I had a student that has fundamentally changed my outlook on life. I was working with the special education team in East Palo Alto before I went to get my masters. Our students were tough kids who were being fully included in the classroom, some of whom needed scribes, or couldn’t read. One kid came in right when I thought I had my found my rhythm, we’ll call him . It was October and we suddenly had a student on our hands that was incomprehensible in English and Spanish. He was a 16 year old freshman who couldn’t add. This is a near impossible challenge for a classroom teacher to meet when a student is that far behind in the curriculum. And lots of people and maybe some teachers did immediately label him “lazy” and “difficult.” For most classroom teachers a kid like this is often treated like a distraction you have to contain because kids tend to get bored when they have nothing to do for an hour and and then they get angry because they are embarrassed that they can’t do the work. But fortunately, this kid had an IEP so he was on our case load.
He was a real challenge in what was already a difficult roster, but I was determined to ensure that he was learning because I firmly believe that anyone can learn, and I’ve never been wrong about that. But work ethic is a whole different monster. I was raised in a house that treats work like it’s a religion. My mom was concerned that telling us we were special would ruin us and cause us to go down a foolish path, so she just valued our work. People praise this and I don’t blame my mom for it but there is a dark side to this. My earliest memory involves getting hit in the head for not scrubbing fast enough. People pointed to my work ethic and praised it at Stanford but my work ethic also has caused very serious permanent injury. The whole “hard work is all you need” mantra is also something I’ve long been suspicious of because no one in my family or friend group was lazy and yet we were all poor. But it was J that sealed the deal for me.
J worked just as hard, if not harder, than every other kid that year. Once we found where he was at, he started making real, observable gains and we continued to slowly let him build. James has been moved back and forth between Mexico and the United States his whole life and his parents were illiterate farm workers. In less than a full school year, James had the confidence to explain math applications in multiple steps, he was finally writing sentences and he was a generally confident and pleasant kid. I have never met a human being that didn’t want to learn if the material was accessible and interesting to them. Never
And then there was F. F couldn’t read but was outgoing and had been going to public schools in America since he was five. But he still couldn’t read and kept getting placed in ESL classes. He was great at math but would become so frustrated from hunger and not being able to read the instructions on his assignment that he would throw chairs rather frequently in the afternoon. It turned out that F couldn’t read because of a processing problem similar to dyslexia. Once he was treated, he was able to conquer the written word for the first time in his life. He made the most gains of any child in the school that year. He worked incredibly hard. I’ve had kids work full time, care their siblings and get on a bus for two hours at five in the morning to go to school. And I was one of those kids, my parents would often find me passed out on the living room floor with my books around me because it was only quiet at night in our house.
This is not to say that everyone will or can perform in our schools as they currently exist. Humanity is diverse in it’s capabilities and talents and it’s what allows us to be adaptive and thrive. Not everyone needs to or wants to go to Stanford. Going to Stanford doesn’t make you a better person, it just means you have a certain set of skills and talents that you should be contributing to the world, just like everyone else. The only reason that you hear people in the social justice circles say that “everyone should go to college” is because there is inequitable access to college for the poor. The problem is inequity in our education system. The wrong people end up in the wrong places for the wrong reasons. My great grandfather, five generations ago, had an 195 IQ and the only reason you don’t hear about him is because he was poor before the Depression even started and five generations of gifted minds later and I’m still having to ask for money to apply to PhD programs. If we had a level playing field, equal opportunity not equal outcomes, this wouldn’t happen. We need people that can do other things besides sitting around talking about Marx and getting high and playing golf while talking about Marx (note: this is not me, I would never play golf). We need people to do stuff and make things. And there are some rich people who should be doing those jobs too. But no one should have to be struggling to make it if they are contributing to the community.
The working classes are working profoundly hard in this country, but unless you are very privileged and extremely shitty, I’m betting you work hard regardless of your class background. But this belief that hard work is all it takes or that those who don’t succeed simply aren’t working hard enough is oppressing us. And have you ever noticed that it seems to be disproportionately applied to those who had the most institutional barriers to success? This isn’t to say that the kids that I went to school with at Stanford didn’t work hard, they did. Or most did. That’s the thing in this country is that we all are working hard but we blame ourselves if the system screws us over.
And for the record, this is not to say that I don’t think it’s ok to have pay differences and commercial goods, because I do think we should have that. Because talent should be rewarded and some people work to live while others live to work. But no one who has a full time job in this country should be living in poverty. And no one who has a full time job, or a disability should be told they aren’t working hard enough. If anything we work too much so we should maybe have a conversation about that. Be suspicious of anyone who tries to spur you into an action they want by demeaning you character, that’s abuse.
Just do your best and we can help each other out and build a better world together. And get some rest, America, and if you can’t because of your job start demanding more from your employer, they aren’t doing you any favors by hiring you. You are exchanging your labor for a living and they benefit far more than you do. Employers will try to fight for their bottom line, which means getting your labor as cheaply as possible. But employees should fight for their own bottom line, and doing that is not communism, it’s simply good business.
You are fine. And you deserve a happy life.