Sixteen Versus Thirty Eight

“I can’t believe that’s all the kids you have in your classroom.”  I was standing in jaw dropping awe at my cousin’s classroom just outside of Washington D.C., in Virginia.

After visiting the beach with my father’s family, I drove two hours south to visit my mother’s cousin in Virginia.  Amazingly, she was just finishing up school due to a slew of snow days in the previous winter.  Jane had grown up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, so she laughed right along with the rest of us hardy Michiganders at the toll a few flakes took on the DC Metro area.

Jane had gone back to school while I was in college to get her teacher’s certification.  She had originally worked as a lobbyist in the DC area, and then had met and married her husband.   He took her back home to the Midwest to start a family, only to move them all back to DC when he got a job with the Reagan administration.  My great aunt had moved in with her daughter after the passing of my great uncle.   My mother had always been especially close with my great aunt, and therefore by proxy, her cousin.

Ironically, Jane had finished her degree in elementary education, and even though she was twenty years older than me, we had both started our first year of teaching together last fall.  We were both teaching first grade.  Jane’s position was at a school with a high minority population in a less affluent area of the metro area.  My position had been in a transitional neighborhood in an urban environment.  I had thought, initially, that our experiences would be very similar and that we would trade endless war stories during my visit.

“Yes, I really have sixteen students,” she answered my question.  “The program is a pilot program here  called ‘sixteen to one’.  They are working to see if lower class sizes make a difference in outcomes for lower socioeconomic backgrounds.”

“Do you need a study to figure that out?  I can tell you the answer to that.  I had thirty eight kids in my classroom this year.  It’s simple math.  Your kids got more than double of your time and attention than mine did.”  I was in awe not only of how few desks there were in her room, but in what good repair the room was, and the amount of supplies I saw available.

“I know,” Jane answered me.  “The reason they’re able to do something like this is because there are more affluent areas in this district.  It’s a huge district, so you can take all of that money, pool it, and spread it around to where the needs are.”

“It just makes so much sense.”  In our area, the affluent areas were in different school districts, so the urban system I worked in had very limited resources with which to educate its students.  There was no Peter to pay Paul in my school district.

I looked down at the pile of work half completed on one student’s desk.  “Is this where your kids are in math?” I asked.  The students were doing double digit addition; my students hadn’t gotten much past adding with sixes and sevens.

“Yes, that’s where they are.  Your students didn’t make it that far?”

“Not even close.  Every time I went to teach math, I’d have to stop fifty times to get Ricardo back on task, or stop Derrick from playing with DeShante’s braids, or any number of issues.  It was like crowd control more than anything else.”

“That’s a shame.  I can’t even really imagine what that’s like.”

“It was hard.  It was  like trying to teach with both hands behind your back.  The kids have greater needs, but they give you more of them and less everything to do it with.  And then they wonder why urban schools are doing so much worse.  It’s so unfair.”

Jane looked around her room.  “I have tons of left over supplies.  We never run out of anything.  If you want, why don’t you take all of my leftovers.  You’re driving home anyway, so you have room.  I will be able to get more of everything at the beginning of the year; no one will ever know.”

“Really?”  I looked around at the bevy of Tempera paint bottles, reams of construction paper and buckets of paintbrushes and half used crayons.  I felt like the homeless guy outside of the fancy restaurant ready to do a dumpster dive.  I was salivating at the thought.

“Sure,” Jane said.  “Let’s call it my contribution towards more equitable educational outcomes.”

As I’d said to Zach a million times, “Life is unfair.  Get used to it.”  But somehow, I still couldn’t get over injustice when it stared me so obviously in the face.

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