I stood nervously behind the stage, trying through sheer will to prevent the little beads of sweat from forming on my forehead. It’s not going well. I’m about to walk out in front of a large crowd of people and openly commit fraud. Certainly this is fraud. I’m about to accept a high school diploma that I know I didn’t earn. Just two weeks earlier I’d been a drop-out. Rather than going to school everyday, I spent the majority of my afternoons on the couch with a giant bowl of Cocoa Puffs, nodding my head in agreement as the Honorable Judge Judy scolded her defendants for their laziness and lack of character. And now here I am. About to accept my diploma.
I should mention that, at this time, I was nineteen with a two month old baby at home. The situation was starting to make me feel a bit desperate. Just not desperate enough to get off the couch and actually do anything about it. I suspect many of my fellow Judge Judy fans share this affliction of quiet desperation combined with couch based paralysis. It’s an epidemic. Fortunately, I found a school that was more desperate than I was. It was a charter school.
When I say that I found a school, what I really mean to say is that my caseworker from the teen parents outreach program found a school for me. My caseworker’s name was Faviola and if there’s a hero in this story, it’s her. She was desperate too.
Together we were desperate that I move forward in my life. I was desperate to become the person my daughter needed, my caseworker was desperate for a win, and the school was desperate for graduates.
I still don’t know how Faviola found this place, but it turns out that in Texas, if a charter school doesn’t have any graduates, it can lose its charter and be shut down. This place had been doing an excellent job of helping their students get GEDs. All of them. They hadn’t actually graduated a single student that year. So when my caseworker told them I was a senior who only needed a few credits to graduate, they were super eager to meet me.
After reviewing my records, it turned out that I only needed 12th grade English to graduate, which I probably would have known if I’d bothered to show up at school anytime in the past year. But after things hadn’t work out at alternative school, I was pretty much over the whole school thing.
I show up to the charter school with my caseworker and enroll myself because I’m technically an adult at this point. I go into one of two classrooms and meet my new teacher who assigns me the book The Outsiders and wants me to write a report on it. For those who aren’t familiar, The Outsiders is a book most people read in 8th grade. I figured she was just starting me off slow. I’ve always been a strong reader so the next day I handed in my book report and asked for my next assignment.
She asks me to wait a minute and leaves the room. After talking with somebody in the hall for a few seconds, she returns to ask if I would be able to make the graduation ceremony in two weeks.
I know, but it gets worse.
Now I’m backstage in this large auditorium. They’ve invited a female lawyer who had recently been elected judge to give the commencement speech. There are a few hundred people in attendance, mostly family members of the “graduates” who are really just a bunch of people having a ceremony for passing the GED. About half of them rented caps and gowns for the occasion. The other half decided against it. Still, I felt they had more reason to be there than I did. They had all passed a test, I had just written my opinion about a book.
As they begin to call names, a woman from the school ushers me toward the back of the line. She’s smiling so hard her eyes are squinting as she lets me know “We’re letting all the GED people go first.” This seems perfectly fair because they’d been working toward something, I had only attended the school for two days. They should totally get to go first.
At any moment, I feel like someone’s going to tap me on the shoulder and say “Hey, we checked it out and writing a book report for The Outsiders doesn’t get you credit for 12th grade English so we’re going to have ask you to leave.” That would be embarrassing. I had already told my grandparents I was going to college.
All the people in front of me start disappearing one by one as their names are called until finally I’m the only person left backstage. There’s a long pause after they call the last person in front of me. My initial thought is they forgot about me or my name didn’t make the list because I was a last minute write-in. Then the judge announces “Now we are going to give an award to our highest ranking graduate, Johnathan Cranford ladies and gentlemen.”
Is that my name that was just called? This has to be a mistake. The same lady who told me to wait for all the “GED people” to go is squint smiling and congratulating me as she pushes me out onto the stage. It slowly sinks in. I’m the only person to graduate, so I’m also valedictorian. My legs shake as I walk across the stage.
The woman standing at the podium hands me a plaque with my name on it. The only thought in my head “How did they get this made so quickly?” Then she looks at me and says something like “It’s an honor to give this to you.” I’m tempted to say “Thanks, I worked really hard for it.” But I don’t want to press my luck so I just say “Thank you,” and walk off the stage.
Thanks in no small part to the pushing and prodding of my caseworker I went to college and went on to become a High School English teacher in the public school system. It’s not the experience most people think it is. I literally can’t assign a book report on The Outsiders to my students at the High School level for good reason. It’s my job to challenge them. Even the ones who are below grade level are required to develop “higher order thinking skills”–you may have heard of these referred to as “critical thinking skills”.
Higher order thinking skills fall into three categories: Analysis, Evaluation, and Synthesis. Take Analysis or example. Under the scope of analysis we’re required to teach students to make inferences about a text. Inference is using the evidence you have to make a guess or reach a conclusion. It’s a difficult skill to teach compared to a lower level skill like recalling vocabulary words from memory. To make inferences about a fictional text you might ask a student to put themselves in a character’s shoes and predict what the character might do in a given situation based on what they already know about that character. It requires more thought and consideration than simply recalling facts.
Despite being championed by our new Secretary of Education Betsy Devos as the answer to all the education woes in America, the non-public schools I attended never taught at this level. The way she talks about public schools you’d think we were all huddled under our desks dodging gunfire and waiting for the rival gangs to call a truce so we can get back to teaching nursery rhymes. That sort of perception comes from a lack of experience and too many movies. But what concerns me most about about Betsy isn’t that she never attended a public school, nor is it the illiterate tweets or the fact that she doesn’t understand how teachers measure academic growth, it’s that she never learned to make inferences.
Her favorite idea so far is to take portions of the tax dollars going to public schools and turn them into vouchers for parents who want their kids to attend non-public schools. From what we already know about math we can infer that if you take from one to give to the other then there’s less available for the one you took from. We can infer that public schools in depressed areas stand to lose the most. They’ve been doing more work with less money for decades. We can infer that with already strained budgets some public schools will be forced to close. That’s not a solution, it’s a scam to give public money to private enterprise and crash the system entirely. There’s a word for pretending to fix public education by stealing its resources–fraud. But I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that fraud is the first and only lesson I ever learned from a charter school.