This is my brain on…

I’ve been trying to work all day. I’ve managed a meeting or two, an important letter, random email. Mostly, though, I’ve been sifting through stories about Ferguson. One story in particular has stuck with me since I saw it early this morning. There I was, warm in bed, my son sleeping peacefully by my side while I pulled up Facebook on my phone to see what had transpired after I had elected to turn off the coverage and retire to bed. This status from a local news station, WAPT, brought it all home in a strange way.

Jackson Academy (locally known as JA) was founded in 1959. The school doesn’t appear to list anything about its history on its website–a curious ommission–and that silence speaks volumes to the circumstances surrounding its founding. JA is a segregation academy, one of many such schools that sprung up primarily in the South following Brown v Board of Education. These schools provided white parents an escape route to coming integration, a way to keep their white children from having to sit next to black children in the classroom, the lunchroom, the bus…you get the picture.

When people ask me where my son is going to school and I tell them that he’s at one of the elementary schools in the Jackson Public School Systems, I can generally rely on a well-meaning push to consider enrolling him in one of the local private schools. I have no doubt that the education available at these schools is top notch. They’re private and command resources that the local public school system cannot command, its coffers depleted through decades of white flight (and the subsequent loss of tax base) and criminally chronic underfunding by the state legislature, which can’t seem to meet its self-designated legal obligation to ensure “adequate” funding for all public school systems in the state. JA recently completed construction of a magnificent performing arts center, a testament to the sort of money that can be raised when parents and the local community get behind the notion that art education is crucial to the well-being of our future. I do not begrudge them this achievement. I use it to illustrate a point.

My son attends a Montessori-focused public school, a special program within the system that tries to provide more cutting-edge educational opportunities. We have several of these “magnet” programs, and I’m sure that your school system has them, too. They are a solution to a problem, but the problem is one that keeps me awake at night. Already meager resources are funneled to these schools to provide the sorts of opportunities that private schools offer. Families apply to attend these schools, their doors not open to everyone in spite of their public stature. I applied. My son got in. We’re set until middle school, now, at which point we’ll have to figure out the next step. A local political candidate and parent of one of his schoolmates is advocating for the transformation of a nearby piece of property to a middle school based in a similar model, thereby providing the same level of education–with, I suppose, the same mechanisms for entry.

This past summer, my son spent some time in a summer program housed in the public school that he actually would attend were he not in the Montessori one. It was depressing. The facility is old with concrete floors and dull colors on the walls of the halls and classrooms. He didn’t like it much, his then-four year old self eagerly asking every morning if we were going to his regular school with its bright walls and “house” groupings. I didn’t like bringing him there, but this was what we could afford and I have to work. So there he went. He made friends, learned some things, and generally had fun, but we were both relieved when we returned to our regular school.

I can’t imagine walking into the other school daily–not as a student, parent, teacher, or administrator–and feeling excited or motivated or joyous to be there. I am myself a product of parochial schooling, so I recognize that my comments on this come solely from my experience walking those halls this summer and my attempts to imagine my various selves–the student, the teacher, the parent, the administrator–inhabiting those walls. At the end of the summer, I was glad that my son did not have to return, and I was sad that so many sons and daughters had no other option but to return. I have to trust that the adults in charge do their best to soften the coldness of the space for the children in their care, and the evidence on display in many of the classrooms that I saw suggest that they are doing, as always, the best that they can with the resources they have.

In the end, I chose a different path for my child, one that I thought would give him the best opportunity to grow and learn. This is what parents do: choose the best of the available options. I do not begrudge anyone sending their children to JA or any of the other private options available in the city; I know that I will be looking closely at the local Catholic schools–and my wallet’s ability to pay for them–when it’s time to choose the next step. I also know, though, that I feel a tremendous sense of sadness and guilt that I have multiple options available to me while many families have only one substandard, underfunded, under-resourced, and marginalized one.

What would the public school system here look like if the segregation academies had never existed, if white folks had just sucked it up and focused on building the best public school system–one where all students had equal access to quality resources and teachers, community support and buy-in, and a firm public promise to ensure the best for all?

So–back to that post I linked above. Last night someone saw fit to spread graffiti on the exterior wall at JA, to issue a public call for justice in the far-away land of Ferguson, MO. While I don’t condone the action, when I saw the pictures this morning I felt like I was looking at the snow-capped peak of an insurmountable mountain. The message may seem out of place, but, really, it’s exactly where it ought to be, emblazoned on one example of the way that white power has always rallied to keep itself pure, untainted. Yes, black and brown children now attend JA. That’s not the point. The point is that the school and others like it were founded to keep black and brown children out, and the founders and supporters who live and work and breathe the same air as the parents of the black and brown children have never seen fit to extend that largesse to anyone but their own. The point is that to compete, public school systems have to deprive many to uplift some. The point is that we just don’t seem to care about all children to give them the best start possible, callously expecting that those already struggling to get by will somehow magically find the time, energy, and resources to whip up exceptional educational experiences for their own children.

The point is that the good citizens of Jackson, MS don’t know enough about the history of the school to see the vandalism as a valid protest–intended or not–of a system that sees in every small black or brown child a future Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and, God rest his soul, Tamir Rice. How do we stop these killings? How do we make a better future? I think tearing down the walls that we use to separate our children from each other is a good start.

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