By Mpaza S. Kapembwa
In the 2009 film Waiting for Superman, dejected students in a public school stumble through classes in a failing school, which contributes to a failing neighborhood and an overall sense of impending disaster. Everybody is waiting for Superman to appear, although everybody knows he never will. Thousands of high schools across the country today are called “dropout factories.” The Superman narrator points out that, “We’ve tried money, passing laws, and the latest reforms….” but nothing works. The documentary concludes that our public school system is broken and needs fixing.
Enter the reformers. First, the Radical: Michelle Rhee, until recently the D.C schools chancellor, argues that teachers have failed to produce “results for kids.” In her first year on the job, Rhee closed 23 schools, fired 36 principals, and cut some 121 office jobs. She cited under-enrollment and incompetence of officials as reasons for the moves.
Then the Visionary: “We won’t let your kids fail,” declares Geoffrey Canada. “We will get your kids into college.” Since 1990, Canada has been president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone in Harlem, New York.
I am on board with such Reformers, but teachers can neither “get results” for student nor “get them into college.” They can put us on the path to attain good results and get into college, but it’s all up to us. We have the MOST responsibility when it comes to our education. I want to challenge Reformers to look my peers and me in the eye and tell us that we need to work harder. I challenge parents to tell their kids to work harder before they turn to blame the teachers. I am not convinced that we students are doing the best we can, while our teachers are not doing their part.
Some teachers are incompetent, sure, but more students do not take their education seriously. We expect to be spoon-fed. We go to school, fill up with knowledge, go home and not study — and expect to get educated!
We are more products of our expectations than we are products of our environment. If we expect to succeed, nothing will stop us. My teachers never motivated me. They didn’t have to. I was motivated by the fact that paying bills in the house was a constant struggle. I was motivated by the fact that students like me were supposed to end up in jail and not at an elite college. I was motivated because the closest my mother will ever get to a college education is reading newsletters from my college. Every time I try to tell my fellow students that WE are the Superman and WE can pilot our own education, they counter with endless “what ifs” and “buts.” Nothing can ever be accomplished with that mentality.
While PTAs and School Boards can be great instruments in advocating for students, they often focus on the school administration, faculty, budgets, and long-winded policies. They overlook — or at least under-emphasize — the responsibilities of the student. Students cannot dodge their responsibilities and point fingers at their teachers. Parents cannot dodge their responsibilities and think the public school system alone will educate their children. Education starts in the home — everything else is just a supplement.
So I say to my fellow students, stand up! Get in that phone booth and pull on your Superman suit! Take off into the future — your future.
Mpaza S. Kapembwa is a freshman at Williams College, studying on a Gates Millennium Scholarship, among others. He can be reached at Mpaza.S.Kapembwa@williams.edu.