This American Life follows kids at Harper High School

I went to elementary school in Manhattan Beach. California had the best schools in the country and Manhattan Beach had some of the best schools in the state. Every morning my mother would leave the house about 15 minutes before us and head East to Watts in order to teach her students. My classrooms were bright and airy, my teachers were local to the community and beloved. Manhattan Beach wasn’t affluent at the time (though it would become so in later years) but all the kids came to class well fed, well loved and in in clean clothes.

My mother’s students came to school hungry, dirty and abused. Some were squatters, some were children of addicts, many were children of gang members and one child came to school and couldn’t sit in his seat because his parents had burned his genitals with a cigarette. This was a third grade classroom.

When the Manhattan Beach schools weren’t a good fit for us (meaning there were only great and not excellent) we went to private schools. My college education was incredibly adequate and nothing worth celebrating but everything I learned in those early years was enough to tide me over. We learned how to learn, which is arguably more important than learning things, whatever those things may be.

My mother, for her part, taught gifted reading and routinely took kids who were not identified as gifted into the programs. She made them read and she made them love it. I’d often hear her talking about how she could teach a kid to read from the back of a cereal box. Unfortunately many school kids may need to learn that way. The money is running out.

We spent a good bit of time at my mother’s school in Watts. It was a scary place for me and a familiar one all at once. We were the only caucasian children there and their blackness wasn’t what made the kids different from us. Even when they were the same age as us, they were older in ways that I could never articulate. I’m pretty sure they knew how to do things that we wouldn’t learn until we lived independently, there was a weariness that kids in the South Bay didn’t quite have. They were very different but I liked them because I knew these were my mother’s other kids and she loved them. The schools were dismal with no color, no lawns and loads of security. The smell was musty, it smelled like defeat.

There weren’t a lot of success stories in Watts but there are a few and I know my mother clings to them. It makes her entire career worth something and when she talks about one student in particular I know she’s as proud of him as she is of her own blood children. It’s a particular joy that only teachers in the roughest parts of town will ever know. He’s her one in a million.

The last two weekends This American Life aired a special where they followed students and administrators at Harper High School in Chicago. It’s a high school that saw 29 current and former students shot in a year. It’s a dangerous place to be a child and a very dangerous place to be an adolescent. The stories spoke to me, they reminded me of my mom’s other kids.

The most remarkable commentary comes at the end of the second part when they ask the principal of Harper High what she would do if she won the lottery and she spent 4 minutes and 38 seconds talking about all the ways she would help the kids. I share her fantasies. I long for a world where kids are gifted books of their own, where they play on lawns and wear clean clothes that will keep them warm in the cold or cool in the summer. Safe neighborhoods, after school sports and arts in the classrooms would absolutely delight me. I’d like to know that sick kids could go to the doctor or just stay home where someone could care for them and if I was dreaming really big they’d all get computers and learn how to make that powerful tool work for them.

This morning I poked around the house fantasizing about buying books and good food for the kids in Watts. I can’t even imagine what I’d do with a winning lottery ticket.

How would you spend a windfall?