When I was watching President Obama's joint session of Congress speech on Tuesday night, I couldn't place the little girl seated next to the First Lady. Of course, the world knows who she is and rightfully so. Fourteen year old Ty'Sheoma Bethea is the student from J.V. Martin Junior High School, who wrote to the President and to her Congressman to remember her 113 year old school next to a noisy railroad track. But she didn't just write about the tragic conditions of the school building. She expressed her ambitions and those of her classmates, "We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself, and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina, but also the world."
Her letter, after a visit by then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, became a metaphor for the plight of poor students in inadequately funded schools and by extension, yet another metaphor for the plight of public education in our country.
Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker wrote about the school, which was also the subject of a documentary entitled Corridor of Shame.
By now, many of us know that J.V. Martin is located in Dillon, South Carolina. The school district in Dillon is among 36 school districts bringing suit against the state for its failure to live up to its obligation to minimally educate all of its students. Those districts participating in the suit are 88.4% minority (the state average is 48.1%). Seventy-five percent of those students score unsatisfactorily on state-wide achievement tests vs. 17.4 percent of the state's total student population.
Many who would like to see public education done away with, would suggest those schools along Carolina's I95 corridor are representative of the 'children who don't want to learn'. And yes it is true indeed, that there are Ph.D's, great politicians, statesmen and millionaires who had it just as tough. But at the risk of contradicting an earlier post - these are different times. Schools without modern equipment, or with buildings in horrible disrepair, without adequate light, heat or air conditioning and in impoverished areas are at critical disadvantage with children educated in wealthier schools in wealthier school districts. Argue all you wish that money isn't the total answer to public education. I would argue the more money the better - its just a matter of how you spend it. Parker noted in her column, by the way, that some of the rooms in the school were just above 50 degrees. When the documentary was filmed at the school the temperature was 18!
All of the above aside. The line from Ty' Sheoma's letter that I will remember; the line that will remind me that while adults squabble over standardized tests that will make money for other adults and get adults elected to public office because they promise voters continued standardized testing, is the line, 'We are not quitters.'
I hope the adults in charge of her education, and there peers throughout the country don't quit on them.