Friday, April 15, 2011

Bill Gates and the Soap of Education

                                 Bill Gates and Soap of Education

     Bill Gates recently claimed class-size doesn’t matter.
     Mr. Gates, I need to talk to you about soap.
    I teach fifth grade in Castroville, California, and a former fifth-grade student, Rojelio (Ro for short), sends me powerful and disturbing gifts. He is twenty-seven now and freshly released from prison.  His gifts, although welcomed because they represent an ongoing seventeen year teacher-student bond, also unnerve me. Ro says they are for “hanging with him all these years.” His gifts have included a newspaper belonging to Charles Manson (A Christian Science Monitor – go figure), and four Sudoku puzzles completed by Sirhan Sirhan. Today he gave me a bar of soap. Inscribed on it are three letters, PIA -- Prison Industries Authority.
     My student has been incarcerated for thirteen-plus years - since he was an eighth-grader. He got the newspaper and the Sudoku puzzles when he was on the same tier as Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan. He played chess--a game I taught him in fifth-grade-- with both men. 
   Rojelio’s mom called me, “Mr. Karrer, Ro is coming home on Sunday. Can you straighten his ass out? We’re having a party for him. You wanna’ come?”
     Can I straighten him out? Probably not.  Will I keep on trying to help him? Yes.
So, today right after class, we met at Starbucks. He spotted me and walked to my car, big grin under his nose. He had put on lots of weight. Last time I saw him was in Salinas Valley State Prison, over two years ago. He was in ankle chains, waist chains, then chained from his waist to his ankles, and handcuffed.
      But today, we hugged and he passed me a paper cup with the soap in it.  He said, “Got a present for you, pretty rare. I’m surprised the correction officers let me take it out. It’s worth a couple bucks on E-bay.” He laughed and added, ”Plus, with the cutbacks we only get half a bar now.”
        He didn’t get an education in prison. I have sincere worries that he was in no way rehabilitated. He has little to show for thirteen years of incarceration. Basically he walked out of prison with one thing and he gave that to me - a prison issue bar of soap.
       Mr. Gates, you don’t get it. Those of us teaching in the urban areas see communities and children wallowing in pitiful, desperate poverty. You have no idea how distressed my students are. Nor how slim their margin of survival is.  Last year, fifty percent of my students had set foot in a jail or a prison to visit a family member. The many staggering deficiencies which accompany that reality are overwhelming and swirl around in a negative critical mass, pulling down students’ academics, motivation, and life’s bright shine. Rojelio is the end product of that wretched poverty. And unfortunately he’s not alone. Armies of kids are in line behind him waiting to join gangs.
     You say good teachers are the most important variable in a classroom. Well, you are wrong. It is home life or lack thereof. All teachers can do is assist. I’d like to think I do.  If you think we are so important, then aid us – by helping these kids who need the most. So many of my kids end up in jail or prison. Actually, in communities of raw despondence, smaller class size does matter. It’s one of the very few things that can impact the despondence of their daily lives.  But you think it doesn’t and you are a billionaire. I’m just a front line teacher.  What do I know?
   As for Ro, the odds are stacked against him. He’s never been in a plane, never held a meaningful job, didn’t finish school past eighth-grade. He’s a validated gang member and a felon with one strike. There’s a sixty percent recidivism rate waiting for him.
   As for me, I missed Ro’s coming back party, but I’m going over for dinner. I also hope I won’t be receiving any more presents from him.
   Class size matters Bill Gates, it matters big time. You need to clean up your thinking. And if you want to borrow some soap to do it I have some… unfortunately. 

Paul Karrer

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