In the press this week were intriguing portraits of young people finishing high school during turbulent economic times, stories that individually — and especially collectively — illustrate the powerful ways in which starting points shape one’s life trajectory.
In D.C., the academically-engaged children of undocumented workers rallied for passage of the Dream Act that would grant them citizenship after attending college for two years. If the Act does not pass, these young people, many of whom know no other life than that that their parents built for them in the U.S., face either deportation or lives of low-skilled work. The reporter observed:
They looked tired, solemn, defiant, hopeful in the way young people have that banishes cynicism. They seemed incredulous that a message they grew up with — work hard, stay in school, study and you will succeed — does not apply to them.
Across the country in L.A., two students from very different families and who attended very different schools ended their junior years on very different footing. One drifts from state to state and from one crowded home to the next as his parents drift from job to job, His parents place high hopes in his future. “He can be anything he wants to be”, they say, yet they cannot provide him the stability from which he could begin to build a different future. In his school, few students graduate and fewer still see the point of their decision to stay in school. Across town, the other boy studies advanced German surrounded by peers who have already traveled to Germany. Just back from an intensive college tour on the East Coast with his parents, he thoughtfully weighs his considerable options.
Meanwhile in Dayton, members of the high school class of ’09 who had assumed that they’d follow their parents and grandparents into high-paying jobs in the GM plant, are now wading into the untested waters of community college in hopes of finding something akin to economic security in a world that’s caught them off-guard. Many of these students have been working since they were 16 and are stunned to learn now that working hard all of their lives did little to protect their parents from struggles and pain.
And back on the East Coast, reality TV captures the lives of students from New York prep schools who aim for Harvard by day and shop and party by night. From the NYT review of the show:
Taylor, 15, who goes to the highly selective Stuyvesant, a public high school, worries that wealthier students from places like Nightingale-Bamford and Dwight could look down on her. To improve her status, she decides to throw a party at a chic Japanese restaurant downtown. And the arrival scene of the guests, all girls, all filing in wearing the same mini-skirts, dark tights and high heels, looks more like “Madeline” than “Sex and the City,” except that they left the house at half past 9 p.m. in two straight lines and the smallest one picks up the tab.
Every spring, newspaper stories provide compelling portraits of individual students at turning points in their lives, but few take the next step of broader analysis and critique of social inequalities that are only exacerbated by the very different quality of education available to students from very different backgrounds.