Thursday, December 4, 2014

Searching for the Source

Mary Clare Mazzocchi currently serves at Immaculate Conception Academy in San Francisco. She takes on a variety of roles, including as chaperon for the Corporate Work Study Program and as a teacher and tutor in ICA’s Academy Plus after school study sessions.

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation on BART, San Francisco’s subway system, with an Immaculate Conception Academy sophomore whom I will call Lexi. We were standing in the crowded train car, waiting for the masses to clear out at Embarcadero, the last stop in San Francisco, so we could sit for the long ride under the Bay to Lexi’s work-study job in Oakland. I know Lexi both as her commute chaperone and as her tutor in ICA’s Academy Plus afterschool program, a mandatory study skills session for students who have been targeted as needing extra help. 

It was a Monday, and I asked her about her weekend.

“It was really bad,” she said. She was smiling, and I wasn’t sure if she was trying to be funny. Lexi is always fun to interact with, because she is so open and willing to make a clown of herself.

“Oh no,” I said. “What was bad about it?”

“My mom was supposed to visit, but then she didn’t,” she said. Then she whispered, “She’s crazy,” and smiled like she had told a cute story.

“Oh.” I said. “I’m sorry.”

I knew it was important that she was telling me about this, but it was coming out so suddenly, I didn’t know how to respond.

“I know I’m alright,” she said. “I just worry about my little brother, you know?”

I nodded and made a face like I did know, even though I didn’t.

She went on. “You can’t talk to her, not even on the phone. She gets so mad at us for living with my dad, even though she’s the one that left us, you know?” I nodded. “And I used to be really upset about it, and it affected my grades. I was getting like D’s and F’s and stuff last year because I was thinking about it all the time. But now I’m better.”

“Yeah,” I said. “You’re doing really well.”

She smiled, and I could tell she really felt proud. Her grades this semester are very good, and she will probably no longer need to be in Academy Plus come spring. Our conversation turned to school, and then ended when we sat in separate rows.

This was a brief interaction, but it illustrates a struggle that I often encounter in my work at ICA. The school operates using a Cristo Rey model, meaning that the girls work in corporate work-study positions to earn the cost of their school tuition, and receive in return a college prep education and 100% college placement in their senior year. The school has a very welcoming atmosphere. It feels good to be there. On the whole, the girls are amazingly, even shockingly polite to their teachers, and kind to each other. They’re mature. They’re bright. They’re funny. It’s such a positive environment that it’s easy to forget what the school does, and that its work is fighting a very real injustice that has been dealt to its students. Because of the Cristo Rey model, the school can serve a population that would not typically have access to a college prep education and guaranteed college placement, namely, young women from backgrounds of poverty. And sometimes I forget what that actually means for girls and their families.

Mary Clare tutoring a student after school during Academy Plus.

In a recent meeting in the Admissions Department, where I sat taking minutes, a board member brought up an idea that she has long been advocating: the school should initiate a home visit to each girl’s family, to understand her situation and consider what her individual needs might be.

“These aren’t girls like you and me except they’re poor,” she said. “Their lives are very different, and we need to know what’s going on.”

So although the atmosphere of the school makes it easy to forget, the injustice of the students’ situation is a painful reality. Because of their socioeconomic condition, they are dealing with a set of stresses at home that has a very real effect on their schoolwork, which in turn affects their chances of success in college and in the workplace. We can be sure of the consequences of the injustice, if only by looking at the grades and scores of some of the brightest and best learners in the school.

So the problem is clear, but moments like my conversation with Lexi make me question whether the school as a whole and I personally can deal with some of the deeper effects of economic disparity. Most of the time, my experience with the students is tranquil and enjoyable, but every now and then something will happen, like Lexi’s sudden need to tell me about her family situation, that will open my eyes to what is going on under the surface, and to my inability to really change the situation from the position I’m in.

It comes out in flashes. A girl in Academy Plus will respond to my question of who at home can quiz her after she’s finished studying, saying, with genuine sadness, “No one,” then defensively, “They work.” A girl on one of my commutes will make an off-hand comment, trying to be funny, about the rotten food in her refrigerator the night before. When I see a girl dragging her feet in my commute group or sitting in the back of Academy Plus with her head on her desk and tears in her eyes, I know that when I ask how she’s doing and if I can help, the best it will do is communicate that I notice and care, which, although important, will not actually do anything to right the wrong.

It’s not just that I lack the tools or the ability to have helpful conversations with the girls; it’s also one of the fundamental limitations of working in a school ministry like ICA. On the one hand, the school is and should be a safe and separate environment, a place of order and certainty where any turbulence in a student’s home life can be left at the door. But in many instances, I feel as though my work, especially with my Academy Plus girls, is only making surface changes and failing to engage the deeper problem. I recently helped each girl in the class clean and organize her locker and get all of her materials in order, with papers in the right binders and separate notebooks for each class, etc., and I couldn’t help but feel that I was just treating the symptoms, helping her put the externals in order when the real disorder was somewhere deep and out of sight.

So what can we do to combat the deep and often hidden injustice of economic difference creating unfair barriers to success?

Mary Clare (far left) chaperoning students to their Corporate Work Study jobs.

It seems to me that ICA and other schools in the Cristo Rey Network have one of the best solutions that is practically possible, combating inequality of opportunity head-on by providing ample opportunity to students that would typically be inequality’s victims. The approach is effective, and should be extended even further, into school systems that provide direct attention to at-risk students from the beginning to prevent their falling so far behind, or systems that encourage or require active parent involvement in a student’s academic growth.

But that approach seems to run into the same problem. It is a symptomatic treatment. Schools can fill in what unjust inequality took away. But what can be done to eradicate the source of inequality?

I ran into one of ICA’s newer teachers in the BART station after school, and we had a conversation on the platform while waiting for the train. She expressed some skepticism about the idea of “breaking the cycle” of poverty.

She said, “It seems like it’s been years that we’ve been talking about ‘breaking the cycle.’ So when is the cycle really broken? I have friends my age who came from poor backgrounds, and now they’re working in professional jobs and making money. So you could say they ‘broke the cycle,’ but now here we are helping these girls, and they’re in a younger generation, but they’re still in ‘the cycle.’ So I guess the cycle wasn’t really broken.”

Maybe it is helpful to think of ICA as ministering in part to its students, and in part to the students’ families, to their children and to future generations. It’s true that a ministry like ICA cannot enact the kind of social change that happens all at once, for an entire generation of citizens. It serves a small group of girls, and even for them it cannot right some of the wrongs that have already been done. But for those girls, within their families, the “cycle” is broken, starting now, with her generation. If the school cannot directly deal with all of the ugly effects of injustice, it can put each girl on a track that leads to a different kind of life. And because of that, her children will not need a place like ICA to obtain the opportunity that they deserve. And perhaps her children’s children will have a childhood free of the stresses of economic precarity.

So even when I am faced with small moments that expose the depth of our students’ needs, and I feel where both I and the school are lacking, I believe in our mission and work, and I have hope for the girls and for their families. Everyone at ICA is working hard, and the effects might be slow to appear. But over time, for all of ICA’s families, the possible will be achievable, and the ideal will be real.

Freshman poses in the ICA Admissions Office, where she works on Fridays.

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