This reporting deserves a Pulitzer. Now that’s out of the way, Chana Joffe-Walt and the Serial podcast is a must-listen.
While I sit in my rage, my fear of personal hypocrisy, and memories of my own education and the parallel worlds of Black and brown children alongside mine and my sons’ I cannot help but feel this odd sense of inevitability, hopelessness, and also drastic change and revolutionary, explosive change. But maybe that’s just life now; maybe many of us waver between hope and despair. But if we don’t get this right, if we don’t solve this, it is my prophetic conviction we’re headed toward doom. What this series reports is a history, the heart-pumping, breathing in and out contextual poetry of history. How did this happen? How did we get here? What might happen next? And my hopelessness is rooted in the 40% of white Americans right now who have done everything and continue to fight this war the rest of us don’t want, we reject, and we swing and miss, swing and miss, swing and miss, and strike out.
Let’s get this right.
Understand that this isn’t some other white woman speaking. This is me. These are my wealthier friends who struggled with where to send their children. This is me when my husband and I bought our first (and only house) and moved to where the reports said the schools were good. The schools, and the community, is still predominately white. Did I subconsciously think about race? I can’t honestly say. Knowing how I feel now, and knowing my own past with living overseas, I think it was a drawback because it was too homogenized. It’s my family member who lived in a very wealthy area and whose PTSA drew in thousands of dollars for already privileged children of very wealthy parents.
I’ve told this story before. I lived in Tehran for about a year, and then moved during 7th grade to a white Denver suburb. I went to a large, predominately white high school. The students had affluent parents, and many drove BMWs, Mercedes, etc., to school. I had one friend who lived in a bona fide mansion. My boyfriend’s family belonged to the Denver Country Club. Later he would tell me the reason he didn’t marry me (one reason, anyway) was because his parents wanted him to marry the daughter of their other wealthy friends. He did, they later divorced, and I am still wondering what happened to that Cinderella path. Bippity, boppity, boop. I moved my senior year to a suburb of Wilmington, Delaware. Yes, that Delaware. With Joe-Biden-as-Senator-Delaware. The high school was said to be “formerly one of the best in the state, but since busing has deteriorated.”
Understand moving my senior year was traumatic: I left the boyfriend, left my friends, left my rank as a senior to move to a state that was not nearly as beautiful as Colorado. Sorry, Delaware, you’re just not. Okay, the beaches are pretty wonderful, but yeah.
And this is where memory may falter: I don’t really remember how I felt about being around other students of color. I really don’t. I think I just thought they seemed annoyed at being there, and of course many of the other white kids were racist shits. The entire framing of the school and the experience there was surreal to me. My English teachers at the other school put me through my paces, while my senior English teacher had given up. The whole thing seemed weird, and whatever opinions I had about race, integration and school were wonky and wrong. But it seems like that’s many white people’s views: they were just wrong.
It’s in the voices of the white people on the podcast –the guilt, shame, and false naivety.
And think about Episode 3: poaching students. What the hell is this? Is every damn thing a sports arena?
“It’s like a secret they didn’t tell us.” Nadine Jackson, Episode 3
When my younger son was in middle school, he, well, was having a rough time. Following in the shadow of his highly achieving brother, school was a struggle. At one point, I wanted him to come to where I was teaching–it was objectively better. Better because the teachers wanted to be there, the programs, the freedom for project based learning, better math and science, all the way around. I’m still friends with many of the teachers who taught when I did, and while the school has many problems, it always comes down to the adults in charge. Though a Title I school, which in this context means the students’ families have financial obstacles. (I say it this way because I am raging over how our nation handles money, but that’s a story for another time.) My son would have thrived there, but he decided to stay locally because of some of his close friends, friends he still has to this day. Was I trying to replicate some kind of global or world experience for him that his mostly white school couldn’t do? Maybe. I wasn’t successful. And when I see social media posts by my white neighbors, I see they’re content and satisfied with the status quo. And even vote for a dangerous man to keep it that way.
But more integrated schools have greater flexibility: I and the counselor worked out a structure that “honors” classes were open and available to all. Contrasting, the mostly white middle school in my same district used a triage of tests because so many of the white parents wanted their children tracked in honors. And, I taught my core ELA classes with the same Honors content, and told them so. It wasn’t more work, it was offered to all, and the only difference was pacing. That’s it. We didn’t get it right when inclusion came around, and again, not the fault of the students. Inclusion was not introduced well, at the expense of many students. By the time I left, they brought back honors, but only one teacher was allowed to teach it, one of the admin’s darlings, and she would not accept late work. Period. I think she’s now teaching in my sons’ district. Interesting how that works, isn’t it?
Another memory is when our neighbors, who have a son between my sons’s ages, said how “scared he was to go” to my school during sporting events. I told him that was ridiculous, the kids were great, and I loved teaching there. But I knew it was code for “I”m scared of the Black and brown kids there.” And the power and white supremacy goes unchallenged.
My sons’ schools had active PTSAs: money, events, socials, and expensive supply lists. My teaching school had two years of an active PTSA because a white mom ran it when her daughter went to the school-within-school on campus. Now, some white women know how to get money and resources for their buildings, and keep it going. But it feels too fragile and unsustainable when the white savior is centered.
I’ve tried to get three buildings on board with ProjectLit, and they look at me askance, with polite, cold “no’s.” I’ve had to tamp down my enthusiasm many times.
Now — recently my older son and I had a great conversation about the white savior trope in teaching. He is interested in becoming a teacher, and wants to do a great job. I am keeping a weathered eye on his perfectionism, but will only assist if he asks. And in our conversation about saviorism I had the opportunity to say out loud what lives in my teaching soul. Students don’t need saving. They have parents who love them. They want the best for their child. That’s it. No need to ‘save.’ Just provide the best education you can. Keep learning. Listen. Honor the human in front of you, and be humbled–parents send their hearts to school.
But in terms of the inequities between schools, white, wealthier parents you are on notice: listen to the podcast and do your homework. Shed your defensiveness. We all make mistakes and missteps. I’ve only worked in Title I schools, and I’ve seen these programs, initiatives, etc., come through constantly. Going on 15 years, it’s 15 years of this. It’s decades of this for this nation.
Take time to find out who’s on your local school boards, whether you have children in the district or not. Find out the demographics of the schools in your area. Find out the building sizes, and how many students go to each school. For example, my former middle school has almost 900 students for a building intended for 600. There is another that has empty classroom. Busing doesn’t work, so what does? Maybe we need to overhaul how schools are ranked? Demand that money be spread equally to the schools,
Keep reading, but more importantly, reach out. Donate, no strings, no agendas.