I know what I was thinking: nobody'd show up at a high school in the north end of Flint to hear a talk by two college English teachers. Especially, I thought, not at 7:22 a.m., when the first class was supposed to start. My colleague Janelle Wiess and I were there because of Jeanette Rousseau, a UMF alum who's been teaching English at Northern High School for about six years. After agreeing to the visit, I spent a week dreading it. I've heard repeatedly that the Flint schools are disastrous, chaotic, peopled by unruly kids -- the Flint Journal recently ran a story saying some schools don't even have enough money for toilet paper, and teachers and parents were bringing it in.
I set my alarm for 5:30 a.m. and on a rainy morning, drove down bumpy Mackin Road and into Flint Northern's long driveway. There I was startled to encounter a virtual traffic jam of buses, cars and kids pouring into the beige Seventies facility. As Jeanette directed, I went around to the "flag pole" side, the student entrance, where a crowd of dozens of kids, regular kids in jeans and backpacks, moved patiently through the metal detectors. It was 7:05 a.m. when I made my own way in and found the office. I had a few minutes to relax before reporting for the first class. The place hummed with secretaries getting organized, phones ringing, students dropping in, teachers checking in -- obviously at full tilt. The classes went great -- the students respectful, alert and asking sharp, cogent questions. At least half said they want to go to college. Attendance policies, plagiarism, how to get help from professors, all relevant concerns, emerged, in a room festooned with assignment directions for "oxymoron" and cinquain poems, tips for MLA Style, and bumper stickers like "Hate is not a family value" and "If you stop to think, don't forget to start up again."
What struck me most, simply, was the obvious energy for school. Despite all the recent district-wide brouhahas and brutal funding cuts, somehow, the community is still getting schools to happen. Maybe my expectations were low, but it amazed me that the students were there -- somebody got them there -- at 7:22 in the morning, in big numbers, at an hour when I'm usually just rolling over in my brass bed and clicking on Morning Edition. It touched me. And then that they have to go through metal detectors, one by one, examined by security guards. And that they might not have toilet paper (they later assured me they did, at least at their school). I wish school was unambiguously safe -- I wish they didn't have to have metal detectors, but they didn't seem to object, waiting their turn. It seems sad -- students could be forgiven for beginning to believe that we don't care about them, that education, based on our fiscal betrayal and their crowded and crumbling schools, doesn't really matter all that much. But this morning I felt a glimmer of hope. I hope against hope they can't wait to get to school -- I hope once they get through all the obstacles, what happens in those wide institutional hallways and bustling classrooms makes them believe their minds are the best thing they've got, on a rainy morning in the middle of May.
Not a hero
4 years ago