They say that in a humble life your name appears in print three times: at birth, marriage and death. Apparently the Q is not succeeding in his pursuit of humility, because there I was today being quoted in the Old Gray Lady herself. It's an uncomfortable quote with which to be associated, even if I'm merely repeating things I've heard over the past couple years. I believe that the writer's quoting of me quoting others would be considered hearsay in a court of law. In the court of public opinion, I doubt anyone will question the veracity of the remarks that I've heard. When people react to being quoted in the Times they usually say "I was misquoted" or "taken out of context." In my case, neither was true. He got it right, though of course he pulled the most provocative quote, basically suggesting that white folk have a hard time being the first to "integrate" an overwhelmingly non-white public school. Nearly 60 years since Board v Brown, I reckon no one would gasp at that statement.
Sonny (N.R.,) Kleinfield happened to be researching his story the same day I was at the school in question - Explore Charter School on Parkside at Nostrand - writing my bitty little post on the school. We talked, and he was obviously on a totally different trip than me that day. The school was suspicious he might be focused solely on race, and in fact he was. His piece might shock some a few people, but not anyone who's paid the least bit of attention to what's going on in urban elementary schools. The system's way segregated, and not just by race. Frankly Kleinfield's story is not terribly new or interesting to me, but his quotes from students are outa-the-park eyebrow raising. I hope some of the things kids said will resonate in the larger conversation about race and schools. It seems like the students are the last ones to be asked about ANYTHING happening in the schools. Weird, right?
What Sonny left out was the more nuanced parts of the conversation (fancy that) about the things that freak parents out about going to their local zoned school. One is culture - middle-class-college-educated folks feeling uncomfortable in un-middle-class-college-educated environments. Some folks, too, are probably intimidated by majority immigrant populations, be they Mexican, Arab, Asian or Caribbean. Yes, culture plays a role, and you'd miss that point if you looked only at skin color. Even within the "black" environment around here the variety is staggering. A recent Haitian refugee from the 'quake, an African doctor, a Guyanese grandmother, a mixed-race Brooklyn College student, an African-American veteran from Michigan? Check.
Then there's "class." It's a tricky thing in American culture to draw the lines definitively, since it's not always about money. But most people know the difference even if they have trouble assigning particulars...and the fact remains that people have always been more comfortable hanging with their own. Americans also suffer from class and money envy, and it can warp our sense of who we are in the pecking order. If you went to a prestigious college, say, but don't make much money, you might feel "entitled" to an upper-class life, even if your earnings don't measure up. Tons of people end up in serious debt by living outside their means, and it's not just carelessness - it can go deeper than that. They even have 12-step groups for "under-earners." That is, people who feel entitled to a certain lifestyle, but don't earn enough to support it. Intense. And totally common.
A huge factor often overlooked in the discussion is that, particularly in NYC and particularly particularly in Flatbush/PLG, multi-racial families are a big part of the mix too. Are the kids mostly white or mostly black? I know it's an absurd question, but it comes up, and people struggle with identity in a racially dichotomous world. As the races blur, perhaps we're moving towards other "signifiers" when assigning "race." Or maybe sometimes race is a stand-in for other qualities. I'll leave that to the sociologists and anthropologists, cause it gets pretty tangled. Needless to say, it throws a wrench into the black-school white-school schism.
And what does it mean when a school claims "diversity" of race, but the families are more The Obamas (Harvard) than The Jeffersons (nouveau-riche), or Good Times (the projects)? Movin' on up indeed. I know mixed-race couples who have heavy mixed-feelings about the whole school thing...sometimes a black parent feels even MORE obliged to send their kid to a mostly white environment. One African-American friend told me a couple years ago that his parents would be devastated to see their grandkids in a mostly black public school. Devastated.
And then there's money, or rather lack thereof. When a school population is overwhelmingly poor, the middle-class parents in the zone cringe at the thought. They associate abject poverty with crime, pathology, violence, single-parenthood and depravity. Think I'm exaggerating? Though those words apply to a small fraction of the folks living on my hardscrabble block, folks often conjure the worst when they imagine sending their little one to school locally. "See that gang of hoodlums down the block? That's probably the best that school to produce." Okay, no one actually said that, but they sure could have. I'll be honest...on my way to work I see nothing but sweet little kids heading off to grammar school - maybe a bully or two, just like when I was a kid. And frankly, even most of the really bad high school aged kids aren't going to school at all. Least not as far as I can tell.
[Another freakout point for middle-class white families? If they DID manage to scrape together enough dough for a well-appointed high-cost private school, they might end up being one of the poorest families there. Even if in the neighborhood they live, they're among the top-earners. Welcome to NYC. What's up can be down, and there's simply no escaping the strata.]
But hey now...reality check. When we talk about the local school, what we're talking about is not the bogeymen...it's kindergartners. Five-year-olds. These are the beasts we'd be sending our kids to school with. Oh, and a bunch of adult teachers and administrators, most, though not all, with a career's worth of wisdom to impart. With degrees in education. Who might be white, might be black, might be greenish blue and turn into fire-breathing trolls at midnight. Put another way...what if the difference between the good and bad public schools wasn't as stark as all that? Would it even matter, given that so many of us see through race-and-class fogged glasses?
Or maybe it's all just fear and ignorance. Same as it ever was.
(So Q, you have young white kids. What are YOU gonna do, Mr. Smarty Pants? Well, unless I lose my nerve or forget my password, I'll be happy to tell you as it all happens. I mean if you're gonna write non-fiction, you better tell the truth, right? Or then it becomes fiction, like some of those addresses people use when getting into a "good" public school out of zone. I hear some pediatricians are lending out their addresses now to their patients. It's a weird world out there folks. And getting weirder. Noticed the weather much?)
The Q at Parkside
News and Nonsense from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Lefferts and environs, or more specifically a neighborhood once known as Melrose Park. Sometimes called Lefferts Gardens. Or Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. Or PLG. Or North Flatbush. Or Caledonia (west of Ocean). Or West Pigtown. Across From Park Slope. Under Crown Heights. Near Drummer's Grove. The Side of the Park With the McDonalds. Jackie Robinson Town. Home of Lefferts Manor. West Wingate. Near Kings County Hospital. Or if you're coming from the airport in taxi, maybe just Flatbush is best.