While some of you were drafting letters to our Board of Supervisors on the subject of the middle school last week, I wrote a note to their boss who also happens to be an old friend.
My dear P,
We need to talk. Other than my parents, grandparents, and middle sister, I’ve known you for longer than about anyone. We met when I was 4 and were together almost constantly for over 13 years until I left for college. Even after I left, I remembered you fondly to my new friends, so much so that they can recall those stories to this day.
That’s why I decided to come back to you after getting married and having my first child. (Don’t tell my parents or grandparents or sisters, but I’m not sure I would’ve left New York City to be near them if they had lived in, say, Christiansburg or Roanoke.) My storytelling skills (which you taught me) were persuasive enough to convince my NYC-suburb-born-and-raised husband that coming back to be with you was the right choice for our family.
Some of the stories I told about you would have made members of your Chamber of Commerce cringe, but the themes all communicated the idea that I grew up knowing that (1) I mattered and (2) I didn’t matter any more than any other child – a theme that has resonated in my work in the world of racial and economic justice ever since. Although I’m sure that my parents played some role in reinforcing these lessons, I credit you with being my primary teacher.
Unlike just about all of my college classmates and colleagues, I grew up in a place where everyone I knew went to public school. As far as I know, my parents never considered sending me to a private school and why would they have? If the schools were good enough for everyone else, they were good enough for me, too. I may not have been as academically prepared as my college classmates who went to prep schools, but I learned these lessons about mattering from you. I eventually caught up academically, but I don’t know how I would’ve really learned the “mattering” lessons later on if it weren’t for you.
So even though I loved living in the other places I’ve lived, once I had kids I wanted them to grow up learning those important lessons directly from you instead of through my imperfect filter. So far, you’ve been partially successful.
My son doesn’t really remember living anywhere but with you. When we pass your fire station downtown, he often says something like, “Those guys call me buddy.” And he knows the men who work on the back of the garbage truck by their first names – Joe and Kelly– in part because they regularly bring him gifts during their Thursday route. He really believes that he and Calfee (the baseball team mascot) have a deep friendship. I could go on and on, but the point is that he gets that he matters and that is a testament to you and your people.
But I’m worried about that second lesson. How are my son and daughter going to learn that all of your children matter as much as they do? On that note, I’ve occasionally wondered if you’ve changed since I left you 22 years ago. But what I really think has happened is that I’ve returned with a deeper sense of how power works.
In my 22-year absence, I’ve spent my time learning about racial and economic inequity and participating in struggles to address those injustices. I’ve participated in this work deeply in some places and in a more advisory capacity in many others. And in all of that work, I drew on lessons I attribute to you.
I always knew you weren’t perfect, but I thought you were different. In part, I thought that you had a leg up on teaching these “mattering lessons” based on the fact that the ratio of your haves to your have-nots, at least in sheer dollar figures, was a little smaller than in communities like Greensboro and a lot smaller than in places like NYC. While I know that you are not immune to the racial injustice I’ve seen in other communities, I always thought that your issues were a little different, if only because your demographics were skewed a little poorer across all racial groups than elsewhere.
But now that I’m back, I’m questioning this assumption. The fact that we are even debating whether or not we need a new middle school building in Pulaski County is the biggest red flag, but, if I’m honest, I have to admit that I’ve seen red flags all along, even before I left.
I never doubted that I mattered here, in part because you invested in me and my education. But, as I look back, I have to admit that I understood, even back then, that you invested more in my education than in that of many of my peers. From 4th-6th grades, I was in a class of the same 13-15 students separated from the rest of our peers for three whole years ostensibly because we were “talented and gifted.” (I don’t think it was a coincidence that we also skewed a little wealthier and whiter than the rest of our classmates.) By the time I got to the 11th grade, I and a small number of my classmates (mostly those who were in that talented and gifted class) were able to choose between the regular classes at the high school and attending science and math classes at the Governor’s School, also on our campus at the time. Embarrassingly, but conveniently, I even got a better parking spot than the other kids, with the explanation being that I had better grades. But how could I not have had better grades when you gave me so many more opportunities than you did the others?
So, yes, I did understand some of that even as a young person here. But what I understand now more than I did then is the real kicker. You invested more in me than in my other classmates even though you knew that, demographically speaking, I was more likely than they to leave you forever.
Why would you do that? I’ve been exposed to enough pop psychology to diagnose that it was probably due to your low self-esteem. You know, the whole, “I don’t want to be a part of a club that would have me as a member” logic? And I feel you. We’ve all been there.
Demanding better for our children may not be “the way we are raised,” but it is what they deserve.
First, because this is exactly the kind of awkward, but ultimately educational experience I want your children to remember from their time in middle school. Their memories shouldn’t be dominated by unsafe conditions, heat strokes, and mice eating their homework. Your children should not only be safe in school; they should also all know that they matter to you because you invest in them.
Secondly, I share this memory because I think you need a similar intervention right now. Do you remember my Ani DiFranco phase? I’m sure you heard me singing the lyrics from her song “Looking in the Mirror” at the top of my lungs as I drove to and from high school. The song was about a woman in a dysfunctional relationship. My favorite lines were:
And she still doesn’t have what she deserves,
But she wakes up smiling every day.
She never really expected more
That’s just not the way we are raised.
I was singing the song to myself in high school, but now it makes me think of you. I think you are in an unhealthy relationship with a few controlling men who say that you and your children don’t deserve any better than what you have right now. Perhaps these men can change; I don’t know. You know them better than I do. What I do know is that demanding better for our children may not be “the way we are raised,” but it is what they deserve.
The song goes on to say “there’s plenty of really great men out there” and I think that’s what you’ve got to remember right now. If your current board of supervisors members don’t believe that your children deserve better than our current middle schools, you aren’t stuck with them. We can elevate some other really great men and women out there to leadership positions. You and your children deserve it. Plus, you are the Board’s boss, so it’s ultimately on you to take care of these kids – especially those who are most likely to stick with you for the long haul.