Letters from a School Near MLK Street
In my lifetime I’ve driven on three roadways named after Martin Luther King, Jr. One was a street, another a boulevard, and the third a highway. And whether by cosmic irony or human design, each of these roadways passes through communities of significant poverty and color, namely black. Around these roadways are boarded up storefronts, crack and heroin dens (think The Wire), condemned row houses, and inevitably, always – public schools.
From 2001 to 2006 I left the safety of the pulpit to teach in the schools of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., pursuing a call to care for the proverbial least of these (it’s always pained me to think how I might feel to be called this, as in hey, you least of these, can I help you with anything? – but that’s a reflection for another time). I left also the safety of a suburban megachurch, where all you needed to do to understand the socioeconomic standing of its members was to walk through the parking lot, and the familiar cultural context of my Korean-American upbringing.
This article, however, is not about me. It’s about beautiful, creative, energetic, and intelligent children — kids who, as the least of these, are too often treated as such. There is no limit to blame: from the mother who comes to school drunk, a prostitute, publically shaming her son (who loves her nonetheless and gets beaten by the other boys defending her honor); to the worn-out teacher who drags a “difficult” child into the bathroom, bruising her arms and threatening her with verbal vitriol and rage; to the administration that promotes student after student, knowing they are years behind, but too old to remain; to the system that maintains, protects, and worships a biblical truism, that for to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away (Mt.25:29).
The following is a sampling of my students’ writings (with names changed). I want you to know them, to learn from their wisdom, to understand they too are children of God, much beloved, even especially beloved (after all, we worship a God who listens for the cries). Some I requested, others were given to me (i.e., confiscated). They write as children do, without restraint or pretense. They speak openly without guile. But what matters is that you listen for their voice. This is the beginning of prayer.
[a journal entry]
“I feel sad because I keep repeting a grade I want to get out of the grade I’m in I hate repeting a grade. I want to be in my right grade The 5 grade going to the 6 grade I hate going to the 3 grade again.” (Justin, 3rdgrade)
[a Father’s Day writing assignment]
Dear Daddy, I hope you can come out of jail on Father’s Day because you can get a letter from your kids – Lashea, DeWayne, Tamera, and Ron. You are sometimes nice to us, sometimes. I hope you bring us some money for clothes and other stuff. Love always. (Tamera, 3rd grade)
[a writing assignment on sequence of events]
One day I fell asleep with gum in my mouth. Then, the gum fell out of my mouth and it fell on the floor. When I woke up and rolled over, the gum got in my hair and my mother had to cut my hair. It took a long time to grow my hair back. And, the gum was still on the pillow! (Lizzy, 5th grade)
Dear Mr. Hong, I am sorry for what I have done in your class. I know you are angry at me but I just want to tell you that when I came to this class I knew you could help me but something went wrong. I started acting up in class when new classmates came in. now I think you don’t want me in your class anymore so if you want me out of your class circle one of these answer. Yes or No. Your student. Please return when done. (DeWayne, 5th grade)
[an assignment on democracy]
Democracy suports the peopl. And help the needed. Whit peopl in the old day they doen’t like black peopl. I doen’t like peopl being mad to poor peopl. (Abby, 5th grade)
When people ask me why I left teaching and returned to church ministry, I tell them that teaching was just too difficult. It’s a half-truth. You really should reconsider the work you do if you find yourself in tears every day (tears of frustration, fatigue, helplessness, anger). But the other half was and is the search for the answer to DeWayne’s dilemma.
I know in part what went wrong, what is still going wrong. We, the people of God (and I mean the WHOLE people of God), have lost our way; we’ve forgotten how to read what was written ages ago. And so, as focus is given this month to the issue of education, I’d like to invite you to reread, to rehear, familiar stories. And I’ll begin with just one.
Read Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the laborers in the field. But in place of American blue-collar workers dealing with the loss of manufacturing, or Hispanic day-laborers waiting to be hired throughout the day in front of 7-Elevens and Home Depots, imagine instead children. There are children who are privileged to be “hired” and placed in creative, well-staffed and resourced early childhood programs. Then there are the Head Start families, “hired” a bit later (pending government funding!). The children at noon, they’ll have to settle for the “normal” programs offered. And those children “hired” at 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., well, we’ve given up on them, except to use them as predictors for how many more prisons we need to build (we do in fact use early childhood test scores in this way).
When I began teaching, of the five 3rd grade classes (grouped by ability), I was given the lowest performing. Contrary to how the parable in Matthew 20 concludes (showing how God would do things here on earth), the first (the most capable teacher) was NOT given the last (the neediest group of children), nor were the last treated with the needed priority and dignity of the first. Instead, the neediest group of children was cast upon the least prepared teacher. And this systemic disease helped neither the beloved children of God, nor their fledgling teacher.
I also have a dream. It’s quite simple. One day (one day soon), the schools located near a roadway named Martin Luther King, Jr., will actually reflect our nation’s commitment to its creed, that all [people] are created equal. And we, the prophets of God, will call to account our leaders that they subscribe to God’s own methodology, whereby the first shall be last, and the last first. Oftentimes prophets are called socialists or communists. This is actually not true. God does not say treat everyone the same; instead we are invited to invest where investment is needed most. We are actually told to treat the least of these with the best care and consideration. We are in actuality called to be capitalists, driven by profit. The only difference lies in our understanding of profit. And for that, next turn to Luke 12:13 on. Class is in session.
Rev. Jung Pyo "J.P." Hong is an ordained elder of the Virginia Conference of the Unites Methodist Church, presently serving an international community of faith called Culmore UMC in Northern Virginia. A graduate of the Crimsons, Bulldogs, and Bluejays, J.P. taught elementary education for the Baltimore City and the Washington, D.C., public school systems from 2001 to 2006. He and his wife, Aimee, are expecting their first child soon!
Image: Illustration of schoolchildren crossing the road, Robert Adrian Hillman / Shutterstock.com