Translator needed

The mother on the phone was frantic: It was the morning of the Catholic High School Placement Test, a test needed for admission into some of the best private high schools in this city, and an opportunity that nearly every one of my students wanted. But when her daughter had arrived that morning at the testing location, she was told she wasn’t registered and couldn’t take the test.

The child wasn’t on the list.

I was at one of my son’s club soccer games when the mother called, panicked and nearly sick with worry. On the indoor turf field in front of me, my son’s team was getting pummeled. Around me, my fellow parents, who had gotten up for this Saturday morning game as early as my test taker and her mother, were objecting to the other team’s physicality.

“This is a mistake,’ I shouted into the phone as I ducked into a bathroom so I could be heard. I knew I had registered all of my students for the test. “Let me speak to someone from the school,” I said.

The mother was too afraid to ask somebody at the test site for help.

Understanding a school’s culture can be hard
when you are poor.

“Just hand them the phone and say it’s Ms. Gregg,” I coached her. “I’ll handle the rest.”

Inside the bathroom, I could still hear the noisy ruckus of the soccer game. I took a breath and waited for the mother to get enough courage to get somebody on the phone.

It was ironic, this juxtaposition of my two worlds at that exact moment. If the mother on the phone had been any of the parents on the bleachers – parents who send their kids to private school or live in neighborhoods with good public schools like I do – if she had been a club soccer mom, well, she might have had the confidence to navigate the world of private schools.

This mother is a parent living in poverty. The middle school where I work is for smart girls from Baltimore’s under-served neighborhoods, neighborhoods that once housed the men who built the railroad and the steel workers who made battleships. Neighborhoods that the rest of the world thinks they know from “The Wire.”

Our school follows the model of the Nativity Mission Center that opened on the New York’s Lower East Side in 1971. The premise is that the cycle of poverty can be broken through education, that education can be transformative to students, their families and the communities where they live.  There are now more than 50 middle schools like ours across the country, from the Sapa Un Academy on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota to Academy Prep in Tampa, Fla. However, our national network disbanded due to lack of funds.

In Baltimore – like in a lot of old industrial cities — there are many neighborhoods of need and many families who need the break that a good education provides. Once the girls leave our middle school, our hope is for them to graduate from high school in four years’ time and then continue on to college. It’s my job to answer the phone calls and to sort through the problems as a student makes this journey.

It’s like being a bicultural translator.

A while back, a student of ours was sent home from a weeks-long freshman bridge program at a private school because she was wearing the wrong type of pants. “Please come back with the right pair of pants,” she was told.

What she heard was, “Don’t come back until you have the right pants.” Which is what she did. She waited until her mother got paid so she had the money to buy the clothes she needed, and then she returned to freshman orientation. But by then, she had missed too many days and the school dismissed her.

Now I know to ask every girl going into a summer bridge program if she has the required clothing.

Likewise in September, I ask every graduate of ours at a private school if she has purchased all of her textbooks. Chances are she won’t tell her Spanish teacher if she doesn’t have enough money for her book. She will try to share with her classmates, “forget” to turn in her homework, or take the “F” for a missing assignment. Wouldn’t you do that if you were 15?

As I try to anticipate what a student will encounter on her path to transformation, I can’t always anticipate how the world will react to our girls. Once I received a call from a company that processed high school financial aid forms. It seemed that one of our families hadn’t finished this necessary form. They hadn’t provided any figures on the cars and boats they owned, the retirement plans they had, the vacations they took.

“This is a family of limited means,” I explained to the caller. They didn’t have a car — they used public transportation. The mother had just lost her job and the father had been out of work for months. They weren’t going to take a vacation any time soon. That was why they had filled out the financial aid form, I continued. They desperately needed aid if their daughter was going to attend a decent private high school and have a chance to get away from their gang-plagued neighborhood.

“Oh.” And then silence.

Do the people with boats get financial aid, I wondered to myself. And if so, how do I prepare our students for that?

Back at the soccer game, I finally coaxed the reluctant mother to get someone from the school on the phone, and her daughter was finally allowed to take the placement test. She did well enough to be admitted to one of the city’s Catholic high schools and is now a student there

We have graduated 77 students from our tiny, scrappy and transformative school, and so far, none of them has dropped out of high school.

But I am keeping my fingers crossed and my phone ringer on.


Author: charmcitywriter

Teacher, writer, mother, pal

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