A few months ago I stopped at a Greek fast food restaurant on the way home from work. Standing in line to order, I recognized the young man stuffing pita bread with lamb and vegetables, but couldn’t quite place him. He knew who I was as soon as he we made eye contact. “Mr. Savage,” he said with a smile on his face, “it’s me, Daniel.” Daniel, the malcontent from my seventh period class, had grown at least a foot since I last saw him. He took the glove off his right hand and reached over the counter to shake mine.
Daniel insisted on paying for my meal, and then we sat down and talked. He apologized for being such an “asshole” in class, and proudly told me about his wife and two children. He seemed genuinely happy. He also said he quit school to support his family but wished he could have finished.
Before leaving I told Daniel I was proud of him and gave him a handshake and half-hug, the way men do.
Driving home from the restaurant the image of Daniel lingered in my head. If instead of vilifying teachers, we tackled the real causes of educational inequality, perhaps we could provide students like Daniel a better chance — a chance to do more with their lives than stuffing pita bread.
One thing about spending a couple weeks in Helsinki, as I did about 10 years ago (without visiting any schools), is that pretty much everyone you see "stuffing pita bread" or otherwise helping feed or provide services for you is an attractive, white, obviously well-educated and healthy person. Now, I'm not saying that Finland or Finns are perfect, but the fact of the matter is, it is a reminder that in the end these jobs have to be done by someone, even if you do improve your schools and other social services. So maybe you actually have to start by asking if "bad jobs" have to be "bad jobs," and why.