What does equality look like? What does equality born from a Christian perspective look like?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot, as it’s one of the main themes of this blog. Gender equality is probably my primary interest, but class, race, education, religion all factor into layers of inequality.
Charles and I recently watched Waiting for Superman, a documentary about the public school system in America. I recommend everyone to watch this, even if you don’t have children in the public school system, heck, even if you don’t have children. It was depressing, to be sure, and didn’t even tell the whole story of the education of America’s—and the world’s—children.
Waiting for Superman told the stories of five particular children, two Hispanic, two African American, and one Caucasian. Three girls, two boys. Four working poor or lower income, one middle-to-upper class.
These children and their parents were striving to find better educational opportunities. Individual teachers and reformers were striving to fight against a bloated and poorly run system. In the film, three children were denied better options, two won lotteries to enter high-performing charter schools.
The documentary ended and you were left knowing that for every two children whose parents were able to fight for something better, three didn’t achieve anything better. And then dozens, probably a hundred children’s family are too overworked, don’t know there might be better options, or don’t care.
And I’m thinking about three 14 to 15-year-old girls I know or know about. Last night, I met an Afghan woman graduate student at American University in D.C. who has a 15-year-old sister back with her parents in Afghanistan. Because Huma (we’ll call her that) and her other siblings living aboard have not been successful in bringing the sister to live with them, the 15-year-old is now engaged to be married to a cousin a dozen years older and who lives in Saudi. “It’s not safe to be an unmarried girl in Afghanistan,” Huma said. “But once you’re married, they leave you alone.”
Huma felt sick talking about her sister moving to Saudi to be married, and joked with our Iranian friend, “Compared to Saudi, Iran is a paradise of freedom for women.”
They both laughed loudly.
On one side of my family, I have a cousin who just went to live with some wealthy, educated and involved-in-a-good-way parents. This 14-year-old attended what is called a “failure factory” in Waiting for Superman. Last year, the passing rate for the state math test for 46 percent, approximately. The school was hoping (working toward??) 49 percent passing. English Language Arts passing rate was a much better 75 percent, with a goal of 79 percent.
The school was supposedly becoming a STEM school, focusing on science, technology, engineering, and math. However, my cousin’s STEM class was “health occupations” where they learned what different health professions do. A decent class for a high school freshman, but not exactly a STEM class. Additionally, the school has a huge junior ROTC program. One of my relatives thought that it meant my cousin could get a ROTC scholarship to college, but most kids in junior ROTC that do go into the military are enlisted, not as officer candidates in college.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the school is 90 percent Hispanic and African American and the majority poor. Graduation rate is approximately 45 percent. (That’s a blog for another day.)
But overnight, my cousin’s educational outcomes have the likelihood of drastically changing. She will soon begin at a 4 star suburban high school in a wealthy neighborhood. The school has every kind of music program (the other school had cut choir), every option on honors, Advanced Placement, and no ROTC. (Hmm. Another coincidence?)
My cousin now has a much better change at going to college, at not being shuffled with the other poor kids into the enlisted military, and she definitely won’t be dropping out.
Yet did she deserve to become another dropout or failure statistic just because she stayed in an inner-city poor school? Does she more “deserve” to succeed simply because she’s now living with wealthy relatives?
The third girl I’m thinking about is a homeschooled 15-year-old in Appalachia. Not receiving much education from her parents (due to a plethora of reasons), she has few opportunities to be socialized or learn from others. She might be smart, she might not be. But the yearly standard achievement test she takes is the only requirement of her state to ensure that her parents are educating her. As long as she progresses and makes grade level, the state has a laizze-faire attitude to her education.
If she was in the local public school, I admit that it would be similar to my urban cousin’s situation. But if this girl has the intellect and interest to be a doctor or scientist as her parents think, she isn’t receiving what could make that a success and not just a dream as unlikely as going to Harvard Law because Reese Witherspoon did it in Legally Blonde 2 and it looked easy.
And then I know 16-year-old twin girls who go to one of the best charter schools in Philadelphia. They have options that the Afghan girl and the rural Southern girl never will. My cousin will have some of these options, but some won’t be available because she’s getting started in a good school pretty late in the game.
And what does equality for these girls look like? What does it mean to offer opportunities to some children based on their location, wealth, parents’ education, race–and to deny possibilities to other children?
And although I know we must work for the equality of all children, adolescents, and adults, I wonder sometimes what we can do. Waiting for Superman didn’t have a lot of answers, which isn’t surprising. Without the hope of the Gospel that Christ is making all things new in and through us, sometimes the world doesn’t have much hope. The statistics are grim.
Yet the film did highlight individual educators working against all odds to offer quality education to children in poor, dangerous neighborhoods, and parents working extra jobs to pay for parochial or supplemental education. And the kids were working hard to learn in spite of cultural pressure to smoke, drink, and drop out.
My faith compels me to look for possibilities that offer equality to individuals who might be different from me—I’m not from a Two-Thirds World country or Muslim; I’m not poor and living in a declining neighborhood. But I am like every child who wants to know more, who understands that she should receive a quality education, who doesn’t want to be forced into early marriage (or any early decision). You and I could have been each of these girls.
And the Gospel gives us hope to work alongside these resilient individuals and communities. Lord, give us faith to persevere. Give us hope to partner with you in changing the world for your glory and all of our good.