Dear Bill Gates,
I am one of the kids you are trying to save. Raised in Sacramento, I lived in North Highlands when Sac High was taken over, and when the Met was put in the inner city. I grew up heartbreakingly poor, the proud child of working class parents, I am one of four kids. I graduated from Stanford, twice, first for my B.A. in history and then again for my Master’s in Education from STEP. While at Stanford I was an activist for the first generation and low income students, creating many of the resources that now exist at Stanford and have spread elsewhere. In fact, if you look very carefully to the data mining you funded at Stanford for first generation students you will find my interviews, time and time again. I believe you are well-intentioned. I believe you think you are doing the right thing, just as I believe that my friends at Stanford thought they were doing the right thing when they wore bracelets to support causes, except you have a lot more power and money then you do. So I come you, not only as a young educator, but also as the grown up voice of the children you want to save. And I come with your to say that your money could be used for much better purposes than the people you’ve gotten yourself entangled in.
The high school I went to is one of the worst in the state of California. All of us were painfully poor, and while most of our teachers did the best they could with what they had, we didn’t have a functioning art program, a library, sports programs, or even books in most cases. Some of my teachers were rock stars, some where terrible. The most incompetent person on campus was the Principal and he carried out what he was supposed to do without thought. That in this environment a few of us were able to get out, is a testament not to school policy but to the resilency of children.
I know you thought you were doing the right thing but the right thing would have been to fund the schools properly, to redraw the district lines such that schools were integrated and to provide wrap-a-round services. I am a product of the first round of high stakes testing, and I can promise you that despite my insanely high scores they aren’t what saved me or anyone else I know who got out. What saved us was the teachers we had who loved us, who spent hours with us providing a safe space, who challenged us and pushed us, who gave us creative assignments and talked to us even when if meant more work for them. Being an intellectually gifted child, I would show up for the tests, bs my way through them and go back to reading Orwell. We didn’t take them seriously, they didn’t increase our engagement and they were a colossal waste of valuable instructional time. In the end, all they did was punish the adults in the building who loved us deeply.
My little sister is 8 years younger than me, which means that when I left for college she wasn’t in high school yet. I often thought to myself that it couldn’t get any worse than what I had, and I was wrong. I returned home this year to do right by my community, to be the teacher others had been for me, what I came home to was nothing short of devastation. I am spending my summer mourning and packing to return to the Bay. In the year I came out of graduate school 300 teachers were fired from Sac City unified and there were no openings. In the meantime the district signed an agreement with TFA. This means that coming out of TFA it was easier to get hired than it was for the prodigal daughter with a Master’s in teaching and an undergraduate degree from an elite school. This was nothing compared to the personal trajedy I came home too. Because of the computer based charters, there are working class kids wandering the city during the day, but again that wasn’t even the worst of it. My little sister, who is brilliant but has a disability had dropped out of school at 15. Why? Because the violence at the charter she attended was so bad that after being jumped during class she needed surgery. My parents could find no suitable and safe place for her. By the time she was in college, nearly every school close enough to us (because of course we have no public transportation) was safe enough or willing to provide for her needs. My parents threw their hands up in desperation, for merely caring for the child and keeping her safe had been the family’s devotion for most of my life. I came home to a community already battling the demons of poverty and racism and classism that was devastated by your reform efforts. In one of the poorest, worst neighborhoods in the state, in one of the worst schools in the state things had actually deteroriated in the brief time I went away for college.
I would have stuck it out and dealt with that, but because of the situation with TFA there is no way for me to do that. I am moving to teach at a district that integrates their schools, pays their teachers well and is more concerned about what is best for their kids than their own personal gain. The reason they can do that is because the community has agreed that we are in this together and we have a shared responsibility for our neighbors.
I know how people with your privilege think, most of you have never met kids like me in person and you think you got to the place you did out of pure merit and not from privilege and when you come into my community you think we just haven’t learned how to act sufficiently privileged. You want to give back so you can feel less guilt in those moments when you do realize what is happening, so you can sleep at night. But you are unwilling to give any of that privilege up. We are people, not others, we are members of your country, your community. When you benefit from American superiority in military and economic affairs you benefit from the blood and sweat of my family and of my ancestors. We are one of you. And if you can’t see what is beautiful in us, then you need to get out. Because the system you benefit already is breaking us, so if you “help” means furthering that system then we would rather you left us alone.
I say this because I know that since so few of us could go to college and I am the only friend from my neighborhood with the elite training your people revere so much that I am the only one with a voice. And that is what keeps me up at night.