“You just lay on the ground and play dead”

“Yeah, you just lay on the ground and play dead.”

Those are the words that broke my heart. Volunteering at an after-school program for elementary students in the inner-city schools of Nashville, Tennessee changed my entire perspective. A six-year-old, told me to “lay on the ground and play dead” if someone is ever shooting at me because then hopefully they would leave me alone. Six. When I was six, I was worried about wheedling my mom into giving me an ice cream sandwich before dinner. Seeing inner-city violence on the news is totally different than witnessing and hearing about it first-hand, especially from the mouths of kindergarteners. The problem is not just that the education system is failing these children or that their dads deal drugs on the side while mom yells at them for this or that. No, the problem is not just one of these things but all of them and countless more. If I could solve one problem in this world, it would be to help pick these poverty-stricken children up, dust them off, and stand them back on their feet. Although there fails to be a simple solution, I believe with the right educational opportunities as well as some encouragement along the way, these children will become everything a proud momma or daddy could ever hope or dream.

Nelson Mandela declared, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Education is more than sitting in a classroom learning that 1+1=2. At its best, education offers students opportunities they could not have even imagined. However, at its worst, education can be diluted and disappointing. With school choice, students would be able to designate where they spend those seven hours every Monday through Friday. Making schools more competitive would enhance the learning rigor and allow the institutions to inch closer and closer to being the best versions of themselves. If we equip students with the means necessary to obtain a quality education, they will be able to change the world; some just need a little reassurance that they can do it.

I know all of these kids are smart, but almost every time I help them with their homework, they’ll tell me that they’re dumb. What if they grew up believing they were smart? What if they grew up and went to college? And then medical school? So many of today’s children think they are not good enough. They think they are unteachable. Unreachable. Undesirable. Unlovable. We need more people telling these kids that they are brilliant, important, courageous, and loved.

While this may seem inconsequential to some, loving on children and urging them towards success can make a monumental difference in their lives. The lack of love and attention is a problem I have seen and dealt with in the Nashville metropolitan school system, and it needs to be addressed not only there but across the nation. A more complicated answer lies underneath it all, but simply allowing students to be themselves while recognizing their dreams and passions empowers them to achieve success. Ben Carson, a man who utilized education to climb out of inner-city Detroit, proclaims, “Success is determined not by whether or not you face obstacles, but by your reaction to them.” We cannot eliminate all obstacles for children struggling in poverty, but we can show them how to jump over these hurdles and instill in them the determination and drive to finish the race. Children are like candles; they are just waiting to be lit so they can shine.

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