|This is about half the crowd at Greenlight last night|
And now here's where I digress into a mash of thoughts that have fried crisply after many years of fits and starts on the meat of the matter - race. We all want what's best for our kids of course, and the dizzying choice of schools presents philosophical, geographic, financial and moral dilemmas for many parents, particular those who benefited from excellent educations themselves. I've visited many schools, had daughters attend a couple, had conversations up the ying yang on the playground and schoolyard, talked to parents and administrators, sat in a zillion PTA meetings and worked on a School Leadership Team, spoke out and been shut down, written a few thousand words and been surprised at every turn by my lack of knowledge and my unwarranted oversized expectations of my own efficacy. In other words, I'm like a lot of other white gentrifier parents. I mean well, but I don't know shit. And it's a humbling experience, but worthwhile, and I highly recommend getting your own ass served to you on a platter a time or two. As was said about Colonel Carter by Old Sneep in the delightfully outdated kid's book Lentil by Robert McCloskey - I needed taking down a peg or two.
That doesn't mean I'm done opining. The Q wouldn't be the Q if he kept his thoughts to himself, now would he? Should I just shrivel away like some Victorian Era Blogger whose time has passed him by, squawking about how in the Great Queen's day things "may have been more top-down and button-down but at least there was respect for crown, class and proper diction?" Hell no. Let the reader beware. Blogging may be out, but old bloggers never die. They just start podcasts.
So here's the takeaway, if you hadn't gleaned it already. You may THINK you're the first generation of parents confronting these issues, that your step into neighborhood dynamics of race and class is cutting-edge and that you have resources and insights the envy of any principal or PTA. But those thoughts need to be tied up in a bag and tossed in the Gowanus like so many feral cats. (Okay that was a gratuitous grab for controversy - I don't advocate drowning feral cats. Just feeding them to dogs.)
This is my wizened advice to you, dearest friend and lovely Gentrifier Parent (GP):
You're not the first anything, you're not the brightest or most knowledgable, your skills are only as useful as they're brought to bear in a community of equals. Schools have been segregated by race AND class for a hell of a long time, and people have tried to solve that for decades. And when wading in you happen to lead with your Mother Jones rhetoric, you risk alienating the very people you hope to "help" with your well-meaning advice and advocacy. My suggestion - choose a school. Go to it. Make friends, particularly those whose background differs from yours. Let your kids choose their friends and encourage those friendships, regardless of who their parents are. Let them lead the way, and show and tell you what they're good at, what they enjoy, whether homework is helpful, whether "progressive" education has any real meaning and whether or not you should be all up in arms that someone brought Happy Meals for the whole class on their kids' birthday (true story that, stop me some time I'll give you the deets).
If you listened closely to the painfully-carefully-chosen words last night, you heard the story of separation. Certainly since the early '70s thru today, lefty NYC parents of every hue have sought to extract their children from the banal, rudimentary and often backward education of the day. From Waldorf to Montessori to "holistic," "gifted and talented," Charter, Open Classroom, "Free School," Quaker, International Baccalaureate, "inquiry based," Round Square (how's that?), Dual Language and every manner of Homeschooling and so on - you can draw a direct line back to the parent and his/her relation to the dominant culture, i.e. it ain't good enough, radical enough or engaging enough for precious offspring Johnny, Atticus or Zephyr.
And herein lies the birth of the problem as I see it - from the git-go we parents who are seeking outsider education are poised to separate our children to some degree from their peers. We self-styled free-spirits, rebels and renegades think of ourselves as somehow different, deserving of special treatment. We might send our kids to a prep school or "alternative" private school and pay up the wazoo for the privilege of separating our kids that way. Or we spend thousands of our own precious hours teaching at home. Or we scour the literature and landscape for any scrap of "alternativeness" in the public school system, gravitating in flocks towards schools that attain the mythical status of "new," alternative or progressive. When we could, ostensibly, just go to our local school and work with others. But we don't. We...don't.
In parenting and education, as in most aspects of human behavior, people seem intent on defining themselves by what they are not. It's the whole purpose of gossip after all! So hard not to partake. But that's how we decide who we are, and what tribe to belong too. By snarking about others, in the company of compatriots, we can chart our course. So now let me partake of the snarkage. Such phrases I've heard over and over and over...
"I want a progressive school for my child"
"I don't believe in testing"
"I don't believe in homework"
"That school is too strict"
"Dual language is such a great model"
"Too much emphasis on test scores"
"That school is just not diverse"
"I want to go to my local school, but I don't want my kid to be the guinea pig for desgregation"
"The Principle is unwelcoming"
"The diversity at PSXXX is just right"
"I'm not comfortable with the level of poverty at that school - it's almost all free-lunch"
If you don't recognize those as racial, if not fully racist, albeit clascist, statements, you may soon. Liberal white parents will jump through hoops not to say the phrase "that school is too black," but the meaning becomes clear after you follow the behavior, not just the rhetoric. Most white parents just aren't comfortable going to predominantly black schools. And I say black because I mean black! Hispanics and Asians and even Muslims and light skinned bi-racial families don't figure as much when white people see color these days. When a white person sees that demographics are, say, 90% or more black, their first impulse (even if they KNOW it's wrong) is to say to themselves "what's wrong with that school? If it's a good school, why don't more white-hispanic-asian-other kids go?" This is not always because they're blatantly racist. Actually, it's because they're smart enough to know the America that raised them! In a country they know to be hopelessly racist, they assume (and who could blame them?) that an all-black school must be inferior. The smart students and dedicated parents must have opted out, else why would they stay in an all-poor all-black school with miserable test scores? (Another irony! Remember, you told us you don't believe in testing!)
Okay so I'm going for low-lying snark-fruit. It wouldn't be racism if it didn't come drizzled in irony and hypocrisy. But there's a truth here that I certainly didn't see til I started getting to know the ropes and tie some knots. Here goes. God help me.
Black folks of means and/or education do the same damn thing. And they've been doing it a lot longer than YOU have, right here in Flatbush and Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy and Harlem and any place where working and middle class black Americans have built community for more than 50, sometime 100 years or more. They didn't want a part of any half-assed segregated racist curriculum bullshit anymore than you do. And so, many of them (again, right here in your very neighborhood) started their own schools, historically black you could say, but sometimes wholly outside the educational system entirely. Woke by the brilliant rhetoric of the great African-American thinkers and writers of the 20th Century, they rolled up their sleeves and educated their children to know their history, to respect their heritage, to question authority and much like their white-hippy peers, to look askance at the local public schools that drew most of the attention.
Others (actually MANY others in Lefferts and Crown Heights and Brownsville and East NY and Bed-Stuy) sent their kids WEST when they could, to neighborhoods with "better" and somehow "whiter" schools. The trickle of influx was good for liberal angst at those schools, providing just enough diversity to assuage the feelings of guilt that permeate white liberal society that by using their entitlement they might be exacerbating the problem. Charter schools helped fuel the Exodus too, giving choosy parents a chance to flee their zoned schools for either rigor (Success Academies) or progressive politics (Community Roots, Compass) or schools that have become integrated (i.e. more whites) of late (PS 11, PS 9) or even, if you've got the address to prove it, the vaunted Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens and Park Slope zoned schools.
That's right Iowa boy and Wisconsin girl. We're finally getting clued in to the fact that black people are a hell of a lot more diverse within the "black community" than your MLK and Malcolm X and Black Panther primers taught you. Meaning we might just have to assess each person, each family, each school, each business, each economic and philosophical construct as its own entity with her own destiny, foibles and charms. Just like #45, a lot of us fall for the trap of lumping black people together. How you can hear America bristle when the Trumper talks of how he's been "good for the blacks." Which ones, your majesty? He doesn't know the difference. The self-styled least-racist person on the planet is in many ways the Lead Segregator. But in all honesty, our behavior does little to break the cycle. I mean, have you been to a white party in a black neighborhood lately? The only people of color you're likely to see come in the mixed-marriage variety. We still don't play together much, black and white. And we certainly don't mix classes much at all.
And now you're right back where you started. Sorry. I didn't say there was an easy answer. Just tougher questions.