Great, or Constrained, Expectations

Great, or Constrained, Expectations

With his mortarboard cap angled over his right eye, a tiny diamond earring in his left ear, and an arm-swinging walk just short of jaunty, DeWayne cuts a fine graduation figure. He is full of smiles as the relatives — a grandmother, two aunts, an uncle, his parents and two sisters — gather round him with presents, balloons and good wishes.  The dimple in his right cheek is even more pronounced as he flashes his white teeth at his friends. The dimple stops me short, and I tell the woman next to me that DeWayne, when he grows up, is going to be a heartbreaker. For now, DeWayne is all of 5, graduating from pre-kindergarten, his family spending the kind of time, energy and money that usually accompanies a college graduation.
     If this is what DeWayne gets for pre-kindergarten, how will his family “top” that when he graduates from elementary school, junior high school, or college? I ask his mother, rather tentatively, what she sees in DeWayne’s future. She is as tentative as I am, as she shrugs out her reply. “I want him to go on,” she says. “But who knows what will happen.” One might fault the woman for her pessimism, but she lives in Washington, D.C., where 13 youngsters were killed between Jan. 1 and May 3, when 8-year-old Chelsea Cromartie was shot as she picked up her Barbie dolls in her aunt’s living room.  For once, D.C. police went on overdrive and identified her killers within a week or so. They were two 20-something brothers who were shooting in Chelsea’s neighborhood because another group of young people had attacked them. Apprehension was swift, but grief and pessimism remain. If Chelsea Cromartie, a third-grader who described herself as “an amazing girl” could be randomly shot, which of our other children is at risk?
Sometimes the risk occurs in neighborhoods, but sometimes it occurs in schools, where violence is on the rise, where high school students are shot on school steps over some kind of crazy beef. No wonder DeWayne’s mother wants to put a cap and gown on him at 5. With inner-city crime rates being what they are, she can’t be sure he’ll wear a cap and gown at 18.
Yet this is the season for graduations — from college, and from high school, from junior high school and elementary school. I didn’t know, until DeWayne, that there were actually nursery school graduations. Every graduation is the result of a set of decisions made by parents and by students, implicit and explicit. The choice of which neighborhood to live in, of school to attend, of classmates to hang out with, of organizations to join, each one of these decisions increases or decreases a young person’s chances of completing an educational path. 
Policy decisions play as great a role as personal ones. Politicians decide which schools to fund, and which to underfund, which principals to hire and which dedicated professionals to ignore. Legislators decide whether they can break off a small piece of the money we so easily commit to Iraq so that we can build a solid infrastructure of schools. And they decide how much money to commit to state universities, implicitly deciding who can attend based on tuitions and other constraints.
The combination of personal and policy decisions determine whether DeWayne, at 5, will wear another cap and gown in a decade or so. These personal and policy decisions determine whether DeWayne will head on to college, or whether he will graduate into oblivion. When data are released that report that the number of African American men in college — about 350,000 — is smaller than the number in jail — nearly a million — we are all puzzled. We don’t own any of the personal or policy decisions that shaped the set of choices that boys and girls like DeWayne have.
Chelsea Cromartie won’t graduate from high school or college because she didn’t have a chance to live. She won’t graduate because we have never gotten a handle on the street violence that plagues too many of our inner cities. It happens on the street, and in schools, and people are frustrated and weary; however, few are so angry as to fight for the kind of gun control we need, and few are angry enough to commit to making a difference. Instead, dozens of politicians thronged to the young girl’s funeral, each with more incendiary rhetoric about violence and its outcomes. 
     Rhetoric is fine, but action is better. Many who work in higher education focus on the terms and conditions of that education, on affirmative action, rising tuition costs, the availability of financial aid and other issues. Many sow into their students, working hard to make sure that their path from freshman to senior is a seamless one. 
Why have so few insisted on a transformation of the quality of K-12 schools and the elimination of violence in areas that surround them? We ought to make a pre-kindergarten graduation nothing more than a happy ritual and save the mortarboard for bigger occasions. That requires, however, both faith and commitment for creating bigger occasions. 



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