Education | Essays

The Staples Letters: Dream Policing

Lizzie Smith

Inspired by C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the Staples Letters are a series of essays in the South Side Weekly written in the form of letters from a veteran teacher, Staples, giving advice to a young teacher, Ms. T. All events in the Staples Letters are drawn directly from real-life experiences in Chicago schools, and names and identifying details have been removed in the interest of privacy. Though fictional in form, the letters are used to address a variety of issues in education, from quotidian classroom considerations to national policy.

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“When you punish a person for dreaming their dream /

Don’t expect them to thank or forgive you.”

“The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” – The Mountain Goats

Ms. T—

We were talking last time about daydreaming and how that can bring about some of a teacher’s most inspired ideas. I think it’s just as important to allow the students to dream, too. Trouble is, most schools become imagination-free zones by middle school. After that, it’s all “practical” all the time. Test prep, skill acquisition, job training—school becomes a set of facts to memorize and spit back out, a series of mindless tasks to perform. The closest thing to creativity is coming up with mnemonic devices to remember the periodic table.

And this is happening earlier and earlier, by the way. Hell, there’s a place near my apartment that advertises itself as an “academically-focused preschool.” I’ll give you a moment to run to the bathroom and puke after reading that.

Of course, not for everybody. I taught at a school in Garfield Park with an almost entirely African-American student body. Every morning, the students would say the Pledge of Allegiance and the school pledge. The school pledge, written by students decades earlier, was really a pretty interesting document. But one line in particular always stuck out to me: “We work, plan, build, and dream—in that order. We believe that one must earn the right to dream.

I accompanied those students to a singing competition once. It was at a huge school out in the suburbs—extremely wealthy and overwhelmingly white. While the students were busy singing in classrooms before judges, I walked around the whole building. Practically every single wall had a quote on it about dreaming: “Dreaming is the first step!” “Don’t forget to dream!” etc. What would have once struck me as a cliché—duh, dreaming is good, who could disagree with that?—now was the perfect illustration of an important divide: some students are encouraged to dream; others have to earn the right.

In schools with low test scores (that is to say, schools inhabited by poor students) it’s almost seen as professional malpractice to encourage your students’ greatest dreams. I’m thinking here of the students who say they want to play in the NBA or want to be movie stars or rappers. The response from practically every adult ranges from explicitly negative to slightly more compassionate. The more enlightened teachers lead the conversation towards jobs adjacent to the dream (“Have you considered a career in broadcasting? Perhaps you’d enjoy being a physical therapist?”).

Now of course I know not every student is going to make it to the NBA. I know practically NOBODY makes the NBA. But when you see it as your job to constantly manage the expectations and dreams of your students downwards, you are going to run roughshod over the truly special talents in your midst. Instead of sending the message that this dream of yours in particular is misguided, you’re saying that dreaming in general is a waste of time. Do not forget: genius is evenly distributed throughout the population. You are just as likely to encounter it at Walter Payton or New Trier as you are in a prison.

At my old school, I would talk to the teacher in the room next to mine during passing periods. He was a great guy and really quite a good teacher. We were talking about the school basketball team and he told me he had taught Kyrie Irving. This was back in 2013, when Kyrie was playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers before LeBron came back from Miami.

“Whoa!” I said. “That’s incredible! He’s one of my favorite players. You actually had him in class?”

“Yep,” he smiled. “I even wrote his letter of recommendation for Duke. How is Kyrie doing these days? What’s he up to?”

“Well,” I said, “as soon as this season’s over, he’s going to sign a one hundred million dollar contract.”

His face went white. Now of course it’s amazing that any former student could have this much success—one hundred million dollars is a staggering amount of money for anyone to come into (some might even argue our society should forbid any single person from controlling so much wealth!) And yet, I couldn’t help but feel that the teacher was so in the habit of undercutting dreams and turning conversations towards the “practical” that he was literally incapable of comprehending that one of his students could be in possession of transcendent talent.

In the case of Kyrie Irving, any advice other than “you are truly gifted and must do everything in your power to nurture that gift” would have been malpractice. In the case of Kyrie Irving, “go make millions of dollars in the NBA” was practical advice.

But okay, you’re thinking, you can have all the talent in the world until one bad injury at practice takes it all away. Shouldn’t he have a backup? And if you’re a great basketball player does that mean you shouldn’t have to take English class? I think the answers to those questions are pretty clear and also miss the point. What I’m suggesting is that your words and attitudes have power, and advice you consider to be prudent might actually be utterly destructive if you aren’t careful.

Consider Chance the Rapper.

Chance is obviously an incredibly talented artist. But did his high school notice it? Did his teachers encourage it? In a 2013 article by Jessica Hopper, Chance is described as “the rare student at the ultra competitive Jones College Prep who didn’t obsess about his future.” But of course he was obsessing about his future—just not in the way schools recognize or cultivate. Later, Hopper and Chance went to the YOUmedia Center in the Harold Washington Library. From the piece:

“‘The first time I came here was to rap,’ Chance says, explaining how he took recording workshops there and practiced his skills at the library’s popular Wednesday night open mic. ‘Production, software, piano lessons, music theory—I took all of them.’ ”

Why couldn’t he take courses like that at school? Why didn’t his high school have a popular open mic? Chance was extremely motivated to follow his dream, but he also had the time to go to the library to hone his craft. Most of my students work full-time jobs outside of school or have family to care for. If they don’t get it at school, there just aren’t enough hours in the day for them to get it anywhere else.

To compare his experience at the library with Jones, let’s look at the lyrics from his first successful mixtape 10 Day which he recorded while serving a ten-day suspension.

In the opening track “14,400 Minutes” (the length of his suspension), he says teachers never gave him any “stars, good jobs, or excellents.” In “Prom Night,” he says, “Graduation night teachers Ferris Bueller’d my name / You made a mix tape? Good job. I hope you get a good job” and “I’m never going back to school / Been there, done that / They see my 10 day tape and dumb raps / Don’t call it impossible if you really want that.”

(To be fair, in “Hey Ma,” he does shout out “Ms. Moody,” his high school dean, and includes her in his list of heroes.)

At school, Chance was disengaged, underappreciated, and belittled for the hobby that would soon make him an icon. I’m aware that these are songs, not necessarily a completely factual autobiography, and that Chance is cultivating a persona that will appeal to his core audience. but from that perspective, the lines are even more damning—he’s speaking less for himself and more for an entire cohort of young Chicago students who can’t wait to be done with school. You could argue the best thing the school ever did was suspend him, thus giving him the time and freedom to pursue his true passion. Meanwhile, the library was giving him opportunities to perform, free use of equipment to experiment, and classes to sharpen his skills. Which institution do we have more to thank for helping produce Chance the Rapper?

Granted, Kyrie, and Chance are one-in-a-million talents. I think most can agree we all lose out when the potential for genius, in whatever form, is squandered. But what about everybody else? How many shitty mixtapes, paintings, poems, or movies does the world really need? Certainly the students who show no special aptitude can make do with test-prep and job training, right?

No, wrong, absolutely not. There is value in pursuing these artistic or athletic endeavors even if they won’t make you rich or even be your career. The point is that every student has unique interests, and schools ought to be a place where students can come to know and explore them. We don’t expect every student in Bio 101 to become a biologist or every kid in Algebra to major in mathematics. We understand that the world is a rich place and that every student should be exposed to as many different fields of study as possible. Why shouldn’t these sorts of passion projects be included in that? Getting a job is not the entire point of getting an education!!!!!

That means even rude students should get access to different activities, or ones who are failing math, or get caught smoking behind the bleachers. It means we don’t make you stop just because we don’t think you’ll make a million dollars from it.

Beyond that, there is something special, some buried potential, within every single one of your students. This is not an exaggeration. It might not be something that makes them rich, or even something that earns them an A in your class. But it is there— and if you miss it, then shame on you. You might have Chance the Rapper goofing off in your third period class. Kyrie Irving might be ditching your class to shoot baskets. You might just have a person who would greatly benefit from a lifelong passion for poetry. Engage those students by incorporating their interests and passions into your class, not by discouraging them into giving those passions up.

In a just world, schools would be stocked to the brim with all manners of equipment and activities to entice students: “Would you like to learn guitar? Drums? To DJ? To take photos? Make movies? Draw, paint, sculpt? To bake?” But we don’t live in a just world.

Still, you can use your classroom to introduce and inspire as many of these sorts of things as possible. I’ve stocked my room with as many different types of books as possible—books about dogs, bikes, Kobe Bryant, cooking, and a million others. It’s a hell of a lot easier to get kids reading when they can pick books on subjects they actually care about. We plan field trips to a bunch of places that will cover entry and the bus if you email and ask nicely. Maybe contact a local artist and see if they can visit your room or Skype in. Instead of another paper or test, allow students to draw a comic, write a song, or record a podcast. And when they tell you about their music, their drawings, their writings, their dreams, look them in the eye and say, “I absolutely love this—tell me about it!”

Your affectionate cousin,

Staples

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