My friend B teaches at a DCPS middle school, one of the really rough ones that is more likely to be in the news for stabbings than for high test scores. To keep the kids busy at the end of the school year, she's been planning all sorts of special events for the kids who are still showing up, once of which was Career Day today. Since I work at a college, I was invited to talk about what it is like to GO to a college. B figured, quite rightly, that her class would be much more interested in what dorm life and step teams are like than the intricacies of Stafford Loans or what it means to be ABD.
These kids were great. Yes, she'd pulled the especially high-achieving students for this session, but they asked fantastic questions and were incredibly enthusiastic. They kept me there for two hours and I easily could have stayed longer, but there was an attorney waiting in the hallway to talk to them after me, and I felt a tad rude having him cool his heels while we talked about NCAA basketball.
To begin the session I'd stolen some tricks from my mother, who also works in higher ed. "How many of you know someone who has taken out a loan to buy something big?" I asked them as everyone scooted their desks into a circle. One girl shouted "a car!" Another said "a house." "Okay," I replied. "So you know that a lot of people borrow money when they want to buy something expensive. But what you may not know is the second you drive that car off the lot, it starts losing value. And the longer you use it, the less and less it is worth."
They started to look a little sober at this thought, and so I switched gears to rev them back up. "Who here thinks a million dollars is a lot of money?" I asked the kids. Everyone's hands shot up in the air, B's and mine included. "I agree," I said. "A million dollars is a LOT of money. And a study recently came out saying that over a lifetime, people who graduate from college will make an average of a MILLION dollars more than people who stop after high school."
Their eyes started to glaze over as they thought about what a big number "a million" was. "Now, think back to that car or that house that you borrowed money to get. You just as easily can borrow money to go to school. But the difference is, instead of getting less valuable, your purchase-- your education-- gets MORE valuable as time goes on. And no one can take it away from you. Your car can get stolen or maybe you can't keep your house, but you will always, always have your education. And the older you get, the more money you will make from it. That's why you can't afford NOT to go to college."
Then the boy sitting across the circle started shouting around a mouthful of Pringles, "But if I want to be an engineer, I'll make even more money than that!"
"Excuse me, sir," I said "I cannot understand you when you talk with your mouth full." (Oh LORD, what a grown-up thing to say)
The rest of the kids laughed at him as he frantically tried to swallow before someone else could start talking over him. "I mean," he exclaimed, Pringle-free, "I'd make more than a million dollars."
"Over a lifetime, yes, I'm sure you would. I'm sure that as an engineer, you'd make more money than me."
"Hells yeah I would!" he grinned, and even though I didn't want to endorse twelve-year olds swearing in the classroom, he was so impish I couldn't help but grin as well. He started paging through the course catalog I'd brought as two girls passed around my old student ID card and another boy hollered "So teachers at college don't care if you don't do your homework because then they don't have to work as hard, right?!"
I've done a lot of college recruiting before, and some with underserved populations, but this was an entirely new perspective. B warned me that some of them had siblings or parents who went to college but the majority of them had, at most, only seen college on TV. Some other questions they asked me:
What is a major?
Does the teacher smack you if you fall asleep in class?
Do you have a movie theater on campus?
Do your dorm refrigerators come with food already in them?
Why should I go to college if I know I want to be a basketball player?
How do you say "cheese" in Italian?
Can you share books with other people? Cuz books are expensive.
How much does college cost? Like a thousand dollars?
How do you play water polo?
After I answered a ton more questions (and we discussed how to write a thesis using the example "Egyptians, not aliens, build the pyramids"), one very shy girl sitting next to me in our desk circle asked me what I wanted to do with my college degree. I told her that she'd asked a very good question, because I still didn't know-- but that because I went to college I was now prepared to do a lot of different things. To teach, to write, to problem-solve, to ask hard questions and try to find answers to them. That because I graduated from college I had all sorts of options ahead of me, and that I had such a good time there I decided to stay working at a college and keep going to school. She smiled in a way that made me think that answer might have sparked something in her.
I have no idea what will happen to any of those kids, if any of them will think about what I said or flip through the glossy brochures I handed out and daydream about a life in the other Washington. I'm not naive enough to think I changed anyone's life, but I hope that maybe someone heard me when I said it wouldn't be enough to go for the easy way, and that they should challenge themselves beyond what people expected and asked of them. That they would meet a lot of people who would say that they were smart and that that was good enough, and that they shouldn't stop at "good enough."
Maybe some of it did get through. At the end of the session I asked them "and what are the three subjects you should take as much as possible in high school?" and they shouted in muddled chorus "math, science and foreign language!" Do DCPS high schools even offer foreign languages? I have no idea.
But for the brief time I spent with them, I was utterly charmed and optimistic. These kids are fantastic. I hope they get the chances they deserve to show off what they're made of, because it's good stuff.