Thursday, July 11, 2013

Open Letter to the Colleges of America

Dear Colleges of America:
I’m writing to tell you about three of my students: Ruba, Alice, and Afaq, known as Fofo. (Fofo says that when she was born, even though the name Afaq had been pre-determined by elders, her parents looked at her face and declared, “She is Fofo!” They were right; she is Fofo.)
I’m writing to tell you about how brilliant all three girls are—how acute their language, how well-wielded their rhetoric. How they cleave ideology with the edges of their insights. I’m writing to tell you about how they came to America, and how they’ve been grieved by America, and how they are certain to transform America.
You’ll be receiving their applications soon—in November, 2013. It turns out that, if you live in Philadelphia, and you’re not wealthy, November, 2013 is a terrible time to have to apply to college. For Ruba and Alice and Fofo, getting into college will be—at best—unnecessarily complicated, and—at worst—completely undermined. Obviously, I don’t need to tell you that the college admissions process can be daunting, and that it can be positively Byzantine for low-income students, or students whose parents don’t speak English, or students whose parents have never filled out a FAFSA form themselves. What I do need to tell you is that, next year, our school’s resources are likely to be primitive, stripped-down, and—what’s the word? Oh, yeah, austere—thus making the already daunting process virtually un-navigable.
And you want these students to navigate their ways to your schools. You really do.
You want these students because they actually fucking think. I won’t curse when I write their recommendations, I promise. But actually fucking thinking is so rare—it deserves the expletive.
You should see the way Ruba sits in a desk and speaks during a debate. She’s statuesque, and she’s dressed impeccably in an elegant tunic—one of the classy outfits that she manages to curate, despite having limited money for clothes. With her regal posture and her self-possessed mien, she manages to make the constricting indignity of a high-school desk actually look comfortable. She’s explaining why the other team’s erroneous definition of feminism is the underpinning of their inaccurate claim. She's saying that Their Eyes Were Watching God is, in fact, a feminist novel, if you define feminism as a woman's ability to define her own choices. She’s not hurried or pressured as she speaks, but she speaks with passion and precision; her slight accent makes her words sound even more pointed, makes her argument seem even more exact.
You should be me—an English teacher beleaguered by term papers—reading Alice’s academic writing. When I read Alice’s papers, I think, with some relief, Right. This is why I do this. By do this, I don’t mean teaching; I mean teaching complex theoretical concepts such as post-colonial theory and post-structuralism and the social construction of gender. Teachers often refer to these critical theories as “lenses”—but in Alice’s writing, the basic introductions I’ve given to these topics become electron microscopes, become high-powered Hubble-type telescopes. Whether she’s writing a post-colonial apologetic for Sherman Alexie, or deconstructing the binary world of The Crucible, Alice simultaneously perceives the minutia of language and the macro way texts function in society. Her written language is glass-clear, and her arguments are indestructible. And she makes these delicate, ornate language creations despite having learned English a mere six years ago.
            As for Fofo, you should see how she thinks like no-one else, and how she could care less what others think of her. You should see how Fofo literally can’t conceive of what it means to be phony—how, in a class discussion, she said, “I just don’t understand how anyone can be something other than what they are.” You just have to meet Fofo to believe that her forthrightness and innocence and absolute, sometimes-stubborn fidelity to herself isn’t disingenuous or an affectation. Fofo, like Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, much prefers children to adults. This is why, in a class debate, she was literally the only kid in my class who defended Holden’s growth and maturity at the end of the novel. Fofo delivered the argument in her tiny, gentle voice: children, she claimed, are actually wiser and better than big people, and therefore, Holden, in his close affiliation with little kids, was actually more grownup than the grownups themselves.
Dear colleges—dear NYU and Princeton and Swarthmore—I know you get thousands of applications from brilliant kids, and that some of these brilliant kids also actually think. But the other thing I’d like to tell you about Ruba and Alice and Fofo is what they do with their thinking, and what they want to do with their thinking. If—and I’m being optimistic here—you even get their transcripts next year, this won’t be apparent on their transcripts. There’s no way this can be quantified. There’s no standardized test—no PSSA or SAT, no Pearson-designed metric—that could measure these girls’ strongest quality: a passion for social justice. These outspoken girls have sealed their mouths on the Day of Silence, to protest the bullying of LGBTQ kids. They’ve run a well-attended conference to educate other students on issues related to human trafficking. Most recently, Ruba, Alice and Fofo have been active in the efforts organizing against the School District of Philadelphia’s “Doomsday Budget.” Early on, Ruba and Fofo ran a teach-in on the $300 million budget gap; at that teach-in, Alice declared that “education is a human right.” In the waning months of the school year—as other students were scrambling to bump their year-end averages up from an 88.3% to a 90%—these young women were planning walkouts, painting signs and running letter-writing campaigns. On a day students had no school—when, I might add, their 20-page term paper had been due to a certain hard-ass English teacher at 11:59 PM the night before—Ruba and Fofo woke up, got on the bus and schlepped into school like usual, in order to run a teacher/student/parent panel discussion. Alice created a film documenting student pleas for increased funding, and she did so on June 19th and 20th—weeks after final exams had ended, when only the most clueless freshmen were still coming to school.
Colleges of America, I’m trying to look at these young women the way you’ll see them, when you receive their applications in November of 2013. So I’ll look at them in the context of the other kids they’ll be competing against. You can say this isn’t accurate—that it’s not about competition—but I’m pretty sure that you, colleges, are aware of the increasing number of kids applying, and the intensifying acceptance requirements, and the consistently limited number of spots. And all of that sounds like competition to me.
When imagining Ruba and Alice and Fofo’s competition, I’m imagining a random student at nearby Lower Merion High School, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. You might think that people like me are always making comparisons between services provided to Philadelphia students and services provided to suburban students—but when Philadelphia spends $13,000 per pupil, and Lower Merion spends about $21,000 per pupil, the comparison is worth making. You might think, “Well, that’s the result of your unfortunate budget cuts”—but this difference is actually prior to the cuts taking effect.
Colleges, I’d be interested to know how many of your accepted students have applied without a counselor's help. I’m also curious as to how many of your accepted students had to share a counselor with 381 other kids. In November of 2013—if the current layoff notices are not rescinded, which they have not yet been—Ruba, Alice and Fofo will somehow have to apply to your schools without the assistance of counselors. Our school currently has six often-harried counselors serving a school population of 2,300 kids. Lower Merion has the same number of counselors for 1,400 students. Besides counselors being the hands that are authorized to stamp transcripts, they are the only ones who can apply for the SAT fee waiver. The $51 it costs to take the SAT is the difference, for some families, between making rent and not; if any of these girls have to make that decision, they might just decide that taking the test again isn’t worth it.
Additionally, I wonder how many students have gotten into your school without being able to use a computer to complete their application. Lower Merion high school (famously, if you’re aware of the lawsuits) provides a computer to each of their students, which I’m sure is pretty useful in researching and applying to colleges. Many students at my school do not have a computer at home; I once stayed at school with Ruba until 6:00, because she had to use one of my office computers to complete a paper. The good news is: my school has a state-of-the-art library, complete with two computer labs. The bad news? According to the proposed budget, libraries were deemed a “non-essential” program, and the librarian was one of the employees who received a layoff notice in June.
Last, colleges, I know—from all of your nice thank-you notes to me—that recommendations are really important to your decision-making process (and Smith College: your thank-you totebag is really dope). At Lower Merion, the student-teacher ratio is 12-1. Next year, at my school, the student-teacher ratio will be 33-1; each teacher will be responsible, in total, for 165 kids. Now, not to be completely immodest, but in the past, I’ve become famous for my epic recommendations; they haven’t been as epic as this open letter is turning out to be, but they still average about two pages each. But I’m already doing the math—doing it guiltily, but doing it—and I just can’t figure how 24 hours in the day will expand, in order for me to write 50 recommendations, and grade 165 papers, and still enjoy the five hours’ sleep I’ve become spoiled with. Any one of my colleagues would be thrilled to write a recommendation for Ruba, Alice or Fofo—but, if it ends up being a choice between writing a vivid, nuanced letter and luxuries like doing the dishes or brushing one’s teeth, it’s going to be a tough decision.  
Colleges of America. Soon, it will be November, 2013. For you, that will be just another admissions season—a season when your admissions officers will spend a little less time with their families, a season when more coffee is consumed in offices, a season when everyone is a little on edge. For Ruba and Alice and Fofo, and for their families, November, 2013 signifies something quite different. For these young women, November, 2013 represents something different from what it represents for most of their peers—their competitors—at Lower Merion.
You see, colleges, these young women and their families left one place—a place where their parents’ names were known to everyone within walking distance, a place where a grandmother’s hand could be grasped, a place where they could name a food and know exactly how it tastes—and they came here. Ruba came here from Sudan, and she asked her father why they had to leave the mangos in their backyard, and why they had to come to a place where the cold broke so brittle, and her father told her—opportunities. Now, she writes poems describing how the simple syllables of English have edged the Arabic out of her language, how she’s not even sure, anymore, what makes her Sudanese. Alice and her mother came here from China when Alice was in fifth grade. On aching gray playgrounds, Alice was mocked, in an English she didn’t understand, for the lilt of her speech. Now, her English could act like a magnifying glass and set those same kids aflame. But, instead, she wants to use that language to question systems, to change things—to light the world. Fofo, who is also Sudanese, holds on to her childlike insistence that people are basically good. This is despite the murmurs and outright revilement that she, as a young woman who wears the hijab, has experienced in America. When she recites her ironic poem—called “I am a Terrorist”—in her sweet voice, it leaves me breathless every time.
Colleges of America—these young women shouldn’t miss the opportunity to experience you. But—more importantly—you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to experience them

Regards, till you hear from me again in November,
Rachel Toliver


  1. I might just be a bit weepy this morning, but as an aspiring college instructor and Philadelphia native, this post made me cry.

  2. Someone forward this to Princeton and Smith.

  3. wow. powerful. my heart breaks for these kids, and the kids in my district too & all the forgotten classrooms of our country where there are few computers and fewer counselors.

    from another beat-down city full of beautiful minds like this- oakland, ca.

  4. I am a CHS alumnus, class of 250. Thank you for writing this!

  5. I found it to be put quite eloquent. It also made me weep. I am a parent of 4, ages 22, 18, 15, and 9., two boys and the eldest are two girls. Our eldest is so disappointed with the way things are going, that she decided to put a temporary halt on college, due to finances, daughter #2 has only just begun college this Aug 2013, with help of a scholarship and 2 more children still to go. It makes me sad to see my husband working exuberant amounts of overtime from the Fire Dept just to make ends meet. I am also a noontime aide in Phila Pa. When people make decent money and STILL can't get ahead, how do they expect those with a lot lower income to achieve!!!

  6. I am a CHS alumnus, a proud member of Class 263! I am also the proud parent of a 3-year-old named Juli. This blog post truly hits home, and explains (in an eloquent nutshell) exactly why I decided to move my child out of Philadelphia County and into the suburbs of Philadelphia. My baby girl will soon be five years old and I, of course, wanted my daughter to grow up and to attend my alma mater, you know, just like mommy! But, the educational system in Philadelphia is struggling, to say the least, and I had to make the right choice for her. I had the pleasure of attending and graduating from Haverford College, and unfortunately, the Philadelphia School District is not granting the same opportunities for today's children that I and my classmates once had. So, here we are, in Delaware County with better schools, hoping and praying that Philadelphia gets it together, for the sake of those children who cannot escape.

  7. Will the final ignominy be a signature on a FAFSA form and a lifetime of student debt?

  8. Thank you, all, for your thoughtful comments. A sense of overwhelming grief and righteous anger seems appropriate for what we're facing. Your responses have made me feel again committed to the fight, after a period of despair. The question, now, is what form that fight will take, and how we can achieve solidarity in it.

  9. As a Lower Merion grad, I can't help but feel a little guilty to be the favorable result of the system when reading this article. But I agree with you wholeheartedly, and while I am thankful for my opportunity to attend a high school with such amenities, I realize that I must use the knowledge gained through my experience to extend such to those (much) less fortunate. Thank you for showcasing the the tenacity of these three girls who represent not only themselves, but also the potential of the rest of the Philadelphia youth. Keep on fighting!

    1. Chris: Thanks so much for putting yourself out there like this. Your solidarity means so much to me, and your support of all students in Philadelphia is much appreciated. -Rachel