In the Fall, My Son is Attending a Segregated Preschool


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.

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. 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.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Although it will probably be very hard at times, I hope that he loves it, and I’m sure you are making the right choice. You are a strong mama, and I’m sure what you teach in your home will ultimately shape your boys more than anything! At least that’s what I tell myself when my children hear things and see things that make me uncomfortable outside of the home.
    Dumb question, but are there any more diverse groups you could join outside of your area where the boys could interact with other families of color maybe once a month or once a week?

    1. K.C. Wise says:

      SO, the short answer is yes. There are organizations out there that are for families of color. I consider them to be just as segregated as this school, though. There is one, in particular, that is historically focused and fairly exclusive to African American families. It’s also by invitation only. I’m going to look into it, but I’m not sure that that is what I’m looking for either…It’s better than nothing, but it’s not ideal.

  2. mindoutjb says:

    Just wanted to let you know that this blog made me cry. There are no easy decisions. I am the white, single mom of a biracial son, a South Asian son, and a biracial daughter. As my family reflects, I so deeply believe in integration. I have always chosen integrated settings to live and educate my children in. I do believe the more mixed the group, the more anonymity and individuality my children are afforded. But this isn’t always the case, and a highly diverse setting does not eliminate assumptions about children of color. I have discovered this most acutely with my youngest child – the only of my three who is both male and African-American. He is in the first grade at a highly progressive, wonderfully diverse (in terms of race, income and abilities) NYC public school where he is being bullied by a smaller, blonde, blue-eyed boy. While the source of the bullying has nothing to do with race, I am quite sure that if my son retaliated, race would become a factor. And so I counsel my son daily, “Do not retaliate. Do not hit back. Just tell a grown-up and let them take care of it!” And I send up small prayers that he is wise enough to heed my advice. He is a deliciously cute, wonderfully poetic 7-year-old. He is an enthusiastic, loyal friend who is easily wounded when this is not reciprocated. He is also brown, and in all public settings, this is a consideration.

    I write to say to you that diverse settings don’t guarantee a whole lot of protection. I write to voice my agreement that all-black groups are sometimes as difficult for interracial families and biracial children to navigate as all-white groups. But while you are making hard compromises, I write to affirm what I am sure you already know: private settings can be a great salve. Pride in self begins in at home. And joy in the diverse world around us can be found in many places. Wherever we have lived, we have befriended families that each have their own story of how they came to be. For my kids, being part of a larger, wonderfully mixed group of people of all races, many countries, and diverse family structures has been key to helping them articulate and celebrate their own unique story. It remains to be seen whether or not the next chapter in your family’s life will include a vibrant school and neighborhood. I very much hope it does. But whatever happens, it sounds like your sons’ stories begin with loving, thoughtful parents who model the joy and importance of integration and who are making tough compromises to give them a great education. My guess is that your sons will thrive wherever you land.

    1. K.C. Wise says:

      Thank you.
      A million times, thank you.

      You are exactly who I have been looking for in this blog. Thank you. I can’t express to you how much this comment means to me. I really, really can’t.

      Your family sounds beautiful, and I recognize that you must be so busy with your three children, so the face that you would take the time to write to me makes this so much more powerful. And thank you for the assurances and the reflection. I’m sad for your son, and I’m sad for that story because I know you are right: There is not guarantee, no matter what I do or where I go. Community building has to start at home, and it has to happen one family at a time. I hope that I can emulate your model and, relationship by relationship, build a diverse and supportive community for my sons. I think that your children, too, will thrive under the vision and love and leadership of such a dedicated mother!

      Thank you, again. Just thank you. Sincerely. I hope that you’ll continue to share with me. You’re experiences mean so much!

      1. mindoutjb says:

        Hi K.C., it took me a while to realize you’d written back. I’m just getting the hang of WordPress! Thank you for your response, and I enjoyed your most recent post! I pulled my youngest son out of his day care when he was two. This was after I came to pick him up and they’d lost him. After a frantic search, I found him in a dark classroom, doing the floor puzzles I’d begged them to move into his classroom because he wanted to try ’em. That was the last straw. I was pretty through before that moment, especially after arriving one day to learn he had been removed from the class for teaching the other toddlers to use blocks as guns. When I asked how they knew it had started with Miles, they couldn’t give me a reason. They just strongly suspected he was the instigator. Do I need to mention he was the only brown boy in the class? In any case, I found a much better day care for him. When he was four, we moved to NYC and the teacher at his new preschool grimaced at the sight of Miles. In our first parent-teacher conference, I actually stopped her and said, “Wait, wait. Do you even like him? I mean, he”s only four. You’re supposed to like him!” She blushed terribly and tried to find things she liked about him. Ugh. My youngest is not the compliant kid that every teacher likes. He is rascally and insists on explanations and becomes resistant if he perceives a lack of fairness. I happen to think these are healthy traits, but I imagine he’s not every teacher’s cup of tea. In any case, I just started my own blog – finally! Thought you might be interested in today’s post. If you have a minute, I appreciate your reading it! My blog is called Six Story Walk Up (on WordPress, too). All my best, Jenn

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