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What If We Really Cared about Kids & Schools?
When I first moved to New York, I walked past a small elementary school every day on my way to work, right around the time parents were dropping off their kids - nudging them out of taxis, holding their hands up the stairs of the subway, walking over from around the corner. For me, newly arrived in the city and waiting for my You’ve Got Mail, bouquet of sharpened pencils moment, it was picture perfect. If there’s one thing I miss about commuting, aside from the clean demarcation of your work day, it’s getting to see school day mornings so different from my own and yet in some ways very much the same.
Even as an adult, the back to school season lingers. Summer isn’t over yet, scientifically or spiritually. In New York at least, we’re in the middle of a brutal heatwave with the kind of humidity that makes it feel like stepping into a sauna when you go outside. But still, I can’t help but yearn for new outfits and fresh notebooks and a new agenda - even if I’ve never successfully used one since I graduated high school. It’s time for new projects, new recipes, and new goals.
I was one of those kids who loved school growing, in case you couldn’t tell. My nerdiness is well documented in this newsletter, but I was lucky to find school engaging and challenging in a fun way. I was a procrastinator, so I definitely created some “baloney head” moments for myself, as my mom used to call them, but for the most part I liked learning, I liked feeling smart, and I liked seeing my friends.
Things changed, as they so often do, when I hit ninth grade. It was a hard year for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is that being fourteen is just hard in general. But it was also the year they started a pilot program in our school district where we all got our own laptops to borrow for the school year. The idea was to make things a little bit easier for kids who didn’t have a computer at home, and to give teachers and students more options for activities throughout the day. Of course, because it was the very first time they’d done this, they didn’t know to block anything. This was the pre-social media days, so we were limited in the damage we could do, but we all joined a blog platform called Xanga that we used like slam books, and we spent a lot more time messaging and emailing during the day than we did anything else. I can’t imagine how much more monstrous we could have been to ourselves and each other with Instagram and TikTok.
To be honest, there’s a lot I can’t imagine about what it’s like to be a parent or a teacher or a school kid these days. The Columbine shooting happened when I was in fourth grade, and the Virginia Tech shooting happened when I was a senior. Of course, these impacted us, but in between we didn’t have active shooter drills, clear backpacks, or metal detectors. Sending your kids to school was already hard enough without the guns.
Schools have always been a flashpoint in American politics - who gets to attend school, what school they attend, what they are taught, where those schools are located, how you get to them, what resources they have. During integration, schools saw some of the worst racism and violence anywhere in the country. White parents screaming at Black six year olds as they headed up into the building, armed guards for teenagers as they tried to learn math and science and history and literature that not only excluded them but often reviled them. Ruby Bridges, famous for integrating formerly whites-only William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana, is still alive. The legacy of racism and violence in our schools lives with us.
Even now, Republicans across the country have made it an explicit political goal to make more children feel unsafe at school, whether by overt discrimination or erasure and neglect or the very literal violence of school shootings. Bans on books, pride flags, health care for trans kids, sports for trans kids, bathrooms for trans kids, the teaching of accurate history, the teaching of accurate biology, the teaching of accurate health, AP Psych, AP African American studies. The list goes on and on. A not insignificant part of my health class curriculum in middle school was episodes of Degrassi, but I would put that over whatever education in eating disorders, STIs, and mental health issues that kids are getting in Florida these days.
Notably, they still won’t ban the guns.
Public schools are the nexus of our best and worst impulses as a society. Not only have they been sights of racism and bigotry, they can also be places of conformity, excluding disabled children, ignoring those with different learning styles, different ways of being social or interacting with their peers. If you can’t get up to start school at 7:30, can’t comfortably sit in a chair at a desk and take notes for eight hours, are best learning by doing when you are in a class structured around lectures, if you’re not sure what locker room to use, don’t talk or walk or look like the other children look. Often, the best some kid can hope for is that the school doesn’t know what to do with them. And throughout history, public schools used violence and coercion to reify the bigotry that was built into the very foundation of our country. Something, it turns out, a lot of people don’t want children to learn. Sort of proves the point, doesn’t it?
But public education also represents the best of what we could be. Like libraries, they are an acknowledgment that there is something so critical, so essential that a society owes its children as a place to learn, free of charge, not just the skills needed to do a job, but history and the scientific method and the works of Toni Morrison, and calculus. How to put together a newspaper or a yearbook, how to drive, how to speak a different language or use a circular saw. How to do group projects, and play on teams, and run for office. How to make friends. How to write, how to build a bridge out of balsa wood and an instrument from whatever you can find in your house and a diorama of a cell with candy and jello. The world is vast and wild and wonderful and awful and strange, but we want to bring kids together to help them understand it, and navigate it, and hopefully change it for the better.
What if we cared about all kids? What if we didn’t punish children for being different, or for the experiences of their parents. What if we committed wholeheartedly to the project of public education - the belief that kids deserve to learn about the world and their place in it with all that entails. What if there were enough teachers and counselors in every school that they could have bathroom breaks and lunch breaks and could get to know all their students. What if neither teachers nor parents had to buy school supplies. What if breakfast and lunch were free for every kid. What if instead of trying to make all kids learn the same way and test the same way and act the same way, we figured out how to learn from each kid and made a world where their uniqueness was valued and supported.
Obviously, this is more complicated than any one policy change, or anyone policy issue. It’s not just a matter of more funding or more personnel, though more of both would certainly help. It would require us to settle the central political conflict of our time: between people who want to solve problems and people who would use problems to shore up their own power by turning society against marginalized groups. And more than anything else, it requires us to win that fight.
In 2021 Governor Glenn Youngkin rode a wave of contrived outrage around schools to the governor’s mansion in Virginia by asserting that only some parents matter, and only some kids. Because Democrats still control the Senate in Virginia, he hasn’t been able to inflict as much damage as I am sure he would like. If you’d like to help contain that damage for the rest of his term, I made you a list of ways you can help in this post. But this fight is happening in every school district, in every state across the country. Whether by going to school board meetings, campaigning for progressive candidates for state legislature and Governor and city council, or by making sure fascists don’t take over the federal government, we all have an opportunity to build a world where we can all thrive.
That’s your homework, friends. Class dismissed!