Share Your Thoughts

After living on Duke’s campus for four years (without a car), I’ve grown increasingly aware of how isolated we college students can become from the neighborhoods, schools, concerns, and aspirations of the areas surrounding our institutions. So, for my final semester at Duke, I decided to enroll in a course that would enable me to interact more with members of the communities in Durham, N.C. Better late than never, I figured, with no small measure of self-consciousness about my lack of knowledge of local schools, organizations, and the downtown area.

The course I’m taking, titled “Literacy and Service-Learning,” is ostensibly about teaching literacy: methods, practices, and goals. In order to “learn” about teaching literacy, however, we are assigned individual tutees from two different schools in Durham and told to go out and teach reading and writing.

Experiential education? Service-learning? Trial by fire? All of the above.

Twice a week, I walk just one block behind Duke’s East Campus (Duke has so much land that we have three different campuses, connected by walking paths and bus routes) and into an entirely different world. George Watts Montessori Magnet Elementary (Watts) houses approximately 350 students from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. A large percentage of the children are African-American and Latino; many seem to have recently transitioned from English as a Second Language into mainstream classrooms.

Watts just made the transition to a Montessori system in 2004 and is in the process of implementing multi-age groupings (e.g. combined 4th and 5th grade classes) and methods of fostering self-directed and independent learning. Every Monday and Wednesday, when I go to pick up my tutee, Martha, I am amazed to find the fourth and fifth graders working quietly at their tables: drawing patterns of triangles, working on biographical timelines of Martin Luther King, and writing essays on school-issue laptop computers.

I also tutor once a week at a radically different institution called Durham Nativity School (DNS). Like Sacred Heart Nativity School in San Jose, DNS is part of the Nativity Miguel Network. DNS is an all-boys, tuition-free middle school funded by private donors for financially disadvantaged children. It has an extended-day, extended-year program that carries over to high school and college in the form of placement, tuition assistance, support, and academic counseling. The boys, all from lower and lower-middle class families, are suited and booted and wear ties every day. They learn Latin, public speaking, and complete their own community service projects. Currently, the demographic of DNS students is 60 percent African-American and 40 percent Latino.

DNS’s motto is “Educating Tomorrow’s Community Leaders.” The school’s explicit, and fairly contentious, intention is to give the 15 boys admitted each year a rigorous, transformative education that will enable them to vie for admission at predominantly white, private (often boarding) high schools and then go on to four-year colleges and universities, with the aim of returning to Durham as educated change agents. Doesn’t sound contentious yet? As one of the school’s administrators admits, “We’re building the ‘diversity’ applicant. We tell these schools we’ll give them a qualified [black] student if they work with us to provide financial support.”

I recount the particulars of Watts and DNS in order to emphasize their differences in method and resources. My experiences working with 11-year-old Martha at Watts and 12-year-old Eric at DNS reflect the structural differences between public and private institutions. At the same time, I am able to see the similarities in the children I work with, despite the disparate opportunities they’ve had and are being prepared to realize.

Martha is a confident, creative girl who loves math, art, and making up words in her own version of French. She was born in Mexico, has three dogs (one named Canela, or Cinnamon), and likes to wear green. Her favorite food is macaroni-and-cheese, made specially by her abuela(grandma), and it’s best when the cheese is so yummy it spreads all over her mouth and face. She’s saving up to pierce her ears, and her birthday is on Father’s Day.

I learned all of the above about five minutes after meeting Martha. Chatting excitedly, she answered all the usual getting-to-know-you questions and responded with some of her own (“Did that hurt?” pointing at my nose ring). I was amazed how freely this little girl shared her likes and dislikes with me, how elaborate were her hand gestures that showed the effects of cheesy macaroni! But something else stopped me in my tracks.

It was our first tutoring session; we had found a quiet place in the Media Center to chat and start working together. I suggested that we each write an acrostic poem using the letters of our first names, a poem that might help the other person get a sense of our likes and dislikes, personality and goals. Martha stared at the page. “What word starting with ‘M’ really describes who you are?” I asked. “Or something that you really like?”

Martha’s eyes flashed knowingly, and she pulled on her right pigtail with a full fist. She looked down at the sheet, then up at me: “How about I write that I used to live with my mom and dad for two years and then they had to go work at Azteca Grill and then I moved in with my grandparents and now I live with them but my mom says that I have to go back and live with her and my daddy and I don’t want to leave my grandparents and it makes me sad and a little bit angry.”

I paused, moved by the honesty, simplicity, and power of Martha’s reflection. “Okay,” I caught myself, “why don’t we work on an essay instead?”

For the rest of our session, Martha wrote a paragraph reflection about her living situation. I noticed immediately that her thought processes were far ahead of her reading and writing skills (especially with regard to spelling and word “choice”). But I couldn’t have been prouder when Martha titled her essay, “My Feelings,” and went off to lunch with a smile on her face.

I’ve had to work much harder to get Eric, my sixth-grader, to open up. “I like girls,” the pre-teen told me soon after we’d met at DNS. “And I like football.” He looked around the classroom furtively at the other boys, then looked at me with a sheepish grin on his face.

After many minutes of coaxing and volunteering my own admittedly uncool interests (reading, writing, reading articles online, writing articles), I was able to get a little bit of “the truth” from Eric, whose serious demeanor indicated to me that something more than girls and football was going on in his head. When the other boys weren’t looking, he told me. Eric’s favorite subject at his accelerated, private school is Latin.

Over the next few weeks, more would leak out from my reticent but thoroughly charming tutee: Eric admires his older sister who is an amazing dancer, and his grandmother who sews all the buttons on his uniform shirts. He lives with his mom, siblings, and his brother’s father. He has a girlfriend named Jasmine who he meets at church and talks to on the phone every night. When he grows up, Eric is going to be a doctor, a football player, and a Latin professor.

Nearly a dozen paragraphs ago, I used the word “contentious” to describe the mission and method of DNS. Indeed, there is something disconcerting about a place that tests 60 fifth-graders for six months before admitting 15 into the program. There’s something troubling about this school that has never had a white applicant, that is “building the diversity applicant” for high schools and colleges. Indeed, there may be something wrong with a place that has such rigorous academic standards that their attrition rate is through the roof. (Of the 15 students who entered sixth grade in 2004, only three remain to complete eighth grade at DNS.)

But when I am working with Eric, I throw all my social and political concerns out the window. Eric is bright; no doubt he is getting a wonderful education and will, perhaps, have greater opportunities through DNS than any public school like Watts could give him. Over the course of our sessions, I’ve occasionally asked him to teach me his favorite words in Latin. What he shares is always incredibly meaningful, like Cogitabimus (“We all think”).

We all think. And yet not all of us have the opportunities to do so, to be nurtured and grown, as it were, into successful adults. I am so nervous for Martha. She is incredibly bright, thoughtful, draws beautiful pictures, loves to role-play that she is the teacher (and I, the squeaky-voiced kindergartener), and always works hard. But she is already at least three grade levels behind her classmates as far as reading skills are concerned. There’s little hand-holding going on at Watts. Will Martha make it to high school, never having mastered basic phonics, still stumbling over words like “pencil”?

One of the major critiques of programs like that of DNS and Sacred Heart Nativity School is that they take kids out of public schools and funnel resources into private institutions, without giving anything back to the public system. A related drama is unfolding all over the country with parents who send their children to private schools (certainly in the Bay Area, and certainly among Asian and South Asian parents who send their children to schools like Challenger or Harker). Of course, the parents of DNS students commit their children to a tuition-free private education, which is not the same thing as paying to send one’s children to private school. But we may ask the DNS donors, along with our tuition-paying parents, about their decisions with respect to the public school system.

Without a doubt, Eric and his classmates at DNS, students at Challenger and Harker, and other recipients of private school education benefit greatly from their schools’ resources, small class sizes, expert faculty, and connections to college preparatory or university-level institutions. But we can’t forget about Martha, who deserves to read the young-adult books in the fifth grade section of Watts’ library instead of struggling with “Harvey the Foolish Pig.”

I’ve gone to private school all my life. In more than one way, there’s nothing value-free about it.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a senior and Angier B. Duke Scholar at Duke University.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan has been a regular contributor to India Currents since 2001.