My acute anxiety around preschool has been articulated multiple times on this blog. It is glorious and frustrating and exhilarating and depressing and magnificent that I’m going to be sending my son to a wonderful preschool in the Fall. After much searching and interviewing and praying and decision making, we chose a small school in a great town here in Massachusetts, we’re picking up and moving to be closer to it, we’re being responsible uppity parents. On Wednesday, I went to the school for the very first time and it was absolutely terrifying.
I sent The Husband to visit the school when we had begun our search last Fall. The reason being that they would only do a tour during a weekday in the morning, and they wouldn’t allow other children to be there during the tour. It would be inefficient for me to drive from our home to the school, the school back to home, and then have my husband drive to work. So we decided that he would go and do the groundwork, that we’d put in our application and see how we were going to land. Well, we all know how it went: this ended up being the school for us.
So on Wednesday, new parents were invited to attend the last mandatory parents meeting of the school year so that we could receive our enrollment packets and learn other logistics of our new cooperative school. On Sunday, I received an e-mail from my host family, inviting us to lunch/playdate before the meeting. We couldn’t pull that off because we don’t live in town. I was excited to have a host family, though, and I was ready to jump in. I also wanted to make sure that she knew exactly who we are and what this was. So I sent her a picture of the family. I needed her to know that she should be expecting to find a Black woman at the meeting. Not because I assumed she was racist, but because I wanted to have one person who wasn’t surprised to see me.
And I’m grateful that I made that decision, because on Wednesday night, when I walked into my son’s preschool, everyone was surprised to see me.
Because I was the only person there of color. any color.
No Asian families. No Hispanic families. No Black families (though I later learned that there is a Black child who is in the program. Her parents were not at the meeting. I’m also not sure if she’s returning.) No teachers of color, either.
So when I stepped into the building, the women who greeted me, at first, thought that I was in the wrong place. I had to do a little bit of awkward explaining in order to assert that yes, I was in the right place.
“Who is your child?”
“[Ursa Major], he’s joining the toddler program.”
“Oh! Wait, your last name is [____]?? OH! I think your husband came to visit us!”
“Yes, he did.”
“I see, well that’s great. Well welcome…”
They were certainly nice. Nothing assuming, nothing offensive, but they were surprised. I surprised them. They gave me a tour, speaking very fast, hyper excitedly. It was exhausting and I was only 5 minutes into the evening.
So when the mother of my host family showed up to rescue me, I was so grateful (and I think that the women who originally greeted me were relieved, too.) We’re going to call her Rose for now.
Rose quickly got me outside into the fresh air to talk in private. She explained that she was a local but had live in another state. More importantly, she told me that she was so relieved to have received my e-mail. “I just appreciate how forthcoming you were,” she said, “It usually takes a long time for people to loosen up around here. To really get to know a person. My husband says it’s a New England thing–”
“It’s totally a New England thing,” I said.
“I mean, I’m from New England and I never thought of it that way. But it’s so different here than it is on the West Coast…”
She told me everything that I suspected: It’s a girls club, that the suburbs are isolating and exclusive, that it is sometimes hard to make friends…but that the school community is a good one. I told her that I was worried about diversity. She told me that she understood (but didn’t move to reassure me). When we reentered the building and everyone congregated into the meeting room, all 35ish of us, I could see why: I was the only person of any sort of color in the room. I got a few interesting looks as people settled in and looked for the new faces. Again, not racist looks. Just “Oh? Oh!” looks.
We went around the room introducing ourselves and telling everyone what our favorite children’s book is. Everyone had title to say, various random ones, some I had never heard of. Of course, the Southern Fairy Tale that I mentioned hadn’t been heard by any of them, so I guess that’s cool.
Then they had the meeting. They discussed maintenance and enrollment. An upcoming auction. Various minutia for the end of the year. I listened intently, though I knew that none of the information applied to me. I wrote a few things down in my notebook, though looking back, nothing said was particularly important. And then the teachers presented an end-of-the-year slideshow. One of those Apple movie things, with video and music embedded.
Wow…it was magical….
Art days and playground videos. Snack time and vignettes (“I love to play with friends!”). Special field trips to the farm, and animal visit day at the school. Videos of kids playing with African drums and banging on them along with drummers. Dances and climbing. Kids swinging together on the group swing, six kids deep. Little girls holding hands with their best friends as they walk through a field on their way to the next adventure. Toddlers putting toy soldiers in playdoh for no reason.
Precious. Perfect. Preschool.
My heart melted. This is what I want for Ursa Major. Fun and joyful days, filled with smiles and laughing and adventure. I want him to learn how to dig trenches and fill them with water, splashing and singing with friends. I want him to be part of a community, with children his age, surrounded by teachers who love him. There is nothing about that place that says that he won’t have those things. He’s going to have the absolute best school year ever.
and then again, as a mother who believes in an integrated life and a diverse experience, I know that I’ve made a grave sacrifice. One that I can only hope and pray I can mitigate and reverse before he becomes old enough to really start to notice.
When we move to our new community, with the great schools, with the safe streets, with the tall trees and the fresh air….when we send him off to that first day of school at the bright preschool in the historic building in the middle of one of the oldest towns in the country….I will probably be the only person of color that he will see during most of his days. He’ll live in a completely white world, except for when he comes home to his mother.
That is exceptionally and profoundly sad and scary to me.
And I made every single decision to make that happen.
And there is nothing that I can do about it. Because the most important thing to me is to make sure that he had the best education that I can afford to give him, especially during these early years. I can’t afford private school and the schools in the city just aren’t good enough. But what I will be communicating to him, essentially, is that the only “good”/”safe”/”acceptable” places in the world are the places where there are only white people, though I absolutely know that this is not true. Every time I want my sons to have a diverse experience of any time from now on, I’ll have to bring them into the city, and the moments will be fleeting. He’ll always go home to whiteness. Home will be white for him.
So I’m writing this as a heartbroken mother…a mother who knows better and fell for the trap. I believe in living in integrated communities. I think that living in an integrated and diverse community, and attending integrated schools were essential to my development and world view. I wouldn’t be the woman I am without them. I wouldn’t have met the love of my life without them. The problem is that the schools that I went to, at the time, were in one of the top 10 public school systems in the country. If I could afford to live in Boston and send my kids to a private school (and there are diverse private schools close to the city), I’d do it in a heartbeat. Without question. I’d do it with relish. But I’m not rich. I’m middle class. Pretty solidly middle class…and that makes me pretentious, over-ambitious, overly worried, a helicopter mom, and a nonsensical hysterical mess when it comes to my children. I want the best because I think that I deserve it and I’m worthy of it, but I can’t afford it.
And if you can’t afford it, you can’t get it. You might not be less worthy, but you are certainly less deserving.
So segregation it is.
No one benefits from segregation. There is no feeling of being on the “right” side of it. Segregating our children ill prepares them for the real world–where they have to, eventually, live and work with people of different experiences and world view from themselves. Just because this school is functional and performs on an academic level that I deem appropriate for my sons doesn’t mean that I find it to be wholly acceptable for my children (And I’m a former teacher, so my standard is high). I’m not the cause of segregated communities, nor am I the first African-American parent to make a choice when it comes to segregation and their children’s education. I am a teacher of history, and my master’s degree specialized specifically in integration and re-segregation. I know why this happened, I know how it’s perpetuated and I know what it can potentially do to children. That’s why I’m so angry at myself. That’s why I’m so scared.
But the check has been written, the enrollment papers sent. This will be his school next year, and he is going to have the best time. As the year goes by, I’m going to have to make a decision. What matters? His immediate joy? His educational trajectory? His world view? His connections and experiences with others? Does his seeing the world the way that I see it matter to me? Should it? Can I assure that his world view is as diverse as mine is? Will I look back, 20 years from now, and wonder about this decision? Does race and class matter to childhood?
I knew that when I married my white husband and created these beautiful mixed children that there were be hard decisions ahead of us. Who knew how deep the rabbit hole would go? I have a feeling, I’ve only begun to find out.