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Navigating Potholes in the Education Road

Dave Orphal

At the Center for Teaching Quality Advisory Board meeting this past summer, I heard my colleague Renee Moore comment, "I know that education is the road to a better life, but why is it that in some neighborhoods, that road is so full of potholes?"

I was intrigued by her analogy about education being the road to success. I thought back to my own childhood, growing up in a suburban community near San Francisco. In my home town, all of the roads, literal and figurative, were well paved, well lit, and safe.

Literally, on the drives, lanes, and courts of my youth, children could safely play in the streets until long after dusk. The manhole cover in the middle of the road was our pitching mound, a parked car was first base, and extra glove was second, and the fire hydrant was third. On other days, my friends and I could bicycle all over town, over the freeway overpass, and into the neighboring town for a matinee.

Our metaphorical roads were well maintained, also. When I was struggling to read in 3rd grade, a summer tutor quickly got me back up to speed. By the time my cohort were seniors, college was so assured it seemed to be merely 13th grade. Everyone was going to college. The only question was where. Our best and brightest were off to Stanford and Berkeley. Our most struggling scholars would stay home and attend local junior colleges. The bulk of us would attend less-prestigious University of California or California State schools.

The road to success was smooth and easily navigated.

About 15 miles and a world away from the cul-de-sacs of my youth, the children I teach in Oakland have a far rockier road to traverse.

The physical roads where their families make their homes are patched and potholed. Weeds grow between the cracks of the broken sidewalks. My students are not allowed to play outside unsupervised. Most days, they must wait inside, watching television, until their parents come home from their jobs.

Figuratively, my students have a difficult road to travel, too. On their way to the bus stop to get to school, many of them pass dealers and gangsters who, having already forgone the road of education themselves, recruit my students tenaciously.

"It's hard to stay out of trouble, Mr. Orphal," one student told me last fall. Her family had been driving down one of the main roads of Oakland. When a car suddenly stopped in front of them for no obvious reason, her father honked the horn. The man in the stopped car got out and fired shots at her and her family.

Another student, a senior with his acceptance letter to our local state university, was having a party for his 18th birthday. He had resisted the siren song of the streets his whole life and gang-bangers were not welcome at his celebration. One such youth, angered at being turned away, returned to shoot and murder my student.

Every few weeks, my class mourns another loss.

And yet, my students continue to come back to class. Day after day, they return and do their very best. I find myself in awe of them each time they return to school after yet another trauma or tragedy.

This is what "grit" looks like to me.

Dave Orphal is a teacher and small learning communities coordinator at Skyline High School in Oakland, Calif.

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