I spent my first summer in law school in Grand Rapids, where I was a legal intern for the Michigan Migrant Legal Assistance Project (“MMLAP”). A great deal of the organization’s work focused on outreach to migrant labor camps to ensure that migrant farm workers were informed regarding their legal rights and the existence of an organization dedicated to defending them.
I feel compelled to pause at this point in my story to observe that MMLAP served only documented workers. Not that we were innocent of the temptation to indiscriminately serve all migrant farm workers facing workplace inequity, but the organization was funded in part by the Legal Services Corporation and, as such, strictly confined to helping those who had a legal right to work in the US.
We distributed pamphlets — mostly regarding workplace safety and wage and hour laws (one of the most common complaints of migrant farm workers is being paid less than originally promised) — and, from time to time, conducted intake for new clients. Over the course of that summer, I learned that the children of migrant farm workers face formidable challenges in school achievement. Because their parents’ jobs are seasonal and transitory, they change schools frequently and do not benefit from the continuity of teachers and counselors. Because many of them come from homes where English is not the primary language, the children of migrant farm workers often face the added barrier of not understanding what is being said in school, which leads them in many cases to be misidentified as having a learning disability. Added to this rich equation is the factor of poverty and the resulting pressure on children to accompany their parents in the field.
According to the National Farm Worker Ministry, approximately 70% of the children working in the US work in agriculture. Yet, the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) specifically excludes children working on farms from many of the law’s protections. Whereas children in other industries may not work until the age of 16, children may work on farms with the permission of their parents and outside of school hours starting at age 12. Moreover, farm worker children may perform jobs classified by the Secretary of Labor as “particularly hazardous” starting at the age of 16; in other industries, 18 is the minimum permissible age of workers in such positions. See Fair Labor Standards Act Sec. 213(c)(1)-(2) (1938). In farm work, this can include the operation of heavy machinery and the handling of dangerous pesticides.
This was my first formal introduction to the concept of educational equity and the intricate tangle of issues that conspires to prevent children from gaining access to the opportunities we would like to believe are available to them all. Many years earlier, I had been bussed to an elementary school in a South Florida neighborhood where Kelly green lawns sparkled with the mist of timed sprinklers, where dogs were not kept on chains. Later on, I rode for more than an hour each way to reach a magnet high school that boasted academic achievement rates most colleges would envy. I owe this to my resilient mother, who, despite her own lack of a college degree, was determined that her children would have a legitimate chance at success as conventionally defined in our country.
One of the dubious advantages of childhood is relative ignorance of our circumstances. Although I knew better than to ask for such frivolities as designer jeans and movie money, it was not until I completed my college FAFSA application that I learned on just how meager of an income my parents had raised four children.
Yet, in comparison to my clients at MMLAP, I was a child of privilege.
Through happenstance that same summer, I found a part-time job as a math tutor for an eight-year-old boy (whose identity I have chosen to protect). His mother worked as a receptionist in a modest organization and she could not afford a bona fide instructor. I cautioned her that my math education had stalled after high school and that I did not have any experience teaching children. But I also promised to be patient and encouraging. Patience and encouragement, she reasoned, was what her son mostly needed.
What I remember most vividly was explaining to my pupil how, as a child, I had taught myself to break multiplication problems into digestible pieces (32 x 5 = (30 x 5) + (5 x 5), and so on). I encouraged him to follow me into the gnarled backwoods of creative arithmetic. He struggled and wept. And then one day, without any obvious prompting, he got it. His dark eyes glistened and a look that can best be described as joy flashed across his face. In tacit recognition, we both leaned forward slightly in our chairs and initiated a call and response of problems and solutions — at first haltingly and then steadily — both of us giddy with the secret of his newfound mastery.
Today, whenever a candidate for a teaching position talks to me about living for “that moment” when you see the spark in a student’s eyes, I am transported to the summer of 1994. I remember the satisfied smile of my young math student. I also remember how the words, “¿Conoce usted sus derechos? (“Do you know your rights?”), seemed to lift the faces of my MMLAP clients and summon something like intelligence and hope in their eyes.
I am not naïve. I get that we live in a capitalist society and that competition is its principal rule. But I refuse to accept the wanton waste of human talent as a natural corollary. Does the adversarial essence of our economic system actually require that its victors scale a mountain of discarded potential? Or is it, in the more clinical terms of the Pareto principle, that we have not yet discovered an efficient means of ensuring that our children, at least, have a genuine and universal opportunity to make a constructive contribution to the world?
Age and experience have failed to provide me with satisfying answers to these questions. I know only that our humanity calls upon us to resist complacency, to envision a future in which we honor the right of every human being to a quality education that will fairly prepare them for the inevitable struggles ahead and, perhaps, allow them a credible choice about how to earn a living.