This post was submitted by America Vega, an undergraduate student at UCSC minoring in Education. 

Warning: Words in this post may be offensive to some readers.

I recently had the opportunity to observe an English Learning Development class at a typical suburban high school. My experience there solidified my understanding of the systematic racial and class disparities in our education system. I use this space to discuss some of my observations and to share a poem I felt compelled to write.

Entering the classroom, I immediately noticed its playfulness. Students laughed and told jokes from across the room and much of the humor passed by the teacher unnoticed. “Vale Verga” is a common expression used. Translated directly it means “It’s worth nothing.” Similar translations include “it’s worthless,” or simply “it’s not worth it”. The students use this phrase often when talking about attendance to Saturday school, declaring it’s “worth-nothing.” Vale Verga.

One particular incident really stuck with me. There was a student who the ELD teacher had a hard time controlling.  The teacher offered me a large desk (larger than the seats most of the students sat in), out of courtesy, the same desk unfortunately where this student was seated. She refused to give her seat up. She sat at her desk, arms crossed, rolling her eyes. After a few warnings, the teacher asked her to leave the classroom because of her “lack of respect.” But the student refused to move. It went on like this for a few minutes, the teacher asking her to leave, the student firmly seated in the desk. Another student, a boy of about 17 years old, began repeating “vete…vale verga.” “Just leave” he said to her, “it’s not worth it”. After he repeated this phrase several times, she eventually listened to him and left the classroom.

So what exactly is “not worth it” in their eyes? Was it the desk she was so adamant about keeping? Was it being kicked out of the classroom for one day that wasn’t worth the fight over? Or, were the students noticing a deeper issue? Was he highlighting his attitude toward the program and the education he was receiving? Why is Saturday school, giving up a desk, and being in class vale verga. What makes these students proclaim that it’s all “worthless?”

Many of these students are often barred access to four year institutions because of the difficulty they experience in passing the High School Exit Exam. The California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) requirement at the state level acts as a systematic “gatekeeper” to college for English Learning youth. National policies such as “Race to the Top” and “No Child Left Behind” ultimately serve to stratify society by privileging standardized test results. Students who attend schools with little economic resources are more commonly students with low socioeconomic status, who also happen to be disproportionately students of minority ethnicities. Standardized testing brushes over these disadvantages by establishing a criteria for success that does not attend to the diverse assets and knowledges students from diverse backgrounds possess. With a college education being the rule of thumb indicator for future economic stability, “Race to the Top” bares more resemblances to a rigged, rather than equitable race.

Unfortunately, students in ELD classes experience this lack of access daily. There are many forms of “borders” and barriers immigrant students face in their daily lives, and throughout my time in the high school classroom, this became a harsh reality. Education reformer Mike Rose often writes about the psychological isolation felt by those who are in the lower strata of our society. Speaking of the the historically marginalized, Rose comments, they are “strangers in our midst.” They are present but are unseen. Kind of like being “worth nothing.” Vale Verga.

Though the task of changing whole systems of inequality rooted in history and consciousness may seem daunting, on the teacher-student level, where the environment is safe, it is my conviction that things can change. “Good” teachers, writes education reformer Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot, have a “currency” of ideas. These are “conveyed through relationships,” a “dialogue” she later writes, “between the audience and the teacher” Where we find hope is with this space the classroom offers. Critical writers and champions of educational reform seem to have in common a desire to lessen this widening gap between us and them. To bring the humanity back to education.  Future educators should understand that learning, real life-changing learning, reality-redefining learning, learning as path to healing, can happen in the classroom. It can be achieved when we focus on relationships and understanding of the other. “When it suddenly seems possible to extend your reach” writes Rose, “that’s the fundamental experience of opportunity, and it can be liberating”.

The mother tongue touches the tender spots

Of her child as she sends her to school.

To learn English

A Romance Language

For dreamers in love with a dream

La lengua de las fronteras

She speaks with body more than lips.

Arms crossed sitting still

To act out is an invitation to look in

She remembers the words of her mother

Te extrano

And hears the words of the others

Que extrano.

How strange, is this estranged stranger

Alien to some

Beloved by few

This isolation that is nothing new

The mother tongue sits head down and voiceless

tries to speak

washed out by the noises

“no entendemos”

The students protesting

“I don’t understand”

The teacher confessing.

It’s not worth it

That’s what they say

As the sun burns shallow into the day

She’ll learn the roads

The maps of this nation

The phrases copied

The scripted formation.

And she’ll recite them again and again

The words on the page written in pen

Thrust in this race race

Quite late in the game

this race race to the top so much in vain

But will she get there?

when will it stop

can she ever really be on top?

As the push to memorize mesmerizes.

And should she grow in grammar

Grow in speech

What is it really that we teach?

To keep her mother tongue at bay?

That merit is measured in only one way?

As she works to find some form clarity

Feels despair

The Symptom of disparity

But let us come, come to the realization

that memorization is not memory

Let us connect our head and our heart

Rip the borders apart

And mend this gap between us and them

Isn’t that where all problems stem?

We paint with color

Red brown black and blue

Collaborating colors, making one with the two

2 thoughts on “The Worth of Students and the Values of Education

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