By Shea Howell
June 12, 2017
I saw my first young person in the neighborhood walking with her graduation cap on the way to church this week. It is a common sight in Detroit at this time of year. All over the city young people mark their graduation from high school or college by wearing caps and gowns as they go to community gatherings or just walking down the street with friends.
I don’t know if this happens in other cities, but here, graduation is a public affair, celebrated on street corners. As in other places there are family parties and balloons, church acknowledgments and lawn signs, but here graduations are about more than individual achievement. Although often they signify remarkable accomplishments by our young people in a city where nearly half of them have dropped out and many never complete what is needed to get a diploma. Still, there is a sense that wearing caps and gowns as you go about normal life is a way of acknowledging the long, hard struggle for education by people who risked their lives to learn to read. It is a tribute to ancestors and a hope toward the future.
This image of my neighbor proudly wearing her cap was very much on my mind as I gathered with a small group of students in a nearby high school. All of the students were one or two years away from the possibility of having a cap. We had come together to talk about what they thought about their school. It was a dismal picture. Students shared concerns for the physical space and talked about mice, falling tiles from the ceiling and lack of heat in winter. Of the eight students we talked to, only one said she had learned anything in the past year. She had only one teacher who cared about her and really taught the class. She had come to love literature. All students said math and science were never taught. Instead, day after day worksheets were handed out, many never returned. They didn’t feel safe in the building, and the security guards were as much of a problem as the other students.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing was the young woman who had learned something over the year. She clearly loved the thrill of new ideas and insights and felt she had grown and developed in her understanding of the world. Yet she had also decided that she had to give up her dream to be an engineer. Given the poor instruction in math and science, she had concluded that she would now be too far behind to really learn what she needed. She had yet to come up with a new dream for herself.
There is something terribly wrong when children’s dreams are smashed. The message that many of our schools send them is quite simply, “you don’t matter.” In thousands of ways large and small our institutions tell young people they are incapable, useless, and not worth caring about. Our children get the message “you are disposable.”
As we left the school and walked out into the warm street, Langston Hughes would not leave me. He was with us, offering his questions:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?