I taught fourth grade in Camden, NJ between the years of 1991-1994. During that time, my class size swelled past 30 students each year. One year, there were approximately 43 students in my class in the beginning of school; however, by early October, my class size was decreased to 33, give or take a few. Over that three year span, I had a teacher’s aide who worked half of the day. Some books were outdated, but supplies were readily available. The professional staff was dedicated if not disillusioned, and the principal of the school was a warrior, a strong woman with the strength of an ox and the savvy of a sage. She reminded me of a lot of my grandmother. As I looked out at the class—which was between one-quarter to one-third Hispanic—each morning from my desk, I wondered to myself, how can I succeed being so poorly equipped to meet the educational needs of my students? It was then that I thought of pharaoh’s decree from the movie The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. Moses and his brother, Aaron, had approached Ramses II, the pharaoh, and demanded in the name of the Hebrew god that he let Israel go. Aaron tossed Moses’ staff on the ground, and it turned into a serpent. Ramses responded:
Rameses: I will give your staff a greater wonder to perform. Bear it before your idle people, and bid them make bricks without straw.
As a teacher in Camden, with a lack a resources and training (especially for my Spanish-speaking students), it felt like I was being asked to do a similar impossible task, and I hope you forgive my hyperbole. I was not alone, though. The cry went out from inner city educators and advocates alike, and we asked:
Aaron: How can people make bricks without straw?
After 1994, I worked in the Philadelphia school system. It was an improvement, yet many of the same problems that existed in Camden existed in Philadelphia as well. There was more educational funding, but the money spent per student in the inner city fell way short of the money spent per student in suburban school districts. Then in 2001, in the wake of a push for charter schools and the No Child Left Behind Act, Pharaoh gave us his answer:
Ramses: Let his staff provide them with it. Or let them glean straw in the fields for themselves. But their tally of bricks shall not diminish.
“So let it be written. So let it be done.” were Ramses’ final words on the matter, words formed in the forge of tyranny. And, that’s where we are now.
I keep up with developments in inner city school districts, and not much has changed. Drop out rates are still high. The numbers of students who meet minimum state standards are too low. As I look out onto the educational and employment horizon, intellectual labor and skill will become more important. Computers, robots, and machines will replace manual laborers at alarming rates.
What will America do to prepare the youth of the inner city for this inevitability? A massive mobilization of social scientists, experts of humanities, and economists are needed to find an answer to the vexing problem of inner city education. Another Manhattan Project where the most brilliant minds are sequestered for months or years in an effort to bring a swift end to a war in which we are sustaining heavy casualties. The mob will grow more restless so we don’t need red tape and bureaucratic excuses. We need someone to take the nation and the education of its children, all of its children, into the future, someone who can look Washington D.C. in the eyes and speak the words that will allow it to be possible for our children to go where they’ve never been before, someone who looks forward to the next generation, out onto the vastness of tomorrow and says in the words of that futuristic pharaoh, “Make it so.” And then have people do it till it’s done.