News and Life are crashing around in my head right now. News, meaning the latest raft of “gap” stories: achievement gap, income gap, incarceration gap. Life, as in my daily life, which lately has included an hour a day at a public alternative high school.

Seattle’s Interagency Academy, the school where I tutor writers, is no touchy-feely-type alternative school. For most of the students, it’s the school of last resort. They’ve bumped their way upward through the pinball machine of public education until, somewhere in high school, they slammed into a wall. Down the chute they went, fast-tracked right into the black hole of dropping out, if not for Interagency, a patchwork school of about ten tiny campuses, including a downtown youth employment program, the county’s juvenile detention facility and several agencies serving homeless teens.  I say “about” ten, because plans are always in the works to add new sites as new teen crises develop.  Teens fleeing prostitution, for example.  Or teens whose parents have recently been deported.

Last Thursday, my classroom was empty. Of the seven students with whom I am currently working, zero showed up. It’s hard to describe the cascade of emotions this triggered in me.  The week was going well until then. Students were working hard, toiling over heartfelt essays on subjects ranging from peer pressure to why it’s unfair for your boss to make you go to work when you’re sick.  I have never had all seven show up on the same day, but I’ve had five or six.  Three or four at a time is more typical.

But I had high hopes for Thursday. And then—there I was, just me and the dreary beige walls.

There are so many possible reasons why each one of the seven didn’t make it. One student has moved four times since January.  Another is about to become a father. Another, the one who had to go work sick, has been coughing and sniffling for ten days. I don’t want to be like his boss and expect him or anyone else to show up sick at school. But I felt lonely and sad, sitting there without them.

Some of my sadness was triggered by two recent news items.  One was a New York Times story headlined, “Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor.” It hasn’t just inched up: we’re talking 50 percent in 50 years, if your measure is college completion. The other was an article called “The Caging of America,” in which New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik lays out the stark facts about the prison industry in the United States.  Here’s one: There are more black men in the criminal justice system than were in slavery in 1850.  Here’s another: overall, there are more than six million people under “correctional supervision” in America.  Gopnik talks about how for many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, quote, “prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones.”

A few weeks ago, I listened to some students talking about their brothers. One has a brother in prison. Another has a brother who recently leaped out the back window to evade arrest. Two have seen their grandmothers ordered to the floor during police raids.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to persuade them that learning to write matters. That it could braid some different destinations into their life. I believe this. But I don’t live in the same America they live in, the America where forgetting to properly scan your transit pass can land you in court. This happened to one of the Interagency students.  When I forgot to scan my pass, I got a warning.

I’ll keep showing up at school, and I hope my students do too. This is not just about their education, it’s about mine.

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