Do you remember Ty’Sheoma Bethea? She was the eighth grader in the Sunday dress sitting next to first lady, Michelle Obama, during the State of the Union address back in February 2009.
Obama gave Ty’Sheoma a presidential shout-out, applauding her courage in sending a letter to him and to Congress about the condition of her 100 year-old, partially condemned J.V. Martin Junior High School in Dillon, South Carolina (the same school where Fed Chair, Ben Bernanke graduated from when it was all white). He stated “Ty’Sheoma had to get money from her principal for a stamp” and that although the trailers they used as make-shift classrooms were falling apart, she and her classmates “were not quitters”.
As a result, Ty’Sheoma got brief attention on morning shows and honorable mentions in newspapers. In fact, a Chicago businessman gave her trailers an “extreme makeover”-style rehab overnight with new desks and better paneling. Ty’Sheoma’s story also added a human face to the stimulus bill, which held unprecedented funding for school construction.
But we forgot about Ty’Sheoma as fast as the stimulus money. And we missed her point. What Ty’Sheoma wrote was a protest letter. She was saying our schools suck. The majority of students attending J.V. Martin are poor and Black. Most of the rural schools along the Interstate 95 corridor, where Dillon is located, are substandard facilities, where students are lagging way behind academically.
Ty’Sheoma is in the tradition of Barbara Johns, a young woman who led a student strike against the poor and inequitable conditions at her segregated school in 1952, a protest that spurned the Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County case, the only student led lawsuit in the five cases that comprised Brown v. Board. Yet Ty’Sheoma’s protest letter was relegated to a sound bite of self-blame: “we are not quitters.”
Unfortunately we now live in a post-civil rights era that blames poor and working class Black youth for systemic educational failure. We are preoccupied with rooting out a “youth culture of failure”, a “cool pose” and fear of “acting white” among Black students rather than on the truly difficult task of eradicating persistent structural inequalities.
And our policies reflect this. Under the federal educational policy No Child Left Behind, for instance, there are mandates for testing youth in districts throughout the country, but no requirements for making school conditions and classroom environments sufficient for students to learn.
So Ty’Sheoma and her classmates, attending a partially condemned school, are still responsible for passing the same tests that white students take in structurally better school environments across town. And God forbid if Ty’Sheoma were to quit school (as approximately 60% of students in that school district do), then it’s definitely her fault – right?
We need to amplify the protests from the Ty’Sheomas of this country, students trying to learn in poor schools. My personal charge is to find Ty’Sheoma and find out if the high school she plans to attend is any better. Stay tuned!
Noel Anderson is the co-author of “Our Schools Suck: Students Talk Back to a Segregated Nation on the Failures of Urban Education” and “Education As Freedom: African-American Educational Thought and Activism ”