“Just wait until you get out into the real world.”
These words hung over my suburban high school like a fog. As a student living in poverty, I resented them deeply. I worked for minimum wage at a pizza restaurant to buy my first car, a rusty but otherwise reliable steed. I toiled for hours every night over AP homework at the expense of sleep, dinner, and leisure. My attention was laser-focused on college and the secure, middle class existence that was sure to follow. I felt like I lived in “the real world” because I solved real world problems and solved them on my own. The real world was no abstraction, no myth – it was my (sometimes very dramatic) existence.
Phrases like “just wait until you get out into the real world” diminish the experiences of students who work incredibly hard to support themselves and their families. In retrospect, I know I never would have made it without caring adults to buoy my fragile teenage ego. I didn’t really “go it alone.” I possessed yet-undiscovered privileges, like access to advanced courses, a fully staffed college and career center in my high school, supportive friends, and a loving family to encourage me. I am white. My race has been a significant privilege, a fact I learned my first year of college when I read Peggy McIntosh’s seminal essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (more on this in a later post). I was not an island standing strong against the tide, but acknowledging this fact does not prevent me from resenting the presumption that students—my students—don’t live in the real world. The amalgamation of their privileges and oppressions, the intersectionality of their identities, and the unique challenges of growing up in the modern world place them squarely in reality.
I teach in a diverse, high-poverty urban high school. I teach seniors in a period that serves as an advisory and study hall, and it’s my job to help them navigate the rabbit hole of college admissions, internship applications, apprenticeship options, and military enlistment. Their senior year is a proverbial alphabet soup – FAFSA, ASVAB, EFC, SAT, PLUS, ACT. Our academic programs are rigorous, and it shows – their bags are bursting at the seams with heavy textbooks for every class, scientific calculators, and half a dozen composition notebooks. I talk to them about college, future work, and their “13th year,” and it echoes my life in uncanny ways. Even though our experiences of poverty are different, as mine was buffered by my race, they have the same familiar excitement and anxiety. As they face real problems on a daily basis (caring for younger siblings, holding down jobs, fighting for social justice), they are building the resilience and grit necessary for future success, whatever their path may be.
College and career readiness is about more than building transferable skills, earning certificates, and crafting the perfect personal statement. College and career readiness is also about the affective stuff – empathy, creativity, and perseverance. College and career readiness is about dovetailing academic and lived experiences to build a life that you’re proud of. College and career readiness is about recognizing that our students DO live in the real world and empowering them to find their ideal post-high school path, a path that maximizes their myriad skills. This sometimes requires mental flexibility on the part of educators – we have to honor their journey (even if it’s not one we would choose for ourselves). We have the see their experiences as real, empathize with their struggles, and remember what it was like to be where they are, standing at the edge of something great.
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