I just voted “Yes” for Proposition 30 and then mailed in my absentee ballot.
I could give you the policy details of Prop 30 and how it’s supposed to prevent $6 billion in cuts to public education, everything from K-12 to community colleges to our esteemed universities.
And I could also regale you with statistics of how California’s schools, once the standard-bearer of the world, have fallen into decline and how we need an educated workforce and citizenry to compete in a global economy.
But this late in the game, with the election just days away, you either already know all the details or have been inundated with political ads until your eyes and ears and mailboxes are sore.
So I’d rather tell you about why I support Proposition 30 by telling you about my students, the school I teach at, and debunk some myths along the way. Because in this 2012 election, when one of the major presidential candidates has dismissed 47 percent of the American population, I believe it’s possible to overlook an abstract number, but you can never, ever dismiss someone’s story.
I teach at a charter school in South Central Los Angeles. A few weeks ago, a woman’s dead body was found burned in a shopping cart six blocks away. Right now as I write this, a half-dozen prostitutes are working a corner on Figueroa Street, just one street over. Outside of the school gates sits a warped mattress and an abandoned hot tub because people think it’s OK to illegally dump garbage here.
My school also has a 98 percent attendance rate. And not only do the students attend, a number thrive here. Despite the gritty context. Despite the vulgar stereotypes many hold of the neighborhood and its students.
They don’t care about their education, so why should we?
Meet Zulema (all names changed for privacy). She lives in a cramped apartment a half-mile away and walks past the chaos of the neighborhood every day to attend school. In fact, she is always at school, in class, participating in clubs and afterschool activities, hanging out with friends, studying, and even volunteering on holidays and over breaks.
When I ask her why she never goes home, she just shakes her head and says, “It’s crazy, mister.” I try to imagine, but it’s difficult. I’d rather imagine Zulema on her college tours the past two years, visiting the stately campuses of MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia.
I think of the contrasts in her life and know that for Zulema, school is not just a building, it’s an oasis.
They can’t do the work, so why even try?
Well, the winner of our school short-story contest, a soft-voiced senior named Lily, has already passed four college-level AP exams and will take three more this year.
And see that green-haired girl in my first period? Her name is Brandy, and she’s already written a pretty impressive 300-plus page, post-apocalyptic novel. She also trolls around racial justice websites to learn about social theories and hegemony. (I know because she blew our class and me away in a discussion about immigration).
Or the girl across from her with glasses? Her name is Raquel. She speaks a smidgen of Mandarin and last year trekked the Great Wall of China. She also scored an epic 32 on her ACT standardized college entrance exam. The average ACT score to enter Harvard is 33.
Combined, all three girls’ families make much less than $100,000 a year.
Why bother at all? They’re just gonna be stuck there all their lives anyway.
In a way, I understand how outsiders can dismiss these students. Because for most voters, this is drive-past territory, the neighborhood equivalent of flyover states. And it’s hard to encourage, support, and sacrifice for people you don’t know.
So why do I bother? Because I know the students, I suppose.
Because in the morning when I pull into the school parking lot, there’s Kaney, an African American senior with a baby face. She’s reading her second Octavia Butler novel, and after that, I have plans to hook her on Nalo Hopkinson. (I knew she had a thing for anime and fantasy from her writings the year before).
There’s also Alfredo, a spiky-haired senior, who’s a bit obsessed with Nami Mun’s coming-of-age novel, “Miles from Nowhere.” When I asked him if he’d finished the novel, he told me he had already read it twice. Soon after, we called Nami on the phone, and it’s a wonderful thing to see a teenage boy swoon over speaking with his literary idol.
And right now, “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and Mun’s “Miles from Nowhere” are all the rage throughout my school, students clamoring to read them, dying to finish, wanting more book recommendations because, miraculously, they’d “rather read than play video games.” (Some, not all, of course).
So, is a quarter of a percent sales tax increase worth it?
I looked over Proposition 30, the first initiative listed on the ballot, and thought of Zulema, Brandy, Raquel, Lily, Kaney, and Alfredo and their vast potential caged up in this forgotten corner of the state.
Then I checked yes.
Ky-Phong Tran teaches at Alliance Judy Ivie Burton Academy in South Central Los Angeles. His writing has also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Orange County Register and Hyphen Magazine.