Going Private

It’s almost Halloween – and what could be scarier than a blog about race, class, and the New Orleans Public Schools? Not anything I can think of!

But I can’t stop myself from wanting to write about it, even knowing full well how very delicate the topic is. It’s been nagging at my consciousness since I read an article on the Huffington Post last weekend, titled “Why White Parents Won’t Choose Black Schools,” that I basically could have written myself three years ago. In fact, I think I pretty much did write this three years ago.

The writer, Abby Norman, whose white daughter attends kindergarten at a majority black school, writes: “This summer, when I told the other moms at the pool where my kids went to school, I was repeatedly told to move them. This from women who had never ever set foot in my school. They had not had contact with our deeply passionate, and very responsive principal, had not met the Pre-K teachers who my daughter loves more than Santa. They had not toured the various science labs, or listened as their child talked incessantly about robotics. They don’t know that every Tuesday, Juliet comes home with a new Spanish song to sing and bothers me until I look up the colors in Spanish if I can’t remember them from high school. Juliet loves her school. Her mother, a teacher at a suburban school, and her father, a PhD candidate at the state university, both find the school completely acceptable, more than acceptable. We love it, too.”

Yep, just three short years ago, I too became incensed at a local swimming pool when another parent, not knowing my daughter was in kindergarten at a public school, said, “I drive a shitty car because all my money goes to tuition. I hate it, but what can you do? You can’t send your kids to public school here if you care about them.”

I still think that was a snobby, shortsighted, ridiculously privileged thing to say.

But my daughter is now at a private school.

There were many, many reasons I moved her, not one of which was that I suddenly decided to care about her after many years of not caring about her, nor do I think any other parents at her former school or at numerous other public schools around the city “don’t care” about their kids. That was just straight-up an obnoxious comment.

Nor did I move her from her public school because of racial issues – although I guess it’s impossible to discern exactly when an issue becomes racial, to try tease out race-specific issues from larger societal issues.

In New Orleans, too, it’s hard to separate out the tiers of public versus charter, and even within the subset of charter schools, there’s a difference between the exceedingly complex and selective Lusher admissions rubric and the “diverse by design” lottery system of Bricolage. It’s just not as simple here as not looking at real estate in a gentrifying area because the neighborhood school isn’t up to par. You buy where you want, and then roll the dice on OneApp.

I support the public schools. The majority of my friends have kids in public schools, most of them at Ruby’s old school, and I have no doubt that they are doing what is working best for their kids, their families. It just wasn’t working for us anymore.

I am a product of the public school system and was a frequent volunteer, starting in high school in a mentorship program, continuing in college through Americorps, and logging more than 100 hours last year alone at Ruby’s old school.

I understand the author’s frustration with parents being critical without ever walking into the school. But am I allowed to say something, as someone who has not just set foot in a public school but has spent large chunks of my free time working to make it as good as it could be?

My perspective is not one of a nose-in-the-air mom who won’t even consider the public school system for her precious snowflake. And it’s no longer the author’s perspective of a parent for whom the school is working beautifully, a parent whose child is thriving. It’s the wearied perspective of a parent who three years ago naively and arrogantly assumed that my daughter and I could fix the system just by being part of it – and whose child did not thrive there after the early grades.

Is my perspective now as simple and as blatantly racist as Norman writes:

“When I am able to move past the anger, the frustration that people are talking about a school they know nothing about, I listen to what they say. Behind all the test score talk, the opportunity mumbo jumbo that people lead with, I feel like what is actually being said, and what is never being said is this: That school is too black.

“The people who are moving into my neighborhood want their children to have a diverse upbringing, but not too diverse. They still want a white school, just with other non-white children also participating. They want to go to the Christmas pageant and not have their white sensibilities violated because the other parents are too loud and boisterous and it makes them uncomfortable, for really no good reason. They don’t want their kid to notice her whiteness in Pre-k and then find out while addressing that question, that while they already own great books about diversity, the only children’s books specifically about whiteness are published by the KKK. They don’t want their child to ask them why Quintavious’s sister says she doesn’t like white people. They don’t want to have to wonder when the teacher calls, if they are getting extra attention because white parents are often perceived as overbearing. They want diversity, just not too much.”

I hope not. I have handled almost every single one of these situations, with the exception of looking for books specifically about whiteness, and none of those situations were what prompted me to switch schools.

I didn’t want a white school; I wanted textbooks. I didn’t want a dead-silent Christmas pageant; I wanted a classroom where kids could be quiet enough that my daughter could concentrate on her schoolwork. I was more than willing to explain to my child “why Quinitavious’s sister says she doesn’t like white people” or to attempt to address racial tensions and the long history of racial prejudice in this country/school/society/community – but I was not so keen on her being singled out for taunting because someone doesn’t like white people. Is this white privilege? Is that a cultural bias?

Yes, I think it probably is. I admit that. I own that. I can accept my complicity.

But when my child was coming home at night crying and begging to switch schools, there was not even one small part of me that thought she needed to stick it out for the sake of political correctness.

I did public school for as long as it worked. For many people, it’s still working. For us, it no longer was. It didn’t meet my daughter’s needs, so I found a school that did. I can’t apologize for that.

And I would like to see where the author’s daughter is in school in three more years.

 

Categories: Joie d’Eve

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