Breaking through concrete

By Anindya Kundu

If you’re watching the NBA playoffs, by now you’ve seen the Derrick Rose “Just a Kid” commercial. The metaphor in the ad is about a rose that grew from concrete. The narration comes from a poem by Tupac Shakur. He triumphantly states that instead of focusing on the damaged petals of this rose, we would celebrate its will to reach the sun. 

Tupac is right that the extraordinary rose deserves recognition, but we should ask ourselves, why is this the story we buy into as a nation? Is individual aptitude the only component to greatness?

Perhaps now more than ever it is becoming critical that we acknowledge systems of support are also needed for success. Education remains the arena with possibly the largest potential payoff for making these realizations.

Each election cycle politicians inundate us with rhetoric that educating youth is our greatest social responsibility. Sweeping promises affirm that we will pass onto our children a better society than the one we inherited, equipping them with the tools necessary to ensure the same for future generations. But the reality couldn’t be more grim.

As the number of social problems in this country grows — the requiring of an increasingly expensive college degree to gain entry to the middle class; the dwindling strength of Social Security where fewer active workers support the pension of recent retirees; the proliferation of mass incarceration and the amount of tax dollars spent annually on prison inmates — it becomes necessary to acknowledge that systems of support are needed for success.

Maybe we could try to think about the education of other peoples’ children as equally important to that of our own. That would help to ensure that our kids have the knowledge to fix any problems we leave behind.

The problem with roses-in-concrete stories is that they can keep us from realizing social responsibilities. This is troublesome because the American concrete is so formidable. Like weeds, disadvantages are concentrated.

Today the wealthiest 1% of Americans own 40% of our national wealth. At the same time, one in five American children grow up in poverty; in New York, the number is one in every four. Out of New York’s 1.1 million public school students, 80,000 children were homeless in 2013 and 11,000 kids were in foster care in 2014. These roses need our collective cultivation.   

Ironically, while public education remains our nation’s most egalitarian service — with access mandated for illegal immigrants and homeless populations — there is an inherent disconnect between the vision and the reality. This is because schools still operate in a manner that primarily promotes individualism over altruism. There has always been an undercurrent that you reap what you sow in the classroom garden.

This causes a war to wage inside our classrooms between two of our most core of our American cultural values: an idealization of democracy vs. an idolization of the rugged individual. Because the ladders of opportunity exist for everyone, we can be blind to the fact that some are less stable and others have fewer steps.

Our system of local control is thought of as the most democratic method, but it helps neighborhoods that know how to hold their schools accountable. In communities where parents work double shifts or don’t speak English the ability to demand quality services is drastically lacking.

Meanwhile lower-resourced schools scramble to achieve on high-stakes tests. Programs like Race to the Top have penalized underperforming schools, while rewarding high-performers. This narrow focus upon standardized tests might cripple the art of teaching and learning, and the ability to creatively address the unique problems of students.

In Atlanta’s recent cheating scandal we witnessed the admonishment of teachers who felt left to their own devices and up against a wall. Some of the jail sentences handed out to these teachers were greater than people convicted of second-degree murder. This model seems predicated on valuing individual success and stigmatizing failure.

In New York we are also witnessing a simmering momentum towards the opt-out movement from such tests. This seems to be a possible step in the direction towards reevaluating our infatuation with assessment-based curriculum. If enough parents do opt out their children, the value of these tests becomes null. But unless a critical mass of parents willing to opt out develops, these efforts too will have been futile in shaking anything up.

This type of action requires many individual sacrifices for a greater good. This needs realizing that instead of standing alone, we are amidst other rosebuds that just may need a little fertilizer to bloom.

There is something to be said about the sociological prowess of advertisers to tap into our value system to make us buy things. In the case of this Derrick Rose commercial the message seems to be that with enough persistence and Powerade, success is possible for every kid.

But when some roses grow from concrete and others from flowerbeds, our options appear to be either willing to learn to grow together, or having to slowly wilt, apart.


One Comment

  • Rick

    It’s true, the Atlanta cheating scandal was shamefully handled. America is and always has been based on individualism.

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