During a routine morning Facebook check, I happened across a video of Victor Kwansa, a young gun I knew in college, being featured on a local news segment as a success story for the Prince George’s County public school system. Always keen on seeing Black Yalies doing big things, I watched the piece, which went into detail on the level of not only Victor’s G, but also his parents, who are extra ‘bout it individuals.
Thrilled as I was to see Victor shining, I still felt my brow furrowing as I watched as he was held up as “a shining example of what works in public education.” As the particulars of Victor’s achievements are detailed, my mind couldn’t help but drift toward The Hunger Games and the briar patch of public education.
As I mentioned, Victor’s parents are the truth, particularly his mother. She stood ten hours in line so she could enroll her children in the science magnet elementary school as opposed to sending her kids to the elementary school located across the street from their home. She stood in line with hundreds of other parents, volunteering her kids as what would be called "tributes" in the Hunger Games universe for this first-come, first-serve opportunity to compete (or "reaping") that could allow for achievement at the highest available level. Indeed, Mrs. Kwansa wanted to give her sons to be Career Tributes, trained and groomed to compete and succeed and have early access, hoping the odds would be forever in her children’s favor. Facing the competition, her sons battled and achieved. With high school brought another reaping and Victor passed the test, matriculating at Eleanor Roosevelt High School and setting himself up for further reapings, further battles and further access. A high-achieving individual currently enrolled at Harvard Law, he is certainly the pride of his 'hood (or "district", as Katnyss and 'nem would call it).
Reaping. Battle. Access.
And the above is what troubles me about the news story, which attempted to hold Victor up an example of what the PG County public school system did right. While Victor’s education was undoubtedly top-flight, I feel like the segment holds him up as an example of possibility without addressing the realities of people who do not distinguish themselves in battle; who cannot cull themselves from the pack. What about the young men and women whose skill sets do not qualify them for access to the finer life that victory all but ensures?
As a prep school graduate, I can fully appreciate the difference paying for an education can make. It would be smug to wonder why someone would want something more than the standard public school offering. The teaching incentives, resources and selection process alone are enough to delineate the marked difference between a public and private education Still, going to a magnet public school is, in many respects, no less a harvesting of a privileged few than going to a private school. Magnet programs tend to be better resourced and better staffed; the cultural and environmental imperatives are certainly tracked for achievement as opposed to just getting by and that environment is regulated by a selection process. The difference? You pay with your brains instead of money.
So the question remains: what is the educational expectation for those who can’t pay, who don’t have the guidance to battle properly? It seems to me that this is the quandary of public education. In real life, all young people need to be educated and most will not be able to test themselves into better situations. They must attend institutions that are greatly affected by tax brackets and demography, by location and whoever happens to be staffing the school at that moment. What is being done about those kids?
Victor Kwansa is a success as a man. But, before Prince George’s County pats itself on the back, I think something should be clear: He is a Career Tribute, volunteered during an elementary reaping in his district, and has, so far, emerged triumphant from every Games he has participated in. But what of his less fortunate peers? For those who don’t have the sufficient guidance or test well enough to go to the Eleanor Roosevelt's or, as is the case in my home state, the Classical High Schools? Are they waste, the young corpses hailing from the various districts who lacked the talent, intellect, cunning or sheer luck to emerge victorious with access as the great bounty?
Based out of Rhode Island, Jonathan is a writer and is the artistic director of Mixed Magic Theatre.