I am standing in my 4th grade classroom, watching 17 tweens sit in silence, scratching graphite bubbles on an answer sheet, careful to make their marks dark and neat. A student from the Congo silently struggles to translate the English. One girl squirms in her desk, trying to rid her mind of her fighting parents and her brother, who left for the Marines this week. A boy quells the gamut of emotions welling up within him; it’s his birthday, and for the first time in his 10 years, mom won’t be there. She left, because she couldn’t take care of him anymore.
One girl needs to pass this test in hopes of breaking the cycle of alcoholism and gambling addictions that have hijacked her family. Another boy wonders if his mom will beat him again because he failed yet another big test. Still one other writes with scars covering both arms from the abuse of her older brothers. I reported it to Child Protective Services, but they did nothing. They are overwhelmed like I am.
I teach in a school of society’s leftovers, scraps tossed aside and left to rot while the powerful in the world get on with their life.
These are my kids. And I am despondent as I grapple with the gap between what they have and what they will need for the life ahead.
An iPhone could easily do this math, but the state needs results from them, numbers on a spreadsheet to appease the demands of a system that has abandoned them and reduced them to conformity. Their future bosses and landlords are 10 miles north of here, up by the lake in their flex-seated digital classrooms doing lego robotics.
But here, we grind, in a grid of desks, always demanding an inch or an ounce more than these kids can give, day after day. Our own jobs depend on it because the system which owns us needs them. My family has to eat, and so does my principal’s. Her job depends on us, and on up the chain.
Education is now but a government-subsidized training for the corporate world, a world that needs these 17 kids to scratch the correct bubble and has slowly suffocated any other possibility.
There are no other choices.
“Be a good little boy and mark the answer you’re supposed to so you can make a lot of money one day,” we say, carrot dangling. The Accountability Economy is desperate for the correct combination of bubbles so their future employers won’t be sued.
Wrong combination? Dopamine access: denied.
Keep trying, little one. Work will set you free.
We have evolved to be clever and disguise learning as fun, but every student and every teacher knows the reality of the Bubbles, and works day and night to strategically maximize correct answers with minimal damage to our kids. Despite their best efforts, they can’t hide the game.
Robots are looking a lot more like humans, and these 17 humans are looking like tattered, tired robots. Even though we all know better, we can’t seem to not keep recreating the same hauntingly familiar scenarios.
Arbeit Macht Frei.
One more grade. Just a bit higher. Another rung. Climb, little one. Now college. Then grad school. Good boy. Study harder. Higher scores for that fellowship. A little more work. Those quotas. Keep going. Your retirement account is almost there.
One day, little one.
This room is eerily void of free, confident, brave homo sapiens. They have been suffocated. Where grows organic life, creativity, gratitude and adventure? It is not here, not today. Despite the blood, sweat, and tears of the humans I see, this classroom is silently void of it.
Our gut knows this is not the path to human thriving. James Cameron never made a blockbuster megahit about students sitting in desks bubbling correct answers, or about white guys getting promoted to a bigger cubicle.
Something is off. Innovation and greatness are not cultured in the confines of conformity. They are bred and birthed in open space and opportunity.
Something is missing. Risk defines every great human story, and yet my classroom, your workplace, and my child’s playground are all carefully engineered to mitigate as much of it as possible.
Something is wrong. Even when the bubbles are right.
Educators know this. Parents know this. Voters know this. Mother Nature knows this.
I don’t just mean something is wrong with schools. Or something is wrong with families. Or something is wrong with politics. Or something is wrong with health care, or the environment.
Something is wrong. The fact that I know phrases like “Suicide ideations” and “school-to-prison pipeline” confirms it.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Life wasn’t. Maybe it had no choice. Maybe it did. Maybe we’ll never know. But we can know what is thriving, and we can know what is adventure. We can know what is joy, and we can know what is justice.
And it is not here, not today. Our programs are better than ever, but the 17 lonely children in front of me testify of a different story. One that has, for too long, dominated the narrative of the human race.
A story of more loss than wins. A story of more defeat than victories. A story of inequality and oppression and injustice and loneliness and addiction and disconnection. It is the story of power.
A Better Story awaits.
The next great move of history won’t be decided by inevitable fate, but by the narrative we choose to live by.
Another world is possible.
Another world is necessary.
And another world is already here.
That’s because another Story has been whispering to us through the ages. It is a song quietly sung, bearing life out of lifeless places, and even when drowned out by the noise of our machines, continues still. A gentle hum offering life to those who hear it.
It is a story of pyramids and trees and the death march between for those who dare to be free. It’s a story where grace conquers power and peace wins the day. It’s a story of justice and freedom and rhythm and life and love for everyone.
The greatest stories can’t be written in bubbles or binary code.
They are born in the wilderness.
 –Shoutout to my friend Shane.