Photo: Ursa Major on the day we brought him home. It was 18 very chilly degrees that morning. He wasn’t handled by a prince, nor was he put into a Range Rover, but it was still a special day. What parent isn’t thinking about those first 48 hours with their first born right now?
I have to admit that I’d been a bit distracted this week. My uncle and his partner of 30 years are getting married on Saturday, so I’m flying down to Maryland to be part of it all. The husband and boys are staying here, so it’s just me on a crazy 24 hour trip that includes a stay at a super swanky hotel (thanks to hotwire!). I’m too excited for words! The other good news, the arrival of a certain little baby has also captivated my attention. I’m usually an American who isn’t terribly excited about royal stuff (and indeed, the hype around this baby in American media has been fairly distasteful), but babies bring joy and it is hard not to be happy for the young couple of Cambridge. I’m not excited because they are royals, I’m excited because they are young and Kate just performed a miracle. I’ve been thinking about our experience with Ursa Major and that first drive home in our Ford Fusion( cuz we can’t afford a Range) and how the real life begins after you get home and the initial jitters and excitement fade away. I’m not going to be excited about hearing commentary about every outfit or which brand got a “baby bump” because Kate dressed/used/talked about such and such product. But I’m happy that another woman safely made it through the ritual of giving birth. It is certainly a magical thing.
Unfortunately, my glee came down a peg or two when I got an e-mail from a former student last night. When I left my former school, I made a facebook account so as to keep in touch with the students who wanted to (with rules: They had to initiate the request, I only friend those students who I taught directly,and the account is only used to post pictures of the boys and posts may be of interest to the students) and I’ve been able to keep in touch with many of them. While my very first class of students (the ones that I student taught a million years ago) should be college graduates, my first ones at this particular school are rising sophomores in college. My last class are now rising juniors in high school. A member of that last class, we’ll call her Ivy, attends a very (very) prestigious boarding school here in Massachusetts, but has always had a lot of trouble fitting in. She is Latina, beautiful, extremely bright, with a brilliant point of view and a writing voice that is on par with some of my favorite bloggers and journalists.
So when she sent me this email last night, I took pause. I’ll post a little tiny bit here:
“Rereading your email gave me goosebumps, especially the 4th paragraph about being worthy. A lot of times I find myself wondering if admissions made a mistake in admitting me or if I made a mistake in choosing to go to private school. [My school] has literally taken everything from me, and often I feel as if I don’t and never could fit in.”
Feeling alienated and an outsider, she’s hitting the road to another major city for a semester, striking out on her own (I’m unclear about if this is actually through her school and is academically focused or if she is taking a bit of a hiatus). The thought that one of my students, especially one so strong and smart as she, could spend two years feeling so poorly about herself in relation to her community makes me frustrated, infuriated and utterly devastated.
I write a lot of about integrated communities and my firm belief that we all need to learn and grow together. Ivy is a prime example of why. My charter school, we’ll call it Shamut Prep, was a segregated school for all intents and purposes. It was named for the major (segregated and designated as “dangerous”) neighborhood where it is located under the auspice of “we know that White families of the city wouldn’t send their kids here,” thus already eliminating any possibility of integrated learning. There were few attempts to expose our students to collaborative and equal thought exercises with White and Asian students in the city, though for some reason the school was able to forge some sort of service-project type relationship with another very exclusive private school in the area where high school kids literally wearing Rolex watches came to the building to tutor of kids for an hour once a week. That is certainly not the kind of collaboration that I have in mind. Our most exceptional students, generally the top ten graduating eighth graders, were encouraged to forge paths in the area elite schools, of which there are many. And they did. Most of them, like Ivy, had grades and achievements strong enough to allow them to go to these very prestigious and exclusive schools on full scholarships. They were academically promising, but not necessarily well prepared for the world we were trying to push them into. We all told them, in the most half-assed way possible, that “high school would be different, especially private elite high school” but it is hard to prepare children who don’t grow up in elite circumstances for what to expect (Some of the students at this particular private school have access to private jets. I’m not even exaggerating).
We sent them out of our very strict, very regimented segregated school and we sent them to very open, very free-form segregated schools. We said “you were able to pass our challenges here, you are the best of the students here, you can now compete with some of the richest children in the state, if not the nation, and we’ll try to support you if we can.” Some of our students thrived (I can think of two in particular who are rising sophomores at Harvard), some of them were able to survive without too much trouble, many of them absolutely struggled, with a few dropping out.
The rest of the students in our graduating classes continued on to other segregated schools in the city. A few really lucky ones ended up in Boston’s famous Exam Schools, which would probably be the closest to my definition of “integrated” schools in the city. Everyone else ended up at another segregated charter school, some of them ending up in city schools (which is not what anyone wanted at all). Most of them are on the steady path toward college, though most of them will end up in the lower tier state schools around here. Some with scholarships, some with no financial help at all (which means that they will be less likely to go).
The segregation of this city is not the fault of my former students. There is history here that we won’t get into, but Boston has a very long and difficult integration history (one that has yet to be fully achieved, I don’t care what the good mayor tells you–the good governor, either). Dreaming big for our students isn’t our fault as teachers, either. However, somewhere along the way, the dreaming of teachers, the segregation of a nation, and the academic and social culture of a school created a nightmare scenario for one of my most promising students. I feel like, in many ways, I’m part of the breakdown and failure. If only there were more things that I could have done to prepare her, to strengthen her.
I’m sure that part of this is the monologue that any teenager in America has with themselves during high school. High school is Hell. There is nothing nice about it, nothing pleasant. I wish I could have found a way to skip those four years of my life and get on to the good part of college. Warren Buffett doesn’t have enough money to convince me to go back to high school and relive those years. Never, though, did high school completely break down my spirit. It didn’t “take everything from me” as difficult as it was to navigate.
I don’t know everything about why Ivy is so miserable, but here are a few things that I do know: We all play a part in creating supportive communities for our children to learn and grow in. It doesn’t matter if we teach our children in a one-room schoolhouse built in the 1800’s (with books to boot) or a sprawling ivy-feeder New England boarding school complete with a resident poet laureate. As parents, as teachers and as general adults, we have opportunities to create supportive, welcoming, and integrated communities that foster the best growth for all of our children. Choosing communities carefully, inviting families into our hearts and homes, encouraging our children to expand their horizons (or at least be allies and advocates in the right situations) can make a huge difference not only for “other” students in their learning communities, but also for themselves. For some of us, this might mean joining our PTSAs and other associations within our school systems as an avenue for advocacy. If Ivy had more allies of any color, adult or classmate, she very well may not feel this way. If Ivy had more mentors, of any color, she might have the strength and wisdom to power through her pain in order to reach the all important other side.
I’m seeing a lot of back-to-school commercials and I know that many of us are preparing to get back into the grind of the academic year. I am excited about joining the ranks of moms with “school aged” children. As you are out there doing your shopping and getting your kids pumped up about the school year, I hope that you will take a little moment to think about where your child learns and grows. Are there opportunities out there for your children to have more integrated experiences? Is there a way that you can encourage your children to be allies/advocates/friends with the children of color in your school (or “other” children–children of a different religion or even sexual orientation)? I don’t want to say that we should collect friends like Pokemon. I’m saying that we can do little things to foster organic and meaningful relationships between the children our communities. A little push, a little nudge, an invitation for a playdate (for young children), a conversation on the soccer field with a parent (if they are older) or even just conversations about who kids are hanging out with and how kids are feeling about their classmates is helpful. I don’t have all the answers (there are great resources out there), I’m just asking you to consider exploring.
Because there are so many students out there who are like Ivy, who are brilliant and have a lot to offer and simply need allies in the world. I promise you that she is going to change the world with her thoughts, words and deeds. Each of our children has a classmate like this. You can support that student in so many ways without doing any heavy lifting.
I’ll share some of the wisdom that I send to Ivy on Friday morning, including a bit of the “last lectures” I used to give my students before sending them off into the wildness of life (with the homework assignment of “Go in peace, serve your world”).