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Student: I think this school should be shut down.

Meet Robert

I started off the roundtable in this rural South Carolina school the way I always do.

I asked, “What can y’all tell me about your school that you think the adults in your school don’t know?”

One student responded without hesitation:

"I think this school should be shut down. I’m serious, no one here, not the principal, not the students, not the teachers, cares at all."

It was an oddly warm winter day in South Carolina. Merrit and I arrived at the front door of the crumbling building. The combined middle and high school held fewer than 300 students and had a poverty index of 87%.

We were led to a room by the guidance counselor where ten students were waiting. We sat down to begin our roundtable discussion about school. This discussion was hard.

What do you say to a student who immediately informs you he thinks the school should be shut down?

What do you say to the student who is taking three classes that are graduation requirements with no teacher because retaining one is near-impossible?

What do you say to the student that claims to have alerted their administration of their depression but is told simply that they are “wrong”?

Throughout our conversation, I was intrigued by the way the students kept mentioning one of their classmates, Robert.

When the district needs to know something, they call this kid in our senior class, Robert, before they call the principal.

Robert wasn’t in our roundtable, but it was clear that he was a person we needed to talk to, so we did just that.

Meet Robert. He is a lanky, determined-looking, glasses-sporting, African-American senior. He dresses modestly and radiates a distinct nerd vibe. Robert was remarkably well-spoken and at times, even downright eloquent (for an 18 year-old).

I asked him why district staff went to him about problems in the school before they brought them to the administration. He said:

"Sometimes the district office will call me asking questions about the school. They aren’t the only ones though. Students, teachers, even the principal will come to me with questions if they are unsure about something. For example, last graduation, everything was ready to go. We were about to start the ceremony when our principal looked down and realized that the diplomas were not where they were supposed to be. The diplomas were left to the responsibility of the assistant principal, but she had already left for the day. The last thing I heard her say on her way out was “I’m getting out of here.” So I was left in charge of finding the diplomas. I used a key to get into the teacher workroom and found them in a random cabinet. I was a junior at this point."

It’s hard to overstate just how integral Robert is to holding this school together. And it was clear Robert knew things that made teachers and administration nervous. Over the course of our hour-long roundtable earlier that day, the guidance counselor liaison stopped by once to check on us. Once we had Robert in the room alone, however, no fewer than 15 teachers and administrators stopped by over the course of our forty-minute conversation.

I asked Robert why so many adults kept coming by, and he said simply:

"They are scared of me. They are scared of what I may be telling you."

I pushed him to explain further. He said:

"Students will come to me when they feel depressed. Many students have come to me telling me that they were going to commit suicide. I am not qualified to help them but if I don’t, I don’t think there is anyone who would. They go to the principal or guidance counselor first but most of the time they are just brushed off. I’ve heard them say: “I don’t think ‘so and so’ would actually kill themselves, so it’s not a problem.” I don’t think that’s the way to address that issue."

The problem is, even as Robert spends hours planning school trips, coordinating college visits, helping his classmates through hard times and somehow completing his own graduation requirements, he is working against formidable forces. He told me:

"I was unanimously elected as senior class president. I was excited but it turned out to be so much more stress than I expected. We were trying to fundraise for our senior trip and for some reason, money kept going missing from our account. We weren’t sure who was taking it, so instead of going through our teacher to put money into our account, we went straight to the bookkeeper. $20 still went missing. Students don’t have access to this account. I’ve since resigned from my position."

Do not feel sorry for Robert. He would be the first to tell you that’s not what he wants. Robert’s biggest worry is who will fill his shoes next year. He is nervous about leaving behind the school he’s attended for the last seven years. He believes in his community and is proud. Much of my conversation with Robert left me speechless. He is dealing with problems and issues that I would never have imagined during my senior year of high school with a grace and humility well beyond his years.

There are students like Robert all over the country. They are the students who have taken it upon themselves to fill the gaps left by adults in so many of our inadequately-resourced schools. We must honor students like Robert and see them as the assets that they are. And we are also compelled to listen hard and hear their stories. Doing so gives us the chance to better understand the most complex and intractable issues facing schools in some of the poorest regions of our country.

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