible for 3 out of 4 jobs. He was also ineligible for most of the remaining jobs that required at least a high school education. A lack of education and no marketable job skills helped tailor his chicken costume.

"We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation"

The president is only partially correct. If we include such industrialized nations as the Republic of Tajikistan, the United States is doing well. But a large percentage of girls are not permitted to attend school in Tajikistan and I question the validity of their dropout statistics. The United States has the worse dropout record of comparable industrialized nations.

"...the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge."

The president's words are a death knell for this young man. He has neither a secondary or post-secondary education and therefore can't compete in a local job market let alone a global marketplace for jobs. I continue my conversation with the chicken. The young man is twenty-four years old and lives at home with his mother. The teenage waiter is his younger brother. I learn that he once enjoyed playing high school football and would like to be a Navy SEAL. He could be a poster child for the typical American dropout and help demystify some common misconceptions about school dropouts.

Contrary to popular belief the typical high school dropout is not poor or a minority. The majority of the one million dropouts leaving our schools each year resemble the face of the young man sitting before me. The ratio of poverty to leaving school is not as highly correlated as the ratio of race to dropping out, and African-American and Hispanic males still comprise a disproportionate number of America's dropouts, but the typical high school dropout is a non minority who is not poor.

Bias and perception help influence public policy and maybe it's time for the Ad Council to start airing the type of television commercials that could provoke public outcry and motivate government officials to aggressively attack the greatest challenge facing our education system. States in the South and Southwest have some of the highest dropout rates in the nation and, coincidently, some of the best high school football teams in the nation. How about creating a public service commercial to be aired during the Super Bowl? The image of a championship high school football team losing one player every thirty seconds-the same rate as the national dropout rate- might outrage a nation of rabid armchair quarterbacks. Removing the image of the star quarterback or running back would be a bonus and possibly provoke a national revolt.

"...a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity - it is a pre-requisite."

The chicken is growing restless and asked his brother for a ride home.

"I'm going to the mall," the brother protested.

"I know," the chicken replied, "but I don't want to wear this chicken suit on the way home."

"Okay. Just don't wear your chicken head while sitting in the passenger seat."

I take my cue and leave the restaurant. The chicken and the teenager enter a late model Malibu and leave the parking lot. The chicken head is tossed in the back seat.

I first thought it strange to see a large chicken encourage people to eat chicken. The bizarre situation did not seem odd to the many people who drove past the restaurant, probably because colorful animal costumes brighten winter days and bring a little novelty to our lives. The faces and stories behind the masks remain unseen and the image is not spoiled. The young man inside the chicken costume has joined the legion of over one million young people who fail to graduate high school every year. It often takes a period of time to see the negative impact a dropout has on the rest of us, but eventually all chickens come home to roost.

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