It’s clear this room hasn’t been refashioned since the 70’s. With the makes of a studio police cubicle farm or library, I would not change a single thing within the Roosevelt High School Principal’s Office. I’d visited a principal’s office on more occasions for breaking something, disobeying a teacher, or fighting. My middle school days were notorious for running through the hallways without a hall pass, conspiring against authority, and prying the self-esteem apart from bullies older than me. All of this accomplished with dedicated partners in crime, Idrissen and Tony. We’d separate as we grew older, and little did I know that I’d be attending many principal offices in the future working with adolescents, special education, and now art.
Already late for the meeting, the arrangement was more official than I had presumed. I entered the glass encased office. A tall gangly white gentlemen, Hassan and a shorter brown woman who I presumed to be the principal sat at the only table in the room. I sat. “My apologies for my tardiness, traffic”, I discreetly fibbed as I pulled up to the table.
“Don’t worry about it, I’m Michael” introducing himself. “This is Denise, our assistant principal.” Realizing the tall gangly white man to be the principal I turned my attention toward him. The shorter brown woman I had mistaken for the supreme authority of the school still had an air about her that wreaked of “I don’t play that shit”. A little intimidated I let Michael the talking. “So, can you all give me some kind of background on Roosevelt as of right now?” I asked.
“Well, we’re a 90/90/90 school, which means Roosevelt ‘s student population is 90% of color, 90% at poverty level, and 90% studying at or below grade level… “. My thoughts blanked for a moment. I’d realized working with the kids in pre-K and 3-5th grade that it was bad... Kids of color disheveled in classrooms, mentally checked out dealing with anything and everything outside of the building, leaving school to trek back to an abusive home, leaving school to enter a world of apathy and classism. When you’re standing toe-to-toe with a 9 year old that has emotional behavior disorder while clutching their forehead in frustration, there’s a point of understanding that this can get better, that we can potentially make it- that no one is here to fix or change you, but to see you become the person you were meant to be and quite possibly become the success your imagination has stretched to fathom. Fast forward half-a-decade and those same kids are in high school. Imagine it never got any better, imagine it got worse. This was the graveyard for the aspirations and hopes we had for our students in elementary school... this was a Minneapolis high school that didn't have the word "south" anywhere in its title, this was reality. Sitting next to Mr. Bradley and the clean-up crew, there is an understanding that it will get worse before anything begins to turn down a better path. In my head, I’d screamed “holy fucking shit man, let’s get these kids out of here. 90 90 90??!!?!?! This is bad man- fucking MAY DAY!” several times, but kept myself to sitting, smiling and listening.
Michael went on, “We also had a student who was shot and killed this past June just before graduation. It was a real tragedy. He was well known in the school, everybody was really impacted by this, and… yeah. Denise, anything you want to fill in on?” Michael spoke with contrition, but still there was something in the damn room that was missing. It wasn’t Michael the short brown woman’s intimidating army lieutenant demeanor, or Hassan’s concern to see this all work out- a necessity to this conversation was horribly absent. Not a second to waste man, get it together and listen to these people! They have money and they will pay you for art! I’d subscribe to the devil on my shoulder, but I was curious about this school and the mystique to a building that had been underfunded and neglected to near death.
With nothing to lose, but a job, I asked “Is the school in any jeopardy to be shut down due to everything you just told me?” Michael sighed and responded “Our enrollment has been on a decline for the past decade. Since I’ve become the principal two years ago, the school has seen its first incline in enrollment in a long time.”
Fascinated none, I continued “How many students attend Roosevelt High School?” “802” he answered. The discussion continued of Michael s vision to have every student involved in an extracurricular activity at the end of the day. Since he had graduated with a theatre degree from the University of Iowa, he was enthusiastic for me to work with the students on theatre and slam poetry. Pressed for time, we halted the dialogue to pick up at a later date.
Days later, I emailed Michael a schedule and syllabus propositioning the after-school theatre program we had discussed. It would take place twice a week (Monday and Wednesday) after school for two hours. The students would create their own performance, rehearse it, and present it to the city- blah blah blah the formalities of creating any performance between an artist and institution of academia. What drew me in further than anything was exact thing that had been absent in the room at the meeting. Although Michael's mouth was moving, the short brown woman carried the “no shit” attitude, and Hassan had a 200% genuine interest in helping the school- sweet Jesus, something was gone- something intangible. Wait, you mean to tell me a leader of the student body was shot on the southside of Minneapolis less than half a year ago, 90% of your students are performing at or below their grade level, and last year you cut the varsity football team! It boggles the mind that a high school rest on academic failure and have no football team to bury the conversation with it. I mean, nothing covers your ass like “we suck at school, but we kick ass in athletics”. My petty concerns aside, the subject that lambasted me was the enrollment of 802. Roosevelt High School is a huge building that could fit 2000 students, if I had to gander. To see it at less than half-mass is relative to watching a 2 on 5 basketball game.
Minnesota is #1 in the country for racial disparity in education, meaning the gap of academic achievement between white students and students of color is largest in Minnesota…
Minneapolis and St. Paul are the bane of urban culture in the state of Minnesota, carrying the country’s 2nd highest racial disparity in the country where people of color are 20 times more likely to be pulled over, coveted, or questioned by police than white people…
Roosevelt High School has the highest population of students of color per capita than any other Minneapolis High School let alone in the state of Minnesota. To say it’s on the fringe of failure would be a lie. I will be absolutely truthful with you, the school is already a failure in a system that has already failed it. In a society where a C is a passing grade, there are places where anything below an A is failure- anything below an A is a means and request to do better. Here, at Roosevelt High School, the life support has been trashed and is a mockery of what it could be. We all may differ on standards of academic success, but I dare challenge you to challenge yours. Just because someone drew a line and told you it was where the race finished, doesn’t mean you should stop running.
Leaving the building, looking at the YMCA across the street my family friend, Barb Jones, had cultivated into a haven for kids of color, bi-racial kids, and interracial families, I remembered her brazen daily war waged against the societal standard set for the city of Minneapolis. Barb was from Cleveland, so you can imagine her perception of the Twin Cities’ passivity toward white privilege and race. She instilled a fire inside every employee at that YMCA to break the frame of their perception and re-calibrate their standard of success right now. Years ago, Barb passed away from cancer. With every fiber of me and minute of life I have on this rock, I can only hope to accomplish a fraction of what she had accomplished in her legacy. I want these kids to have a voice outside of a building that had become the crux of racial disparity amongst the worst in the country.
It was then I recognized what was missing in the room. Here, a school quickly becoming the nation’s leading definition of institutional racism, abandonment, and negligence… and nobody in the building acknowledges it. Although Michael, the principal, spoke with conviction toward Roosevelt’s situation, I had just realized that not a single student understood the actual gravity of the circumstance. I’d dare them to speak on it, write on it, and perform it through the program Michael commissioned me to teach at Roosevelt. The problem now lie in getting the students to actually care about something they had a stake in.