Photo: My pin collection is growing! I received the typewriter and coffee pins from my dear church mentee today! They are adorable! My pins live on my knitting project bag, which holds them well. Sailor Moon comes from Adorned by Chi. Beyonce and Black Girl Magic came from Effie’s Paper.
I spent my Tuesday afternoon as a tour guide at the boys’ school. It’s choice time again, with parents of incoming kindergarteners touring schools before ranking them and losing lots of sleep hoping their they get into their top choice school. Readers who have been with me for a long time will remember the thoughtful, yet exhausting saga of visiting all the schools, making a choice, then waiting until we heard that we got into the school we wanted and we got full-day kindergarten.
The worst part about the process was not knowing any other mothers of color in town and therefore not having anyone to talk to and compare schools with. I really wanted to get some specific information about how each school treats the children of color, especially the boys of color. I had to hone my questions, pay very close attention to language and presence while on my visits. Eventually, I walked into our first choice school and felt like I’d landed at the best choice I could find under the circumstances. I took a chance, but it has really turned out well for us. The boys love their school, the staff knows them and knows me well, and we’re having a fantastic experience.
So when the time came to volunteer for something this school year, I jumped at the chance to be a Kindergarten tour guide. Not just because I wanted to sing the praises of our school in person, but because I wanted to be present for even that one mom of color who needs someone they can trust sensitive questions with. I’ll never, ever forget how impossibly uncomfortable and adrift I felt during my process. Even if I only end up talking to one mom over the entirety of the tours, it will be worth it.
All dressed up, walking around with a group of seven parents and the parent coordinator for our school, my mind immediately went back to my old days as a charter school teacher. I remember what it’s like to walk into rooms to observe, trying not to distract students, keeping my eyes on the walls and on their work, but ears focused on the lessons given. I remember the pride I felt about the teaching and learning we were doing at my old school, and a bit of that returned as we walked around this elementary school that I chose for my sons.
But the differences…
We walked into a fourth grade classroom that was just settling in for a mini-lesson on secondary characters in fictional works. They were reading Because of Winn-Dixie and were using the book to break down the more sophisticated elements of fiction. Kids were on the rug, some on their bellies taking notes, others sitting cross-legged. They were attentive, making insightful observations, casually conversing with the teacher and their peers. The teacher was clearly putting on a show for the guests in the room (we all do it. I remember doing it), but you could tell that her lesson was tight and she knew what she was doing. The students wore everything from posh outfits with expensive brand labels prominently shown to sweatpants and Patriots gear, girly dresses with leggings and uggs… a majority of the boys were wearing hats.
It’s a silly thing to notice, but it was noticeable to me, mostly because of my Southern sentimentality. Where I come from, men and boys don’t wear hats indoors. I was surprised when my noticing took me all the way back to the discipline mentality of my old school. The uniforms, the demerits, the silent hallway transitions… so much time and effort and infrastructure was expended to control the behavior and presence of the students I used to teach, from the top of their hatless heads down to their khaki pants and shoes. It was all in the name of “safety” and “no excuses” and creating a “safe” learning environment for them. Where the students at the boys school enjoy a comfort of self, a safety in being able to be who they are and therefore take positive risks, my former students were tasked with transformation, imposed discomforts, a shedding of skin so as to be rebuilt in someone else’s image. The result was a different sort of classroom feel, a different sort of association with academia, and a different relationship with the students. The ultimate result was a mixed set of outcomes after they graduated. I know the why of the rules of the school I worked for, and I had my misgivings even then… but now…
My Quiet Thoughts are about how breathlessly guilty I felt in that moment. I’m thinking about the oppression that we sometimes buy into without even knowing what we’re doing, because it feels so thoughtful, because it’s made to make such sense to the rational mind. I’m thinking about how separate is still so very unequal. And I’m thinking about how the experience of choosing between 6 excellent elementary schools in one suburban town is embarrassingly luxurious.
And I’m thinking about my part in all of it: I was part of an oppressive infrastructure. I chose to move to the suburbs in search of a different school opportunity. I am now actively participating in the luxuriating of rich suburbanites in a “stressful” but ultimately win-win school choice experience.
Ideas have consequences. Choices have consequences. Reflection has consequences. Armed with new insights and wisdom, we can make changes and make better choices in the future.
I don’t (really) regret moving to the suburbs. I just recognize the extraordinary privilege that my two boys are experiencing in this beautiful, excellent school I chose for them. How can I make sure I don’t lose sight of how extraordinary this experience is? How can I make sure my boys appreciate it, too… and use all of this privilege for good? Extending the benefits to others, especially their peers in the city? How can I be supportive of the other families who make it here, making sure they get the support that I didn’t always have? How can I make sure that my membership in this community and others is always purposeful and inclusive?
There are no easy answers. Quiet Thoughts don’t always have a solution.
It’s Mid-January in New England so, yeah, it’s another cold Friday night. This house is warm, and I will consider every night with a functional boiler this winter a miracle. Snow covers the ground for now, but we’re getting well into the 40s tomorrow and Sunday, so it should go away! The weatherman says we’re in the back half of winter now. We gain a little sunlight every day, and our coldest days are (on average) behind us. It’s always nice when hope is on the horizon.
It is Friday, so I have wishes for you, Dear Reader. I wish you good, dark roasted coffee, pancakes, and bacon this weekend, Dear Reader. Basically, if you’ve been at a diet, I totally wish for you to have a little splurg day. It just seems like a good time for pancakes without guilt, you know? I wish you a little time to read or craft while listening to a podcast. Levar Burton Reads is back, and this week’s story was interesting. The short story read during this week’s Paris Review Podcast was really good and I highly recommend it. I wish you this satisfying feeling of finishing one annoying task this week. Organize that pantry. Clean out that basement. Fold all that laundry and put it away! Then bask in the glow of having gotten it done. Such satisfaction is often fleeting, but Lord, it feels good while it lasts! I wish you something spicy and saucy, something that wakes up your senses here in the middle of winter. I wish you a chance to share a starry sky with a favorite person, a lingering hug and kiss that makes you forget about the chill, and the brilliant warmth of being with a person who knows you better than anyone else.
As with every week, I wish you a chance to recognize your infinite beauty, which is undeniable, and breathtaking. Your presence really matters, and your life has so much meaning for the people you share the way with. Reach out, be kind, and be thoughtful. People are watching, not in judgement, but with profound admiration. It’s a good and joyful thing to be so deeply loved.
Until Monday, stay warm, be a good neighbor, do something kind, and take care.