Life has been very busy recently and I haven’t posted in a while. One of the things I have been busy with involves lending support and encouragement to the students at Northwestern High School in Prince George’s County Maryland (usually called “PG County”). PG County has a very large immigrant population. The schools are majority black and Latino. It is not a rich county and many schools are underfunded, which creates problems for students, teachers, and everyone involved. A group of Northwestern students got together to plan a walkout on March 1st this year, protesting large class sizes (frequently over 40 students to a class), the firing of Phillippino ESL teachers (who were then deported because they lost their work visas), and unsanitary conditions (one student said he found a tooth in his food). 300 students agreed they would leave during the last period of the school day on March 1st. The school found out about the plan, kept 4 organizers in the office all day, threatened them with expulsion and ultimately suspended them, and prevented many students from walking out. Police where there, including dogs. I and others did some activities of support for the students. I wrote the letter below which I thought I’d post on this blog
Dear Northwestern students,
When I was in high school, I remember my elders talking about how kids now a days don’t believe in anything. I knew this perception was false back then. You, students at Northwestern, have proven this perception false today.
For 20 years I have struggled with the educational system, and over those 20 years I have seen it getting worse. In school I learned reading and math. I also learned how to follow the rules, even when they didn’t make sense, how to compete with my fellow classmates, even when I didn’t want to, how to value myself and others based on our racially and socio-economically biased grades, even when I could see this wasn’t fair, and how to survive in a world which didn’t give a damn about what I thought or cared for -it wasn’t until college when I was first actually asked what I wanted to learn. With the passage and continuance of No Child Left Behind, the authoritarian tendencies of school have gotten worse as teachers, students, and schools are all rigidly judged by standardized tests which rarely measure the actual retention of meaningful learning.
My experience in higher education was much better than my schooling up to that point, but it came with a steep cost which will probably require many years of servitude to pay off. And the cost of higher education is rising, making it increasingly exclusive. In general, educational funding is being cut. This is happening at Northwestern. It is happening across the country. Teachers are fewer. Class sizes are larger. There are also many efforts to remove the teachers with more experience (who cost more) and replace them with newer teachers who cost less. Northwestern, your struggles are national struggles.
Many are aware of the problems I am outlining. Few are willing to do anything about it. You at Northwestern have done something, and I hope you feel proud of it. I feel grateful for you. You have done what many are scared to do. You have stood up for your rights. You are practicing real democracy. I would love to see teachers, students, and staff across the nation stand up in protest of this broken system. Perhaps you will be trendsetters. Know at least that I support you, and that there is a community of people who support you. Whatever ridicule, punishment, or fear you face, keep your head held high. Many have been trained by the authoritarian world to fear that which represents real hope and possibility. The resistance you faced is only proof that you represent something powerful.
With Deepest Love and Appreciation,
Writer, Activist, Educator
After the walkout people sent letters like mine to both the students and the administration. We also called the administration, and there was an open community meeting that supporters could come to. At first the administration was saying they “would not discuss alleged disciplinary actions,” seeming to deny that the suspensions even took place. But students made sure they got their voices heard and supporters were there to encourage them. This week, the students planned a day of silence for Trayvon Martin and the principle decided to revoke their suspensions. It was a victory with a complex web of players. I think there is a lot to learn from this, and I hope there can be many more victories after this.