Shifting Realities

A few years ago, our school system went through some shuffling that felt a lot more like a life-altering quake than the gentle mixing of cards for a new round of things. The 6th grade kids joined 7th and 8th at the Middle Schools. Kids no longer had to go to the middle school closest to them, but could apply at any of the four middle schools in the city.

A year later, community-based elementary schools joined in the shuffle. Preschool through 2nd grade all went to one elementary school in a particular area, while 3-5th graders took over the nearest elementary school, which became known as a sister school.

As a parent who doesn’t like change, I complained, A LOT! I had legitimate complaints. For instance, some years I had three boys in three schools with three different schedules and it felt like I was making breakfast for an hour every morning and between the time when the last kid left for school and the first kid got home, I didn’t have that many hours to work. I also mourned the break up of communities. I loved when my kids were all in the same school, with their neighbors. I volunteered for the PTA and it gave me the chance to get to know my community. My kids walked to school and made friends within walking distance.

After spending years overseas, putting down roots and feeling connected here in our own neighborhood was valuable to me. I understand that the superintendent and the board had their reasons for this switch up in our school system, but I wasn’t feeling it.

This week I had eye-opening conversations with my 8th and 10th graders. They told me that their school friends have never had a birthday party thrown for them, at least not a party outside of a family gathering, one that they could invite their peers to. My 10th grader, for whom we had just thrown a large birthday party, said some of the kids that came had never been to a birthday party before. I’m pretty sure my mouth hung open in disbelief because he repeated it to me.

One thing you need to understand is that we when we host birthday parties, we don’t print cute invitations or blow money on decorations. We don’t rent the skating rink or the bowling alley or paint ball place. We don’t order in pizza and wings or a fancy cake. It’s a simple throw down, at home, with a home cooked meal because that is what we can afford.

When they were in elementary school, they thought it was unfair that we did not throw elaborate parties in party places like their “neighborhood” friends did.

As I had these conversations with my teens this week, I realized several things. The way we do parties hasn’t changed, which means they are going to school with a very different set of kids. Instead of being embarrassed by their homemade parties, I think they have become rather proud of them.

My 10th grader invited thirty kids to his party before I knew what was happening. In the end, about twenty came and they had a three hour round of Capture the Flag in the park, followed by Beef Curry, Vegetables, Rice, Naan, Ice Cream Desserts and Cinnamon Rolls in our home.

We had a little bonfire going in case anyone wanted to roast hot dogs but everyone opted for the curry instead. We chased the last dude out at midnight so I think it’s fair to say they had a good time.

But what really got me in the gut, a punch, leaving me breathless, struggling to speak, is the realization that these school shuffles that I complained so much about were for some, the opportunity they desperately needed. While I complained like a middle class, white, privileged housewife about different schedules and loss of the familiar, there were kids in really tough situations who suddenly had a greater choice of where they want to go to school.

For most of us white folks, this might not seem like a big deal because, let’s be honest here –  white folks have pretty much always had more choices for education. The era of slavery, followed by years of segregated schools has left many in the African American community behind.

In the years following slavery, school boards across the country routinely set aside much more money for white students than black. Black schools were often not more than one room shacks. At one point, the state of Delaware had only one black public high school. One county in South Carolina had thirty buses for white kids but none for black kids.

Even though the US Supreme Court decided on May 17, 1954 that segregated schools were unconstitutional in the Brown v. Board of Education decision, 1963 found not one black kid going to public school with white kids in the states of South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi, according to Carol Anderson in White Rage.

In some parts of the country, when desegregation finally happened, many whites relocated to other areas where most black people could not afford to live, in an effort to keep things segregated. While this trend may be more subtle today, I still see it happening. It’s still easier for white people to move away from trouble and towards opportunity than it is for black people and other minorities.

You might say that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and choose a better life but what if your bootstraps have been cut off and taken away from you by the same hands holding you down in the dirt?

Imagine that your great-grandfather was a slave. I’m serious – picture it and feel it. Then your grandfather was denied an education and thereby forced to take a back-breaking job at minimal pay and constantly keep his head down to avoid run-ins with the KKK. Imagine that your mother was the first one in your line of ancestry to earn a high school diploma.

Imagine seeing your parents forced to sell their home because the city agreed to put a highway through your neighborhood and the resettlement money was barely enough for a run down home in a rough section of town, where the schools are underfunded and there are no grocery stores, and no gas stations or laundromats.

You are told on the news that you live in a land of equal opportunity but you see your reality is very unequal and it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you are still stuck in the same place. But your baby! Oh surely the world will be a better place by the time he goes to school.

Imagine if your baby had a choice of education, without you having to move. Imagine if he could choose a middle school that allowed him to begin earning high school credits, a middle school that would more easily transition him into a high school where he could not only earn a high school diploma, but an associates degree. Basically, imagine generations of no real choices and then being given this opportunity. I would be ecstatic!

I realize now how shallow my complaints were, how relatively easy I have always had it and how blind I have been to the realities of others. And while life would be less complicated if my kids could walk to a neighborhood school where everyone looked like them, thought like them, lived on the same income, had the same political leanings, and talked the same way,  somehow I think that would be a very impoverished life. Diversity has made our lives rich. I hope that the friendships forged during these last few years of schooling, the stories told, the realities exposed, will open my boys’ eyes to a whole new world.