When I lived in Germany for three years, my two children were in their middle school years. All summer long, most of the kids on base were outside from 8 AM to 10 PM. For them, it was a fourteen hour play day.
Not my kids. They owed me two hours of studying Monday through Friday. They studied the subjects that they would be studying in school that fall. I'm all for allowing kids to be kids, but I thought playing outside 12 hours per day was plenty. My children were expected to succeed and I put a plan in place to help them succeed. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that the Ballard children were going to do very well in school. And they did, because the environment around my children allowed that success to happen. Not only did my kids study on their own during the summer, I used travel, athletic leagues and other clubs, plus other adult influences to properly round out my children's education.
My wife and I did this because we never looked upon school as responsible for our children's education. We were completely responsible for their education and school was only one tool we used. That's probably a different way of thinking from most parents.
Recently, the Indianapolis Star published an article on the fate of the 21st Century Scholars. These are disadvantaged children identified as early as the 7th grade of being capable of completing college. They are given the financial means to do so, yet still 75% of them don't make it through college. It's disheartening. Why is this happening?
I believe these young men and women are fulfilling their destiny as they see it. The cultural ties pulling on these young men and women away from success are much stronger than the formal programs designed to help them achieve success. In short, their environment doesn't support their potential.
The formal programs help, but if family or other cultural influences are sending different signals, then it becomes almost impossible for a young man or woman coming from an impoverished background to succeed. At school, they hear "You're smart and you're lucky, you've been given this chance." However, at home they may be hearing from a parent "It was good enough for me, it should be good enough for you," or from a friend "Come join us at work. Make your money now and party with us on the weekends. You don't need college to make money." More than likely, these children will never rise above their current circumstances.
I could have been one of these children. My father was thrown out of his house at the age of 16. Maybe that was a blessing as my grandfather was no role model. We were far from middle class and frankly, as far as I can tell, every other child in our neighborhood never came close to achieving more than they knew as a child.
If not for the intervention of two people in my father's life, my entire family would still be poor and struggling. They changed my parents' expectations of their children and broadened our supporting environment. They probably never knew the influence they had on me and my siblings, but I know.
Alice Brown, an English teacher at Tech High School, apparently saw something good in my father, and helped him to a job at Eli Lilly. To say that my father did not think he was worthy of such a job would be an understatement. After my father retired from Lilly, I can remember him bawling like a baby by recalling the time when a manager at Lilly simply talked to him. Not the CEO, not a vice president, but a simple manager deigned to talk to my father. He didn't think he was worthy to be talked to by such an important person as a manager.
Due to his education level and otherwise inadequate skills, my father was never on the path to higher management at Lilly, but his employment there provided stability at home. He could be very difficult, but he was only doing what he had been shown by his father and those other fathers he had observed. At his core, he was a good and decent man. Alice Brown must have seen this while few others did.
While still a young, healthy man, my father played fast-pitch softball with a man named Jim McLinn. He grew up in the same poor neighborhood as my father, but Mr. McLinn attended Cathedral High School, a college preparatory school. He walked to Cathedral every single day of his high school career. In some way unknown to me, he influenced my father to send me and my brothers to Catholic grade schools and then on to Cathedral.
Much like poor kids today, we didn't know we were poor; we just did what our parents told us to do. Going to Cathedral was one of those things we were told to do. It wasn't a public school vs. private school matter; it was simply a signal of the change in expectation. However, it was our parents, not the school, that changed the expectation.
In retrospect, this must have been an enormous financial burden, with four boys born within six years of each other (a sister came a few years later). I can't recall my parents ever talking about it to me, but I do know that when I went to college at Indiana University, it was obvious that I had far less spending money than anyone else I knew. Five dollars usually lasted about a month.
The main point being, though, we all went to college. That was the expectation. We were the only ones in our neighborhood who went to college, my parents being the target of some ridicule for even considering sending their kids to Cathedral or on to college. It took an expectation from our parents to do this; certainly our surroundings would never have led us to this conclusion on our own. Our family wound up with two law degrees and other advanced degrees. We have been business owners and Marine officers. All of my parents' grandchildren are on a path nearly unimaginable just fifty years before.
No child can figure out the path to a successful life on his own. It takes a supportive environment with an expectation of success. They need to hear not only that they can do it, but that they should do it. They need to know that they are worthy. They need encouragement from people in authority, including their own family. They shouldn't hear sentiments such as "Know your place. Who do you think you are?" or "If it was good enough for me, it should be good enough for you."
It is easy to visualize the path my siblings and I would have taken without Alice Brown and Jim McLinn in my father's life. It is the same path that 75% of the 21st Century Scholars are going down now.
Success needs to be expected of the child. The environment must support this expectation. Then the child can succeed.