Poverty, racism, urban culture, and parental absenteeism understandably feature prominently in national discussions about the root causes of the dysfunction in America’s inner-city K-12 public education system. Conspicuously missing in the debate, unfortunately, is one crucially important factor: the extent to which exposure to negative messages shapes children’s attitudes in school.
Shortly after I immigrated to America in 1992, I was hired to teach Russian and math in an inner-city public school district. My very first high school math class was a complete disaster. I walked in to find students shouting loudly at the top of their voices, with desks and chairs in total disarray. After trying unsuccessfully for several minutes to get the students to calm down, I went into the office and asked a lady there for help. She accompanied me to the classroom, but her pleas for silence similarly fell on deaf ears. Ultimately, the principal had to be called in to restore order. By then, the class period was almost over. I hardly did any teaching that day.
Utterly shocked by the experience, I spoke about it with colleagues in another school the next morning. I was even more surprised to learn from them that what I witnessed was the norm in the school district, not an exception.
I grew up in Ghana, where it was unthinkable that a student would disobey any teacher in the classroom. The primary and middle schools I attended in my village had nothing except the desks and chairs and a couple of textbooks. We did not have cafeterias or libraries. Most adults in the village, my parents included, were subsistence farmers whose children received up to a middle school education—at best—and went back to work on farms for the remainder of their lives.
As one of fourteen children born to my parents, who were both illiterate, I was hungry most of the time because there was never enough food to feed all those mouths. Our days were filled with a combination of school, backbreaking work on farms, and dawn-to-dusk chores. With rampant poverty and near-total illiteracy within the adult population, every family in the village struggled simply to survive. Education was the last thing on anyone’s mind.
My life was supposed to follow the familiar village script. But everything changed when one morning, at age nine, I picked up a newspaper scrap from the ground and read something on it. I learned about Ghana’s most exclusive secondary school, and the fact that it educated children of the country’s elite. Many students went from that school to attend Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England, and returned to become the most prominent people in Ghana. I decided there and then that I would try to gain admission to the school, go to Oxford or Cambridge after that, and later return to become a person of prominence in Ghana.
Given my socio-economic position at the time, it was downright absurd for me to even entertain those thoughts. I was probably the world’s most disadvantaged child, but luckily, I didn’t know it. That cluelessness gave me the freedom to chase after what was practically a hopeless dream.
I needed to have a good command of English to stand any chance of gaining admission. Without access to books, I started using my meager breakfast money to buy the national daily newspaper, which was sold at the village post office, to use as reading material. Consequently, I went to school hungry every day. There was no such thing as free school lunch for poor children in Ghana.
But the biggest hurdle was getting light to study. The village had no electricity. Because of nonstop work during the day, I could only find time to study at night. We had two kerosene lamps at home, but they were always in use so I had to wait till about 10:00 p.m. each day to have access. I would study for a couple of hours, get about four hours of sleep, and then wake up to begin chores.
Miraculously, I did well on the highly competitive entrance exam and was admitted to the school. It was only then that my parents and teachers found out what I had been doing. It was also then that I first learned about the thing called poverty, which frequently kills dreams. As it turned out, it was impossible for my parents to find the money to pay the tuition. All secondary schools in Ghana charged tuition, and that was the reason so many children in villages couldn’t go beyond middle school.
While having to give up the dream of attending the elite school was devastating, going through the admission process turned out to be a golden ticket. I had to attend an interview on the campus after I was provisionally admitted. From my brief time there, I became keenly aware that I wanted much more than what life in the village offered. That was what motivated me to retake the exam the following year. I did even better then, and was fortunate to get a scholarship to attend another secondary school.
Even with that lucky break, I continued to encounter one obstacle after another throughout my educational journey. But the thought of quitting never occurred to me. After secondary school, I received a scholarship to study engineering in the Soviet Union, from where I later immigrated to America. I have since obtained two graduate degrees, one in engineering from Purdue University, and another in business from Dartmouth College. My combined education has allowed me to enjoy a successful career in corporate America for nearly three decades.
Because talk about economic inequality, racism, and other social ills is ubiquitous in America, disadvantaged children are incessantly bombarded with messages about how heavily the deck is stacked against them. Naturally, many conclude that education is not worth pursuing. That is what I witnessed as a teacher. Compared to the dusty, bare classrooms I sat in as a child, my students had state-of-the-art classrooms and libraries filled with a variety of books; unlike me, they had access to free lunch if they needed it. Despite that, they had completely disengaged.
Societal problems must certainly be discussed and addressed. But we must be extremely careful about what we say around children. Knowledge is generally considered to be power. But some knowledge can be toxic and paralyzing. As the philosopher Seneca said, luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. I have been lucky many times in my life because I was always prepared to take advantage of opportunities that came my way. Because education plays such an outsized role in children’s future prospects, giving up so early on it means that many of these disadvantaged American children risk having little to no luck in their lives.
I was extremely fortunate that I didn’t tell anyone about what I planned to do after I read what was on that newspaper scrap. My parents wouldn’t have understood any of it, but judging by the shocked expressions on the faces of my teachers when they learned about my admission offer, I am almost certain they would have dissuaded me from even trying initially. Given where I was starting from, their point would have been perfectly valid. It is quite possible that if something or someone had stopped me then, everything else I have achieved in my life might not have occurred. That is a haunting feeling.
In life, you never know what is possible until you give something your very best shot. Not knowing the extent of my disadvantage was crucially empowering. Sometimes the greatest gift we can give to children is to drape a veil of ignorance over their eyes and ears.