I feel that in many ways, my life is a struggle between my nobler instincts of selflessness and altruism and being a lazy, selfish, bitch. This dilemma manifests itself in many ways: do I give my peanut-butter sandwich that was to be my breakfast to the homeless man who has built a cardboard lean-to next to my subway station? Should I be more proactive in my desire to volunteer as an escort for Planned Parenthood, or should I procrastinate and enjoy not being shot? Should I donate my too-small or unfashionable clothes to Goodwill, or keep them in hopes that I lose weight or that sparkly velvet dresses come back in style? Luckily, I can often find middle ground: If I have an extra dollar in my pocket, I’ll give the man my sandwich and buy myself an orange; I donate money to Planned Parenthood and sign every petition they forward me; and for every new article of clothing I buy, I purge my closet of at least two quasi-ironic message-tees or pairs of capri pants.
We all try to find middle ground in our lives– not everyone can take the hair shirt. And perhaps my equivocating is evidence that I don’t actually care enough to make the world a better place. Does it make me a bad person that I’d rather give money to Planned Parenthood or the Red Cross than to the Humane Society or ASPCA (those damn commercials!)? Or do we all need to choose our battles?
I’ve certainly chosen my battles. I’ve taken to the streets in support of the New York Abortion Access Fund, Planned Parenthood, and NOW. I protested the inauguration of George W. Bush in 2001 (I was in 7th grade) and stood on the side of a highway in 2004 with posters in support of John Kerry. And I am counting down the days to, and drafting poster slogans for, the New York City Slut-Walk. For the battles I’ve chosen, the right thing to do is clear. I make my voice heard through both donating time and money and actually shouting at people. But I am torn about how to proceed in my other battle: the institutional racism of public education.
It’s no secret that I’m a white girl from the suburbs. I went to one of the best, and most expensive, colleges in the country and am currently studying at an internationally respected graduate school. I worked in the summer during college, but only by choice. Yes, I went to a public high school, but my school probably produced more Ivy-League and Seven Sisters grads than Dalton or Choate. I was very lucky.
I don’t think I fully realized how lucky I was until I was a senior in high school. I was in a course called “College Social Science Seminar,” the highest level history class offered to seniors and my school’s equivalent to AP Comparative Government, and we were assigned Savage Inequalities, by Jonathan Kozol, for summer reading. My understanding of the world I lived in was irrevocably changed. Reading the book while on vacation with my family, I was often moved to tears.
In Savage Inequalities, Kozol details the state of public schools in the late-1980s and early-1990s. He predominantly focused on high-need districts and only mentions privileged schools to highlight the contrast between the resources and facilities at these schools, and particularly to contrast the difference in expenditures per student in these districts. Kozol traveled around the country, visiting public schools in San Antonio, Camden, the South Bronx, Washington D.C., Chicago, and East St. Louis. What he found shattered my notions of equality and privilege. I was horrified to learn that many elementary schools rationed pencils and toilet paper, that sewage ran in the streets outside middle schools in East St. Louis, that schools were forced to hold more than double the nmber of students they had been built for, and that large high schools in the South Bronx relied on truancy and students dropping out for the classes of over 35 students to be manageable. Unsurprisingly, the schools that suffer under these conditions serve student populations that are predominantly of color. (I’ve heard these students referred to as “minorities.” When more than 95% of the students are Black or Hispanic, it is absurd to call them “minorities” or the schools “diverse.”) Kozol wrote of his shame in living in an America that allowed this.
There was one scene that led me to discover a new sensation: the desire to weep and vomit simultaneously. Kozol visited a wealthy public school in a suburb of New York City that shares a name with a certain type of bread. He engaged students there in a discussion of the segregation that they undoubtedly benefited from. Even after hearing of their fellow teens taking computer classes on typewriters or sharing a guidance counselor with 400 other students, the bright and conscientious teens at this school were unmoved. They were unwilling to examine their privilege. Oh, they knew that they were privileged, that they were receiving a better education than the vast majority of the world’s young people. But they honestly didn’t seem to understand this as a real and fixable problem. They were concerned about how their standard of education might drop if schools were desegregated or how it wasn’t fair to them if their school received less funding in favor of larger and more troubled schools. The underlying message was, “I deserve this because I am better.” I don’t know if these students would be able to articulate why they felt they were better, but I would guess it is because they are white and rich.
After finishing Savage Inequalities, I began to examine my own privilege and the institutional racism that I was reaping the rewards of. My high school was only minutes away from Chester, PA, an impoverished and largely African-American city. According to rumors, when my school was being rebuilt in 2001, a proposed wing was scrapped because it would require the school district to be redrawn to include portions of Chester. In my junior year, the Chester school system was close to bankruptcy and the schools might have been shut down. There was a thought to take in some students from a Chester high school. Even many of my liberal friends were against this plan, some arguing that if we did open our doors to these students, we should only take the smartest. This plan of modern-day busing never came to be.
I returned to school in the fall and was ready to discuss the book and its damning portrayal of institutional racism with my class. I was certain that my peers would be more enlightened than those at that New York high school almost two decades ago were. Surely, we could all agree that this de facto segregation was wrong, I hoped. I was wrong. My classmates parroted the same tired lines and ideas the earlier students had: “It wouldn’t be fair to us,” “Yes, segregation is a problem, but why should I feel guilty?” “More money won’t solve these problems,” “Those schools are so bad because of uninvolved parents and “˜other factors,’” and my personal favorite, “Ugh. This book is obviously trying to make us feel guilty.” My peers and friends were making these arguments in the same week that students all over the country would be returning to schools where science labs had no running water and textbooks hadn’t been replaced since the Soviet Union was our biggest foe. Later that day, many of us were to walk to one of our school’s football fields for marching band practice. My senior year, a third of the school was in the marching band and more than half were involved in some musical ensemble (in addition to the marching band, there were three choirs, an orchestra, a wind ensemble, and the symphonic band. Plus two full-scale theatrical productions every year). And yet my classmates thought that money didn’t really matter in public education.
A few weeks ago, in my Intro to Special Education class, my professor made some interesting comments. He recalled something a graduate student said in the first class he ever taught. The student said, in regards to the achievement gap, “They are trying to separate the haves from the have-nots.” My professor recounted his response, “I would hope that these is nothing malicious in the allocation of resources, well-trained teachers, etc.” After he finished telling that story, I pushed him on what he said. I mentioned the despicable state of many urban public schools and the quantifiable disparities in funding. My professor cited federal money given to these schools, as if that absolved the system of racism. I wanted to press the issue, but he told me to write down my questions. I did. The next week I handed in a five-page paper where I pointed out the flaws in his arguments. I also came pretty close to calling him a racist. This was my closing paragraph:
Any Statistics 101 student will tell you that correlation does not equal causation. There are clearly relationships between race and literacy levels, the racial makeup of a student body and the classification of a school as “high-need,” race and the amount of funding a school gets, and the amount of funding a school gets and success rates. What causes these relationships? No one outside of the John Birch society would claim that race causes illiteracy or low-success rates. But if one argues that institutional racism and funding disparities are not the causes of the achievement gap, what else is there?
When I turned in this paper, I fully expected to earn my first F. To my great surprise, he asked me to see him during office hours and told me I had been given an A+ on the assignment (my first as well). We had a long conversation about what I had written. We agreed that exceptional educators and administrators can make a difference even in the most abject of circumstances. We disagreed on almost everything else. He still claimed that federal money equalizes the funding disparities and did not want to believe that institutional racism influences the structure of our public schools. He believed that high-stakes testing worked and lower-income schools do not emphasize test prep any more that high-income districts do. Ultimately, our discussion ended when it came time for us to walk to the class he taught and I took. I still do not know what he believes causes the relationship between race and low-performing schools.
As I am facing my future as a teacher, I must ask myself: in what way can I possibly effect change in our school system? After all, I’m only one person. Can one teacher even make a difference in one school? If I were to teach in a high school in the Bronx, how many students could I reach? Sure, there might be 30 students registered for each of my classes, but how many would show up? How many would make it to the next year? How many children would never even pass through the doors of the high school to begin with? And, most importantly, are these just excuses for wanting to do the easy thing and teach at a nice suburban school (and get paid quite a bit more)?
I have been struggling with this question for some time. My better angels tell me to walk the walk I talk. If I care so much about these issues, ought not I get my hands dirty, so to speak? But there is a selfish part of me that wants to teach at a school where there are enough textbooks for all of my students and where I am encouraged to be creative in my methods. I want to see freshmen I teach eventually graduate and go on to college. I want to teach students to be aware of social issues and privilege and inequality. I want my students to learn to examine their own privilege. And, as I continue to encounter brilliant and compassionate people who are wholly ignorant of these issues, I feel more and more that I should educate them.
Dear readers, what should I do? Should I leap into the heartbreaking business of high-need education and swim against the tide, knowing that I may only be stroking my ego or do I work in a more comfortable environment to make the privileged aware of inequality and feel guilty taking the “easy way out”? Looking now at my classmates who read and disparaged Savage Inequalities, I see several public school teachers, a few CityYear Fellows, interns for children literacy programs, and one who worked for an anti-genocide advocacy group. Would they have followed these altruistic paths if they had not been inspired by educators who taught them to engage the world? I know that I will continue to struggle with this question for the months to come. And honestly, looking at the job market now, I might not even get the luxury of choosing where I end up.