Published: Feb 12, 2012 02:00 AM
Modified: Feb 11, 2012 11:18 AM
The war was nearing its end, though no one knew that yet. At 17, my mother had left N.C. State to work for the U.S. government, attempting to break the German code.
She and four other girls roomed together in a Washington boarding house. News was skimpy. Letters were censored by the military to ensure no one revealed troop location or sensitive material. Even family members had no ideas where soldiers were stationed.
Some nights the five girls broke out the Ouija board to ask about the boys. Would a letter come this week? Did a certain soldier like Caroline? When would they get married? How many children? The Ouija board wasn't exactly breaking news, but the game kept them occupied.
One night Caroline asked "Where is Bill?" Mama was one of the two girls with her fingers on the Ouija pointer when it spelled out D-E-A-D.
The girls stepped away from the table. Without discussion, they put the game in the closet, never to be played again. Two days later, his family received the notice.
Parallel worlds. It is 2012, and I am working with a group of local teens. Pushouts, dropouts, whatever - they have been disengaged from school for many years. I ask, "How many children in the U.S. have a family member who is incarcerated, on parole, or on probation?"
Do you know the answer?
Later that day, the same question arises. I'm in a room filled with respectful, attentive, overwhelmingly white, college students. It is Education Awareness Week. In the middle of each table we place a folded paper creation. If I could move my fingers, you would know immediately what I mean. We called them cootie-catchers. Apparently in new sanitized schools where boys don't have cooties, students call them "fortune-tellers." Ring a bell? You spell out the color on each flap, choose a number inside, and then lift the flap to read what's underneath.
Ours has 40 tiny test questions chosen to spark Education Awareness.
A teacher with a bachelor's degree will need (how many?) years of experience to match the average school police officer salary.
More than 20 percent / 30 percent / 40 percent of those who took the GED test in N.C. in 2007 had not made it past middle school.
In one N.C. county, 32.7 percent of black students were suspended for first-time cellphone offenses. What percent of white students were suspended for the same offense?
How many children in the U.S. have a family member who is incarcerated, on probation, or parole?
That last question seems manageable to the college students. They crunch numbers. What is the current population of the U.S.? How many are children? What is our current rate of incarceration? The highest in the world? Anybody got a rate?
I ask them to pause a moment. Picture, really picture 300,000 children. How many is that? How big a space do they fill? Someone says 700,000? Really? More children than the entire state of Alaska, or Vermont or Wyoming. A million? Two million? As many as the entire population of New Mexico?
How many is too many?
I tell them what the teens said that morning, neighboring teens from Orange and Durham and Wake. When I asked them, "How many children in the U.S. have a family member incarcerated, on probation, or on parole?" they immediately said, "All."
"Really?" I pressed. "Every single child in this country?" Several teens were still adamant. But one reconsidered. "Nine," he nodded. "Maybe just nine out of 10."
When the Ed Awareness students finish the fortune-teller questions, I ask them to write a personal reflection on this experience. A gut response, not an analysis. Three words. They don't have to use all three but they can't use more. Then fold the papers in some way that reminds them of childhood.Paper airplanes, crumpled balls, folded notes - one with an arrow and the words "Pull Here" - make their way forward. Also several origami cranes and frogs. (You can tell who had the enrichment activities.) And a tulip on a stem that I have yet to unfold, knowing it will never be re-configured with such pristine lines. One paper airplane is decorated with stars and several USA's. Inside it says, "Would've never guessed."
Other three-word responses: "Shocking, another world." "Wake-up call." "These are kids." "Forgot our values." And two of the most poignant, "I don't understand." And, "How can we?"
How can we?Maybe because we so rarely share the same space with these disenfranchised kids, many of whom will end up as statistical data: incarcerated, underemployed, homeless, at loose ends for their entire lives. Their future isn't hard to predict. Because the code isn't hard to break: racism, poverty, cycles of violence, systems of oppression. But what to do once we can read the message underlying all these signs and symbols?
Our futures are entwined by unconscious choices and uninformed policies. We might as well build bridges on purpose. Sometimes what we see when we cross over is so shocking we want to beat a path back to our own door. But how can we? Consider it a message from the future, one that is very hard to forget.