Sunday, January 14, 2007

Oprah's Controversial Comments

Okay, a while back I said I wanted to blog on the Oprah controversy, so here it is. Oprah worked her butt off to rise from poverty and sexual abuse to become a powerful woman at the top of her field. People obsessed about her weight and speculated about her personal life. Even so, she managed to keep it together and earn a BILLION dollars! ($1.5 billion, actually.) Once upon a time, she promised Nelson Mandela that she would help Africa. She recently did so, opening a $40 million boarding school for poor girls in South Africa.

In an interview with USA Today Weekend, Winfrey said, "I perhaps will get criticism about, 'Why didn't you do this for children in America?'" She replied: "Because we have a school system in America ... There's no 12-year-old girl in America that you're going to find crying because this is the last year for her education because nobody can afford to send her to school. You want to give the gift to the person who's going to love it the most."

Oprah also expressed her frustration with trying to help needy kids in the U.S.: "I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn't there," she said. "If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don't ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school."

Oprah, to you I say, “AMEN!” I think before I taught in the South Bronx, I might have been one of Oprah’s harshest critics on this matter. I always wondered why America goes around meddling in other countries’ problems when we have so many that need solving here. But I’ve seen what Oprah is talking about. When I mentioned the quote above to my students, one replied, “Oh, they only saying they want books an uniforms, but once Oprah's gone, they going to sell them on eBay.” Most of my students refuse to believe there are people who are desperate to learn.

Most (not all, of course, but most) of my students consider school, studying, reading and intelligence uncool. I’m not saying rich white kids consider those things cool. The thing is, rich white kids grow up in text-rich environments, hearing academic grammar. They don’t have to work as hard to play catch-up. What’s more, rich white kids have connections and don’t have to overcome the stereotypes of admissions officers or human resource managers. They also don't have such a soaring high school drop-out rate.

Time and again I see it: students who care more about their iPods and sneakers than their educations and futures. Many of them are in the free lunch program, yet manage to wear designer jeans and have the newest style of Jordanson their feet every month. (Why work hard to overcome your poverty if your poverty is...cushy? Sure the neighborhood is dangerous, but your styles are fresh!)

When money comes into the house it is spent. Maybe you won’t have enough money left to pay the bills. The phone will get shut off, but who cares? If the phone is shut off, those annoying teachers can’t call to tell you about the problems your child is having at school. But at least everyone in the neighborhood can tell, just by looking at your child, that you provide for him or her better than your parents ever provided for you. Let the teachers provide every last drop of their education. That’s what they’re paid for. As a parent, making them read or checking their homework is not in the job description.

Like Oprah, I’ve been asked for sneakers and iPods. The thing that keeps me sane, though, is I also have students who’ve begged me for books: To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Diary of Anne Frank and many more. Oprah’s never been around long enough to hear those requests, because for some reason those things are harder for the kids to ask for. That being said, Oprah made that money, and it’s hers to spend however she likes. She’s said some harsh things about America’s youth and education, and many people don’t want to hear it, but you know the old saying: “The first step is admitting you have a problem.”

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