We Got Us Some Work to Do: America’s Educational Debt – A Poem by Allison Kaye

Louisiana, 1960

first day of school
fresh pressed dresses
ribbons tied tight,
hopeful of new friends at the play yard.

Ruby’s satin ribbon shines like a night-light
the ones parents use to ease terrors when the moon glows.
Ruby’s white shoes are spotless like a fancy tablecloth
the ones plantation owners had in their dinning rooms.

She has no fear,
A Mardi Gras celebration!
As she skips in between the big white men in suits,
A new school, new opportunity.
So many hopes, so many wishes—squashed
As the Mississippi Muscadine wine grapes
No, not Naïve.
Ruby Bridges, daughter of Abon and Lucille:
True Americans.

Virginia, 2017

we value diversity,
diversity is our strength,
we love and respect everyone,
equal opportunities for all.  

Words can be said while actions remain silent.
Tell me—
if this is true
do we still feel the 60s’ in our schools,
legalized segregation
unequal funding
Achievement Gap?

Let us rid our tongues of that cruel term,
just as we shall never utter slave and replace with enslaved person.
Achievement Gap-
as if our black and brown children have to start running and running
to catch up to our white children.
No. The children need only to dance.
It is America, and all of America-
Educational Institution, government, every person
Responsible: we all must RUN
Educational Debt,
tell them dear Gloria
We all carry on our shoulders,
the burden of the past,
1960 when teachers refused to teach little Ruby,
more punitive punishments on our black boys,
inequitable opportunities.
Don’t be color-blind dear teacher.
Our country is in DEBT!
Let us get out of it,
through our knowledge,
seeing the racism
and not turning our eyes
but running into it
to squash it-
Mississipi Muscadine Grapes
tear it apart and don’t let it return.
We got work to do.
It may be institutionalized,
but use any privilege you have, any piece of power you possess,
and run—run till we are rid.


Author commentary:

Ruby Bridges is not only symbolic of the start of integration in the south, but she was a brave little child who continued a life of activism. In this poem, I try to honor her by being frank about the issues our country still has today. I highlight the term professor Gloria Ladson-Billings coined “Educational Debt.” It is a new phrase for what is often called the achievement gap where students of color not only score lower than their white counterparts, but often face harsher, more punitive punishments and have lower graduation rates. When we say “achievement gap” the blame seems to fall into the hands of children, when in reality it is a problem our whole country must deal with the way it does with financial debt. I truly think the best way to work towards more equitable educational institutions starts with providing all future teachers with a comprehensive education on the history of racism within education and ways to combat it as a teacher.

Recommended Links:


For listening to a speech and reading some of Gloria Ladson-Billings famous quotes about this educational topic.


For a biography of Ruby Bridges.


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