No, the problem with Strawberry Mansion isn’t its hapless name that at best has people thinking of a misunderstood Beatles lyric and at worst has them thinking of a triple X film or film set, nor is it the thousand and one headaches that accompany so called “failing schools,” rural and urban blight, places nicknamed dropout factories, the undeniable fact there are too many of them essentially robbing too many young people of a future. The curse and the doom cloud hanging over Strawberry Mansion isn’t the dilapidated building, isn’t the fights, out of control students, the need for police, bullet proof vests and 90 odd cameras just to try and keep some semblance of order. It isn’t that a number of students are too frightened to come to school for fear of the violence they will suffer there, usually the small, quiet, reserved, bookish types who actually have the potential to make a better life, if only they survive the daily gauntlet that is this high school, that is this surrounding neighborhood. It isn’t that no matter how good a student you are, or aspire to be, that means little if you are so distracted by the chaos you can’t learn. It isn’t the lack of art, music, advanced placement classes; as the old timers will tell you, look how far we got on just reading, writing and arithmetic. But wait- this school even has an honors program, though many of its sinking counterparts don’t. It isn’t the absence of extracurricular activities, sports, tutoring programs; dido with a lack of warm bodies to occupy the position as teacher for a single academic year, never mind good ones to teach basic subjects, the fact finding a principal to manage something let get this out of hand was a daunting task…
No, because in an ideal world those things could be fixed with the right people and time; already the principal has doubled the number of seniors accepted to college, and top colleges at that. Nor is it the lack of parental involvement, 1 in 70 parents showing up for a simple parent teacher conference; the same parental un-involvement, lack of discipline at home outsiders blame for disruptive, violent students with failing grades. All eliminated if someone would just care and set boundaries. No the problem at Strawberry Mansion is the students are smarter than the adults there or sent in from other places to turn things around; they have already articulated in their short lives that they have no future outside that of their parents, that of their neighborhood, that there are no choices for them- no matter what they choose to do or not do. Whether that’s because they don’t have the few hundred dollars to secure a spot at the college to which they have been accepted or do not have the grades to go, forget on a scholarship, their only hope of affording any sort of higher education institution, are unaware of tech and trade school options; this is the only part of the story that changes, how deep in the hole they are, how big the mountain they are expected to climb really is where $550 for a spot in college might as well be 5 or 50 million when you can’t scrounge up 5 dollars. And Ms. Campbell who teaches English class is quick to talk about getting kids to believe in themselves, impart the life lesson, truth getting pregnant doesn’t have to, should not mean, the end of educational pursuits, and I don’t have the money is no reason to forgo a college education, but the whispering echo so loud it screams is teacher I live in the real world where getting pregnant does mean the end of education because I now have to work, my baby daddy who I thought loved me is now gone and I’m the only one left to take care of the child who has done nothing wrong. She is mine, all that I will ever have so yes, she is more important than school.Never delved into too closely is why kids here in particular are having sex, getting pregnant so young other than the stock answers of lax parenting and no supervision, parents who were teen moms themselves. It couldn’t be that having sex so young provides the feeling of love parents don’t have time to give, is the one distraction from the chaos of living in this neighborhood, the only thing in this world, that has already deprived them of so much, that actually feels good.
Paramount, profound issues plaguing Strawberry Mansion have nothing to do with it being a forgotten piece of America few could find let alone know they should care about on a national scale, neither is it the potential impending closure they faced while their story was finally being brought to our collective attention, due to budget cuts and the mindset why pour money into a place so clearly a lost cause. No the largest obstacle, wall Strawberry Mansion and schools like it come up against is indifference, is that people gave up on it a long time ago; long before peeling paint and no music class, apathetic administrators, no leadership and no teachers, long before hallways resembled a war zone and there was a dress code built around safety, officials on the state and local level somewhere along the line stopped caring about those children in that school, those people in that neighborhood, where police probably fear to tread and now resembles a third world country building codes forgot. Local bond issues, tax increases were dismissed by surrounding residents voted down on the thought, who cares about affordable housing for people too “reckless, stupid” to get educated, to work something other than a minimum wage job or too lazy to even try to work, content to have babies and collect welfare? Why should I give my money to a school housing a bunch of lazy blacks, a bunch of minorities, illegal immigrants, brats with no civility who will steal our jobs? The truly forgotten part of Strawberry Mansion resides in the reality never mind the fights aren’t gang related, similar to so many others, but instead, even for the brightest students, the ones with the greatest potential are about street cred. a form of self-defense, survival or actual self-defense; rather than taking a beating, standing up for one’s self lest more abuse is heaped upon them. Ignored is that some of the vilified parental un-involvement stems from their own shame they cannot read, have an undiagnosed learning disability, grew up being called stupid, dunce, troublemaker, didn’t complete school themselves, possessing no wish to repeat their horrific experience being condescended to by a teacher who gets to go home at night an hour or 2 away from this block, while discussing what is wrong with their child or the perceived false hope they can do more with their life. Even more likely, earning the money to pay the gas or light bill is more important than putting in an appearance at a parent teacher conference; it is more important to not get fired from the job they fought so hard to get than it is to show up some place where they are going to hear one of two things their child is either a disruptive mess or is a good student with a chance who deserves better than the life, their father, their mother can give them. Nothing they don’t know and that means little to a parent worn down by life/where they live, void of optimism that no honeyed words will bring back, honeyed words providing zero solutions to their daily struggles of making sure their family has basic food, shelter, clothes, electricity, water and heat. Never once does a teacher, even the handpicked newer staff chosen by the principal, attempt to come to a student’s home to discuss their school performance, watch a single parent who is a single parent by virtue of leaving a domestic violence situation, a death in the family manage 3 kids in a dilapidated house sans the most basic features we take for granted, never do they see the squalor their students live in, probably discouraged from such home visits for safety.
The unfortunate truth over shadowing Strawberry Mansion is the students are absolutely right; even if they wanted to get a job to attempt to pay for college, create that better future their principal is always trying to get them to believe in, had simpler goals of just helping out their family, in their impoverished neighborhood; there are no jobs. Surrounding areas carry a mentality of why should I hire someone from there, leaving them exactly where they are, stuck. Once again dismissed, pushed aside, marginalized are the burdens these kids shoulder at home; maybe they do have a job and keeping it puts school second or third in line after ensuring mom has her medicine because Medicaid won’t pay for her experimental cancer treatment or only a small part of it, little sister has formula because it’s the end of the month and the food stamps have long ago run out without anyone selling them for cash, exchanging them for drugs or wasting them on booze. Regular news watchers have seen news shows do exposés on this too, the young boy who wanted to become a senator to help families get enough food stamps to truly last a month; unsurprisingly when it hit suburbia. A job that ensures little brother has socks, the gas don’t get too far behind, the lights don’t get cut off because welfare is temporary and we don’t want to all get separated from the one thing we do have, family, when DFS decided to split us up in foster care. So holding a job holds more importance than the periodic table, The Scarlet Letter or the war of 1812, and more, any, money in the house means less assistance forcing them to soldier on getting up to do it all again tomorrow. Pure fact you can’t focus on a future, the future when tomorrow is too unpredictable, when survival at the end of this day is not the reasonable guarantee it is for other people in other neighborhoods, when all you can do is keep your head above water today.
Never asked, even more rarely answered, is why students only try to show up at school every day… I start my day getting my little brother up, dressed and fed before I go to school; today he spilled his oatmeal, threw a tantrum and I missed my bus. I can’t explain to my teacher why I’m late again so I just stay home… Little sister is sick, mom has to work meaning I have to stay; I don’t want to miss the big math test but I don’t have a choice… Mom is sick again; I had to drive her to the doctor. I’m the only one in the house with a license and I’m the best at getting our junker to start; went from the doctor at the clinic to hours in the ER siting, waiting. They sent her home with a stack of new meds no one knows how to pay for; looks like I might have to get a job, but at least mom is alive. I wanted to go to school, but by the time we got home, I sorted her meds, I could hear the busses roaring through signaling the end of another day… I was threatened yesterday in the hall by one of the big kids I accidentally bumped into; I just didn’t see him. He said he’d kill me, he has a reputation and I’ve seen him in the neighborhood with a gun; I don’t doubt what he says. I want to go to school, I want to learn but I don’t want to die… Never asked and sadly less listened to are the shocking reasons why students don’t do their homework; aside from the lack of resources at home to do so computers, internet, a public library that’s across town, no discipline, no importance placed on education it is things like this… I freeze when the teacher hands out the genealogy project wanting us to detail the ancestry of our family; my mom is dead, I only know her first name, I don’t know who my dad is and I live in a group home. I can’t complete the assignment. Days later when the kids all come back talking loudly about what they learned about their family from mom, dad, auntie, grandma I stay silent, smile and act interested when I have to while skillfully avoiding answering any questions about mine. You see they all have at least one relative at home; I have no one, and not even a real home. I don’t want them to find out my shame; it’s the same when my teacher grills me about why I turned nothing in, I say nothing and when I can’t take any more of the questions, the scrutiny, the hiding I shout cuss words and storm out of class… I tried to complete my assignment for English; it’s supposed to be typed on the computer, but I couldn’t stay after school because I had to watch my little sisters until dad got home from work and it’s not safe to walk to the library after dark. Still I try to hand write the assignment a free write on what I want to be after high school, hoping if I turn something in I won’t fail the class, until tears start coming to my eyes; I haven’t cried since I was 6. I’m 15 years old, the man of the house; I don’t have time for tears. Besides tears never solved anything and neither did wishing; looking down at the smudges on the page I crumple it, tossing it into the trash… I saved up all my money for the project honestly I did, a friend who lives across town has neighbors willing to pay a little money for doing yard chores, saw some cheap paints that would look wonderful for the model of a concentration camp for history class. Then dad got hurt at work; we needed money for groceries. I gave mine to mom so my little brother can eat. I tried to scour the dumpsters for old boxes until I saw the drug needles; besides we have nothing to glue them together with, no tape, nothing except another failing grade.
You applaud the principal for finally expelling a bully seen on video during a beat down repeatedly kicking the ball on the ground you know is a person, in the head; you agree the word for someone bumping into you in the hallway is excuse me, not a girl on girl cat fight that swept up innocent bystanders and left the principal jostled in the process, lucky not to be needing medical attention, until you see another story on bullying and recognize bullies are kids with serious problems not monsters, that helping them solve their problems ends yours and gives them a future too, until it dawns on you…you live in a civilized world, they don’t. A bump today is a punch tomorrow if you let people think they can get over on you; such is the mentality they have to hold onto if they simply want to keep all their teeth. You feel for the kid whose favorite subjects are chemistry and Algebra 1, perhaps seeing yourself in him or acknowledging he has a better chance with his aptitudes considering our high tech world, until you look over at the junior military outfit he loves comprehending to ever get where he wants to go he’s going to have a drill sergeant screaming at him all in the name of the help paying for college only to come out designing high end lip stick, cosmetic products as opposed to using his chemistry skills to cure disease, make better medicine or just fill one of the vacant spots in the many labs across the country doing everything from research to processing crime scene biological materials. Never pondered is if these kids are not in a gang, looking to recruit members, if it’s not about exercising the only power they have, bullying, intimidating others, or maybe it is, but they can do that in the streets, why they come to school at all. It never occurs to administrators here the violent ones come to school because it’s warm or cool and dry and there’s food, free to most of these kids who live on appallingly low income levels. It never crosses the mind of administrators there is more to violent student behavior beyond poor impulse control and no goals or direction, being too willing to let environment, circumstance control them… They never ask what your problems are, only ask why you causing problems in their school; they don’t get if I don’t settle the beef here it will be settled in the streets where the cops either won’t see it or won’t stop it. At least here there’s a nurse… I wouldn’t be such a hair trigger except we’re facing getting evicted and I can’t force myself to care about math right now in a school I probably won’t be attending in 2 months… I wouldn’t have tried to beat the kid up when we bumped each other in the hall but I hate being touched, I hate crowds and people who fit the description building with feet since mom’s new boyfriend likes to use me for a punching bag… They wanna know why I always fight; I never used to until I was gang raped by a group of guys walking home from school. Ever since then this place is too many people and too much noise, too many guys that remind me of them trying to flirt with me; I can’t tell anyone that, can’t muster the will to go to the clinic, so I just walk around feeling dirty all the time and fighting to keep my personal space.The saddest thing about Strawberry Mansion is these kids will tire, will burn out no matter if they go from homeless to Harvard, from this neighborhood to the Ivy League; assuming they haven’t succumbed to becoming a parent, assuming they haven’t dropped out of college exhausted from the fight, hit the future ending roadblock known as ending of scholarship program X, tuition hikes or no possible financial way to go beyond a B.A., now they join millions of other college students competing for the same jobs, the thousands, if not millions, of disaffected college students who can’t find work, who are lucky if they can find a job as a barista. Only it isn’t back to their parents couch for these kids, probably not even back to the neighborhood rather finding one just like it in the city where they managed to go to college, where they had no choice but to drop out, the sting of betrayal twice as potent considering what they had to go through just to make it this far; this time with no incentive not to join a gang, sell drugs, have indiscriminant sex and become a momma, a daddy not to stay out of trouble, ending up in jail or raising a family in the same impoverished life they were born into.
The unending travesty of Strawberry Mansion is that after seeing this, for every one person who wanted to help, who was willing to donate money, time or simple words of encouragement, there were 5 or 10 times more lighting up comment boards asking why we should feel sorry, tone really asking why we should feel anything, be the least bit interested since parents turn out children strikingly like themselves and if the parents are going nowhere in life, apathetic so will their children also be. For every one person willing to do a little something to solve the problem there were 10 times that many decenters calling it the parent’s responsibility, saying you make the time even up against the idea a parent is choosing between work and a parent teacher conference, others saying the problems start much earlier than high school, missing the entire point really. That we have once again boiled success down to good test scores, grades and going to college, forgetting how many do everything right, have every advantage, utilize those advantages and still don’t get anywhere, are still jobless post college. But it’s only a failure of the system when it happens to the white kid in suburbia, the middle class minority; even then they are likely to be blamed for choosing the wrong major, taking out too much in student loans, not doing enough research. However the worst offender of this future sidelining faux pas will garner a measure of sympathy, commiseration and understanding, gain forgiveness; everywhere else it’s poor parenting, apathy and lagging character, ghetto culture, something to be shunned spit on and ranted about in living rooms nationwide. Because as long as we can pretend that’s the problem, as long as we can pretend it only happens to poor degenerates and bratty thug kids no one wants to deal with in the first place, we don’t have to admit the American dream is fundamentally broken by current business culture, by position holders unwilling to advise the next generation, poor communication between the employment sector and educational institutions. We don’t have to admit we’ve been selling a bill of goods to streetwise kids who can see through it blaming them from being more concerned with survival where they are than a pipe dream that isn’t real. The ultimate reality of Strawberry Mansion is until we fix the broken back end of the education system where college isn’t accessible to all, until we make college degrees mean something by coupling them with internships, apprenticeships ways to get needed experience, certifications and licensures to enter the workforce to begin with, never mind at a level that’s not medial labor at minimum wage, there will always be another impoverished neighborhood, another violent school, another hopeless road, another Strawberry Mansion.