When students excel despite their schools, not because of them

I was recently invited to be one of several judges at a community poetry slam that took place at Fort Hayes. There was a lot on the line: a pair of tickets to “Hamilton” for the winners (both youth and adult competitions), which in 2019 is a lot like winning a Willy Wonka gold ticket.

In the youth slam there was a poet whose piece made me sit up straight in my seat. At first, I thought the poem merely possessed an alarming complexity for a high school effort. As the student continued performing, it became apparent that it wasn't just good for a high school poet. By the end of the night, I determined that he had perhaps delivered the best poem of the entire night.

Driving home, I considered that the poet was a student at what would have been my alma mater, Columbus Alternative High School, a school from which I was expelled. This was back when CAHS was considered special, a mill that churned out talented and bright futures as a matter of course.

And then I considered that, as I write this, CAHS is literally falling apart.

In the past week, reports detailing the state of CAHS have come out, and the conditions would be laughable if they weren't so frightening: dripping and falling ceilings, rampant pests, no air conditioning — all of which is compounded by severe overcrowding of a building designed for elementary children. The students themselves are lobbying to get an inspection while their principal is busy trying to assure the public that things aren't that bad, admitting only that CAHS presents “challenging” conditions.

Let's get something straight: Bats in the hallways aren't a challenge to learning. They're a health hazard, and responsible for at least two Stephen King stories that I can think of.

The temptation to hold up this exceptional poet is great. It is the kind of story that makes for great speeches from school administrators and politicians. But the poet composed that amazing piece of art in spite of his school, not because of it, and as a city we should be ashamed that the river flows in that direction. Students living in a city that constantly cites the resiliency of its markets as reasons to barely tax developers for money that is supposed to go toward schools should be challenged by tests and their attention spans, not rodents and exploding transformer fires.

We should feel lucky that such a student was able to overcome such adversity. We should also feel ashamed that he had to overcome such obstacles at all. I shudder to think how much brilliance we have effectively erased through our benign neglect and shoulder-shrugging march toward different civic priorities.