Why our family struggles with Schools of Choice

Just about every weekday morning, I drive 12 minutes south to an elementary school in a Lansing suburb. All my girls attend this year: it’s a K-4 public school. We love that place: the teachers and staff are warm and friendly, art class rocks, the field trips are fantastic, the principal welcomes kids by name as they unload from the drop-off line.

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Consequences of a commute to school (that’s not carsickness, I promise)

The sounds of the neighbor’s air conditioner, a cardinal’s cry, and a big yellow bus’s “pfssht” all congeal in my last-minute dreams during those minutes just before I have to get out of bed. Those sounds are native to Alpha Street at 7 o’clock on any weekday.  

Our windows are open, the blinds are up. From our bed under the window sill, I prop my chin on the pillow to watch the world awaken. The bus turn on its flashing lights to stop. Neighbors start cars, dogs bark. A minute later, I abandon my post to brush my teeth in our attic bedroom’s half-bath.

Usually, I think about my kids sleeping downstairs. How they were supposed to be on that particular bus; how the Lansing school district assigned them to that route as late as last month. How I put that letter in the recycling bin.

That letter was our latest “Instead.”

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The kids are always all right

“I don’t think I can make it,” my four-year-old said, perched aside a steep sand dune. The sand was soft and our feet dug into the mini-mountain in an effort to cleave, lest we fall to our deaths.

“Lou, we’re literally at the top.”

It was true. I stood not three feet above where she sat, red-faced and in her bathing suit. Two more steps and she’d be there with me, looking at what I saw: blue sky, such blue sky, and hills, mountains of sand. Miles and miles of dunes. I turned around and caught a view for the first time.

All I could muster was a breathy “Wow.”

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On becoming — namely, their becomings

 

My kryptonite: anything to do with the last days of school. The pictures in front of the school. The teachers getting teary; kids doing the silent cry in the parking lot, their used-up workbooks clutched to their chests. Teachers and kids doing a spirit tunnel-clap-out thing for the classes to the song “Celebrate (Good Times),” which I hate 364 3/4 days of the year. Graduation parties for kindergartners, a group of 25 children at an age generally best left to the professionals.

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Kindergarten graduation: toxic levels of cuteness.

The looming reality of spending weeks upon weeks with siblings who scream at each other that “I’m ignoring you until YOU DIE.” At 7:30 a.m.

Gets me every time.

How the kids have grown and what they’ve learned is evident. Evidence of my own change is only obvious in that vaguely older countenance and all the miles put on the car shuttling them to their out-of-district school.

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Wonder upon wonder; wonder after wonder

This semester, Mrs. H’s sixth-graders at Mt. Hope School in Lansing are “doing journalism” with me. While I’m volunteering there twice a month, I’ll be helping them form story ideas, learn to ask good questions, and write a story about the world around them.

The first day of our lesson, I turned the corner from the folk-tale lessons we did this winter. The two topics aren’t totally unrelated. A lot of information’s conveyed in a newspaper or storybook: what the writer values, what the culture considers important. The difference in reciting The Little Red Hen or writing about cafeteria fare is simply enabling a student to investigate what’s important to them.

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Like when I was an editor at a daily paper in Wisconsin, all good stories begin with some wondering. Any sentence that begins with “I wonder” is fair game — it’s like pitching a dozen story ideas to an editor and letting her choose the best one. 

“I’ll be your editor. So, what do you wonder about?” I waited. No one bit. “OK, I’ll start: I wonder how long some of the teachers at this school have been teaching. I wonder how the district can keep up with old school buildings.” Hands started going up. “Yes! What do you wonder about?”

“I wonder why cafeteria food is so bad,” someone said.

Another: “I wonder why this school building has a bomb shelter in the basement.”

“These are great. What else do you wonder?” Three-quarters of the kids’ arms shot up.

“I wonder why all the rich people live on this side of the street and all the poor people live on that side.” Oh. That got heavy fast.

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A Big Nag, a namaste, an invitation

The Big Nag began a couple months ago; January maybe?

Let me back up. One morning, I was in one of Lansing’s elementary schools on a preschool tour. Louisa’s old enough to go next year and I’m old enough to see the value in free childcare, should we get in (please, sweet baby Jesus). This particular building is a public Montessori school called Wexford. Sounds very British (it’s not). Its neighborhood is near ours; it’s full of small, tired houses and potholes. Koi swim in a small pond outside the front door.

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On our visit, the principal walked Louisa and I by another fish tank in the lobby and into a preschool/ kindergarten room. I’d braced myself to see typical preschool fare: glitter glue, blocks, someone crying. I have children; I know what this looks like.

Instead, hear me: all was quiet. Children’s bodies lay in a loose circle on a big piece of carpet. Their little eyes were closed; they inhaled and exhaled at the teacher’s yoga instruction. We watched, mesmerized (my children are never this quiet, not even in sleep). After a minute, the class returned to “pretzel legs.”

Namaste, they all said.  

“What’s that word mean?” the teacher asked.  

A boy said, “It means, I see the good in you and you see the good in me.”

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My white kids with their backpacks

Catholic grade school, mid 1990s. We were prepping for a field trip to a metro art museum: stay with your chaperone; be on your best behavior. And “When you see black people,” the teacher said to a sea of thirty white kids, “you just treat them like anyone else. Just say ‘hello’ if they say hello.”

I remember this because it was weird to me then, two years into living in the rural community. Sure, diversity in that rural area meant you might meet a Lutheran or a Baptist; someone whose ancestors disembarked at Ellis Island from England instead of Germany like so many of us with weird consonant-heavy last names painted on the sides of barns.

I want this to be a totally weird story for my kids, too. I want to someday tell my kids this story and have them go, “I can’t believe that happened.” So to do that, we’ve gotta seek to put ourselves in positions where we may or may not be the only white Christians from middle-class backgrounds in the room, right?

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This isn’t an easy thing to write about, talk about, or live out — especially with kids who right now are more concerned about their Christmas lists (already) than their perspectives on diversity.

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We’re in so deep

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She stood stoically by the brick wall, a gaggle of giggly girls to her left. “Look at my new puppy backpack!” one girl shouted over and over to last year’s classmates as they walked by. Alice didn’t move much from the line Ms. W’s class was making outside the second-grade wing before their first day this morning.

She looked at her shiny new shoes, her yellow lunchbox with bicycles on it hanging by her knees. She sniffed. Her three-year-old sister sat at my feet.

 

Around the building stood Dave with Violet, outside the kindergarten wing.

We made it; we landed outside the school building today, sputtering and wiping the water from our brows.

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