I walked to school today thinking about Archer's future.
He came home last night and told us that he'd gotten his scores on the ACT Explore test, a version of the college-entrance exam given to eighth graders. His composite was 23 out of 25. His math score was a perfect 25 out of 25.
Now, as a member of a collegiate admissions committee, I know that tests like this don't tell you nearly as much about a student's college readiness as the test companies would like to claim. But because admissions officers find it convenient to craft policies -- including scholarship policies -- that rely heavily on such tests as a shorthand for aptitude, the one thing you can say about a person who scores high is that he will receive lots of attention and lots of opportunities.
I thought about that on my two-mile walk to Cady Gray's school, then to mine. I talked about it with Cady Gray; she told me what her fifth-grade teachers were saying to their students about scholarships and college. Archer's college choices are likely to be shaped by his autism; he may not be able to leap into independence and go to school away from home. His sister won't have any such limits. I thought about the training, the challenges, the resources that will be available to students as capable and promising as they are. I walked onto my campus under a gorgeous blue sky, feeling like a wind was gathering under their wings, ready to lift them up. I imagined how they might soar.
Then I glanced at my phone while waiting for my chai latte, and saw the news of the three Muslim students killed at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.* Suddenly I was aware of the fragility of any student's promise. Hate and violence, motivated by whatever ideology makes you see difference as a threat, can strike anyone. It seems especially tragic and sad when it happens at a college, a place devoted to enlightenment, a place that draws people of all backgrounds and beliefs in a common quest for a better life, a more informed mind, skills that can build the future and solve problems. If we can't find a way to live without fear of difference there, then where?
Like all parents, I worry about the treacherous parts of college for my children: binge drinking, sexual assault, study and recreational drugs, depression, time and task management, interpersonal relationships, anonymity and isolation. I see students just as smart as my kids get derailed by one or more of these, year after year. One test, no matter how remarkable, won't inoculate them against those dangers. Even years of training and character-building are no guarantee -- for some of those pitfalls, you can do everything right and still wind up shattered and victimized. And then there's the rage, the prejudice, the deadly weapons, that sometimes strike out of a clear blue sky.
We can do better -- as college officials and administrators, as teachers, as citizens, as communicators, as neighbors -- to change the culture, to rescue those who stumble before they hit the ground, to talk back to hate loudly and consistently, to insist that the values of the education we provide -- complexity, diversity, rationality, empathy, free inquiry, solidarity -- escape the classroom and reach into every moment of our students' lives.
Only if we do better can my children, and yours, and the children of people all around us who look to the future in hope, climb on to that upward trajectory with confidence.
* Early reports don't indicate conclusively that the murderer was motivated by racial or religious hatred. I don't mean to draw that conclusion here about this particular crime, just to follow a train of thought sparked by the way I am routinely shocked by expressions of hate, division, intolerance, and violence in threat and actuality on my campus and others.