Seven miles here covers three school district boundaries, each distinct. I’ve been thinking a lot about that number lately, as I’ve taken up moonlighting as a substitute teacher. (Writing doesn’t pay the bills and patrons are hard to find — call me if you know a guy.) As a sub, I’m a casual observer and active participant in a day with a bunch of different kids and professionals. I love these people. And it’s obvious: going inside schools matters.
I wanna tell you why. But first, two disclaimers.
One: I will not name schools or teachers or give away distinguishing characteristics. Why? Because observations only tell a tiny fraction of the whole, complicated story. What I can share isn’t enough for a CliffNote. While all the things are true to my very limited observations, this is important: it’s just my limited observations. It’s my hope that these would lead us adults to wonder about our cities’ own public schools. Maybe these questions I have would encourage someone or a group of people to begin their own relationships right where they already are. And if their district is one of privilege, that someone might do a 360 and observe which districts nearby aren’t privileged in the same way. And ask why. And then act.
Please remember that each observation is inextricably bound to a whole history of racism, poverty, school choice, bad funding, poor policies, and other things that aren’t staff or teachers’ makings. Observations include real kids, right now. These kids’ educations will become their stories, not mine. Their experiences are teaching them what their neighbors, their cities, their cities’ neighbors, their politicians, their states and districts all believe about kids, education, and them personally. Mercy.
But we gotta talk about this seven-miles thing.
Let’s start our trip on the west side of this illustration. Over here is a building with a class of early learners, most learning to write their names and make letter sounds and break apart numbers using ten-frames. One classroom has a very sweet foster grandparent who volunteers a few hours every day. They have tablets, even, donated by a local business; a church nearby partners for donations and tutors. Learning happens there.
So what’s missing? A bookshelf. Books to read for fun. Pencils and paper and markers and crayons. A paraprofessional or aide in the room for support for kids who need extra help. A clear positive behavioral intervention and supports system — big fancy words for, among other things, “catching kids for being good.” And — this sounds small and nit-picky, but the luxury of colors: a rug with the alphabet on it; posters or kids’ artwork on the walls. Oh, for construction paper pictures: God, teach us pride of place and of people.
After the bell rang that mid-afternoon, I wondered: what story will the kids tell about their schools when they’ve grown?
Let’s fly to the other side of these seven miles. Over here is another elementary in another district whose children made animals from clay to be fired in the school’s kiln, then glazed. A music room with real instruments. Hallways with kids’ artwork and welcoming signs, including one boasting its status as an award-winning school. Teachers’ assistants in every class.
What’s missing: Diversity.
When the bell rang in this building, I got in my car and drove away, my mind whirring with questions: how much easier was that job? How can schools be so inconsistent in just seven miles?
In between those seven miles were other schools, too, who have a mixture of haves- and have-nots of both of the polar opposites. Most fall in the middle. I’d love to tie up the experiences I’ve had so far with a simple, bland, Christianese phrase like, “all kids are the same and everywhere I go I am filled with love for them.” It’s much more complicated. I (and more so for actual classroom teachers every day) meet each child where they are, no matter what kind of day they’re having, what’s waiting for them after school. I love public-school people, staff and students. But I see how little that love means when there aren’t enough damn crayons. We can do better, right?
These schools belong to you and me. Is your local school like the first or the second in this illustration? Would the schools say they felt love coming from their community? Do you know? Does that school in your neighborhood or the ones in your city feel like yours? How are you living that out?
I’m not advocating for a mass crayon or pencil drop in the office of your local school. That’s a nice beginning, maybe (let’s not assume we know what schools need). If donating something gets us into the buildings in our neighborhoods, that’s a connection worth making. But … can we take it another step? Do we know anyone there? Are our churches in relationships with these schools? Does its Parent-Teacher Organization need cash? Volunteers?
I’m simply growing annoyed at asking, “it’s just seven miles. How are they so different?” I mean, I know how: I know funding mechanisms and school choice. But are we OK with this? Am I? What will these kids think when they’re adults? Do we care?
And, one last thing: maybe most importantly … Just as the intellectual constructs and stereotypes of “immigrants” or “the gay community” changes when we actually know an immigrant or a gay couple, maybe this can change too. “Public schools” has to become personal. And specific. And the consequences that much more tangible.
So. What’s next?