Urban Education and Where the Red Fern Grows

So my wife and I have a 2010 Book Reading list. Book One was Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. We picked this book because our third daughter, Ruthie, was reading it in her 5th grade English class. This provided us many great opportunities and moments to connect with her.

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Since it was published in 1961, I feel safe in giving away the ending. Billy is the main character and teenage owner of two wonderful coon hounds, Old Dan and Lil Ann. Billy and his family are an extremely poor yet happy family that live in the Oklahoma Ozark mountains. Billy’s life, seemingly, revolves around coon hunting with his dogs among the hills and bottoms near his family’s home. For years, Billy comes home with coons for his father who then sells the skins in a nearby town. Tragically, both dogs die within a week of each other.

My attention was caught as I read this conversation Papa (Billy’s father) had with Billy on the night that he had buried his Lil Ann:

“Let’s go in the house. I have something to show you… he had a small shoebox in his hand. I recognized the box by the bright blue ribbon tied around it. Mama kept her valuables in it.

A silence settled over the room. Walking to the head of the table, Papa set the box down and started untying the ribbon. His hands were trembling as he fumbled with the knot. With the lid off, he reached in and started lifting out bundles of money.

After stacking them in a neat pile, he raised his head and looked straight at me. “Billy,” he said, “you know how your mother has prayed that some day we’d have enough money to move out of these hills and into town so that you children could get an education.”

I nodded my head.

“Well,” he said, in a low voice, “because of your dogs, her prayers have been answered… We now have enough.”

“Isn’t it wonderful,” Mama said. “It’s just like a miracle.”

Here was my first thought… Parents are parents. Rich, poor, city, country, black, white, yellow, private school, public school parents. The normal, natural default of a parent is to highly value the educational opportunities of their children. Parents, all parents, long for their children to learn. It’s true of Billy’s parents; it’s true of my parents; it’s true of me. And it’s true of parents in every urban school district in America.

(As an aside, here was my second thought… How far we have fallen. As a society, we have fallen from “moving into the city so you can get an education” to moving out of the city so you can get an education.)

At the same time, I am also reading (again) Star Teachers of Children in Poverty by Martin Haberman. And there is this great connection between the two books:

Star teachers do not blame parents… Quitters and failures use what they find out to prove to themselves and to anyone who will listen that they cannot be held accountable for teaching children from such (poor) backgrounds. Historically, many teachers have “blamed the victim” by pointing to studies that showed students’ inferior intelligence. This attribution freed the teacher from responsibility. When such reliance on heredity fell out of fashion (became politically incorrect), a newer, more sophisticated basis was needed in order to blame the victim and exonerate the schools. “Dysfunctional family” fills the bill. The undemocratic attribution of bad genes is now replaced by an apparent concern for a decent environment and a nurturing family. In either case it is a matter of blaming the victim. Effective teachers continue to believe that most parents care a great deal, and, if approached in terms of what they can do, will be active, cooperative partners.”

A Christian context on urban education is one that values people, all people, all parents. And believes that all parents truly desire a strong educational environment for their children, and if approached humbly and respectfully, will become a valued partner in their child’s education.

So says Wilson Rawls, Martin Haberman and the MTR.