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Home | Episode #41
Moral Debt
May 3, 2019 | Student Producer:

Lily Yates
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Moral Debt
Poet Viet Mai riffs on education in a flawed system. (5 minutes)
Viet Mai

Before I share this piece, I want to give the context behind it. And it was basically my first job and the first time I ever tutored somebody, uh, it set me, uh, so I went to UC San Diego for my undergrad and my first job was with the early academic outreach program. Uh, we are, we were a, um, a entity on campus that did outreach for title three schools or underprivileged schools and we did tutoring and mentoring. And so it was at orientation at Gompers secondary school. Right? It wasn't even a tutoring session. And after, my boss at the time, and even childhood friend, uh, he was a friend of my brother's, best friend of my brother's.

Um, he did his introduction to the program, talked about what we were going to do, the schedule, what to expect, field trips, and uh, at the end of the presentation he says, "Are there any questions?" And this girl up front, she raises her hand and she says, "Can somebody help me out with my math homework?" And he's kind of like, "Well, we weren't really prepared to do tutoring at this time, but is anyone available?" Well, he didn't even ask if anyone was available because he knew me already. He said, "Viet, can you help her out?' And I said, "Sure." First time I ever tutored a girl. I sat up there with her, opened up her algebra book, asked me about a problem. I helped her solve it and I showed her how to do it and she goes, "Oh, cool, got it," closed the book. "Is that it?" She goes, "Yeah." I said, "I got this, I think," and, and that, the rest is history of me being a educator.

So 18 years later, this is what I got for you. I fell in love with helping others the first time I tutored a girl on her math homework. I felt purposeful. Four years in college, I got a taste of education, filled my hunger with poetry, and developed an insatiable thirst for social justice. After 17 years in the game, I search for equity. I've come to realize that I've been part of the biggest problems I'm looking to find solutions for. I told them, "College is the key to your future, a ticket to your dreams." I said, "College will open up doors for you." I didn't know I was selling them seats to the greatest magic show on earth where the doors lead to fantasies, illusions of happiness, preprogrammed by reality TV, you too can be a millionaire if you answer enough questions right for the next four years to the rest of your life, but they don't ever really ask you the right questions.

I taught schools how to improve test scores, made sure these at-risk kids were ready to pay for, apply for financing. I told them, "It's an investment." I didn't realize I may be the gateway to the greatest heist ever pulled upon on the chessboard, a monkey turning a crank, the distraction to the trick. The San Diego County Office of Education found that only 26% of seventh graders will successfully graduate college. I'd like to think my numbers are higher, but I worry, how many kids have I scammed? How many families have I conned into lifetimes of indentured servitude? I analyze data, compile reports, and break down performance into demographic subgroups. It often feels like I've been the Devil's accountant, assuring his racist ass that dropout rates have been consistent for whole generations. Private prisons are big businesses and we need to keep investments lucrative. There's no money in teaching financial empowerment to the poor. How else will we keep businesses alive, an eager workforce, consumers, interest rates, financial dependency, the circle of poverty? Her name was Ana, the first girl I ever tutored. She went to Gompers Secondary. How ironic. A school named after a European immigrant known for his leadership and the American labor union, yet opposed immigration due to lowered wages and a white superiority complex, I often wonder if I helped her to achieve her dreams or his.