The Shame of a Nation, and of this Mommy

*My oldest son starts Kindergarten tomorrow, so it seemed like a good time to confess that I’m still conflicted. I’m still outraged that the debates in our community mostly revolve around why our tax dollars have to be shared with “those schools” (um, what part of “public” do you not understand?). I’m still looking around the room at the back-to-school ice cream social, and still dismayed by all of the faces that look like mine. And I’m still glad that my son has a great teacher and a clean school and a well-stocked library and a chance to learn Spanish and use a science lab. I just think every kid should have those things, too.

I have a crush on Jonathan Kozol. It’s OK; my husband knows all about it, and he’s fine with it. Seriously, any man who can say to conservative members of Congress, who challenge him that “throwing money at our failing schools isn’t going to solve the problem”: “Just try! Drop it from helicopters! Throw it at them! Let’s see what happens! It works for Harvard!” is a rock star in my book.

I’ve read all of his books, and they all made me mad. Most also made me write checks. All have made me ask hard questions about my own life and how I am, in many ways conscious and unconscious, contributing to the perpetuation of our nation’s greatest injustices.

But perhaps none hit as close to home as Shame of a Nation: The Restoring of Apartheid Schooling in America.

See, I just looked up the statistics, and, while I knew that the elementary school our kids will go to is mostly white, I didn’t know it was 94% white. I feel like writing that in huge letters, because it’s shocking. Even worse, the high school, with a much larger catchment area, that we really thought was fairly diverse, is 91% white. As in NINETY-ONE PERCENT WHITE. And how, exactly, do I expect my kids to receive a truly great education–not just with chess club and Spanish classes and an elementary science lab, which they will have, but with classmates who look like the United States of America–when more than 9/10 of those classmates are white? But more importantly, how do I expect other people’s children, children of color, to receive a truly great education when there are, by demographic eventuality, so few white kids left to go to their schools with them?

Kozol’s book starts with the assertion that we must name the problem ‘segregation’ in order to solve it, and 317 pages later, he really leaves no doubt. Our schools are systematically, almost intentionally, failing students of color, preparing them only for employment, not for democracy, and oftentimes not even preparing them well for employment. We’re teaching to the test, suppressing dissent, pretending that the civil rights movement is over, and thanking our ‘lucky stars’ that our kids go to the good (read: white) schools. We’re spending the few tax dollars that legislatures are willing to appropriate to buy highly regimented, patented curricula that actually reflect very low expectations for our children of color, and that drive the best teachers farther away from those struggling schools.

And then parents, not unlike me, move to places that have ‘good’ schools, where teachers can encourage kids to ask questions, where everyone gets a textbook, where it’s safe to go out to recess…and we take our tax dollars with us. We (okay, this part is not actually me) contribute to private foundations that funnel even more money to our kids’ schools, and then we act like they’re inherently smarter, more ambitious, more ‘scholarly’ than the kids who have been taught, from a young age, that they don’t matter. We know that our housing values are artificially high, in part, because inner-city schools are struggling; we see that we could get a lot more house on the other side of the state line, and that feels yucky. We hope that our kids won’t stare when we see black people, that they’ll know how to exist in a multicultural society, that they’ll somehow learn what we say and not what we do, and we feel pretty horrible about it.

And it looks a whole lot like 1953. And now I have to figure out what to do about it, not just as a Board member of an organization that fights for equity and excellence in Kansas schools and an advocate for social justice, but also as a mom.

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6 responses to “The Shame of a Nation, and of this Mommy

  1. Say it, Sister. Have you decided what you will do yet? (I ask because I wonder what I will do when/if I become a mother. I should get a game plan now.)

    When I even attempt to broach this subject with many of my friends who are parents, they don’t understand. Why wouldn’t you buy a house in “this” neighborhood or send your kid to “that” school? It’s like I’m talking another language that is illogical. (Maybe I don’t have the right friends.)

    So, I think concerned parents should organize to find solutions that work in their communities in the short term. And parents (and other interested human beings) should organize together to find solutions for the long term. Maybe your other posts on organizing can help us find concrete strategies for doing this…

    • No, I really don’t know what we’ll do. We love our neighborhood and our neighbors, and I’d love for my kids to grow up with neighbors an active part of their lives, which we have now. Our neighbors are more diverse in terms of economic status, familial status, and sexual orientation than we’d find in many neighborhoods, but not in race. The district allows open transfers to other parts of the district, and we might explore that, but, as Jen and I were ‘discussing’, I’m increasingly convinced that there just isn’t a perfect solution that ideally serves the interests of my kids (multifaceted that they are) and of our community. And that’s what public policy needs to change. If the racial portrait of a school wasn’t linked to the resources funneled to it, these quandries would be much diminished, for all parents. And that’s going to take a lot of agitation to bring about. I’m reading a book about Goldwater and the rise of conservatism now, and the virulence of the debate over busing is really visceral. It won’t be a pretty fight.

  2. The pull I feel between doing what’s best for my kids [and, frankly, even defining “best”] and living my ideals has been a huge struggle. Does a moral choice even exist?

    And that’s not even the tip of the iceberg…

    • I’m really questioning whether there is a ‘good’ choice; how do I figure out what’s best for my kids, especially when I have three of them and don’t expect that the same school can even provide what each of them need. And what allegiance do I owe to my kids compared to ‘our’ kids, writ large, in the community?

  3. Best.Blog.Ever. And this entry says it all. Anyone who doesn’t think that the personal is political should read this, right before they storm their own Bastilles.

  4. Pingback: Anniversary Week: My favorites! | Classroom to Capitol

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