In the attic of my suburban home I have this fading yellow Pee-Chee folder covered with my junior high “girl gang” graffiti.
These silly scrawls, along with a blue bandana and excessive eye makeup, represented my hapless attempt to “affiliate” and stay safe as one of a handful of white girls in an overcrowded, under-resourced, racially isolated school in Carson, California.
This school—where I did no homework, stalled out academically, cut class repeatedly and still earned straight A’s—was the first of three segregated schools I attended in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
These schools failed me as a student but changed the course of my life in immeasurable and invaluable ways. Had I stayed in that little small Connecticut town where I attended grade school, where the only black children I saw were peering out of bus windows bound for Hartford schools, I would be a very different person.
I’ve been pondering the case for integrated schools as a school reform strategy in part because of the debate inspired by the “This American Life” episode on school integration, but mostly because I never stop thinking about the racial and class divisions in my family, in my work, in my community, in my country.
Personal experience aside, I’m not here to argue that it’s a wise decision to plop wide-eyed white kids into dodgy urban schools in the spirit of social engineering. I ended up swimming, but I could have just as easily sunk, and I very nearly did. Nor do I believe that black and brown children should be forced to move to white neighborhoods and white schools because it’s their only shot at a safe, solid education.
But I do know there is something enlightening and exhilarating about being in a place where no one looks like you do and you don’t care and you don’t feel out of place.
It’s pretty clear that concentrated poverty and racial isolation in schools make it harder for students to thrive—the expectations are lower, the teaching is weaker, the resources are fewer, and it’s hard to learn when you are worried about getting your ass kicked—and yes, that experience disproportionately falls on black and brown kids.
Still, I don’t think any child thrives in racially isolated schools, not even the pampered white ones in their stultifyingly safe, highly rated suburban schools. I don’t think it prepares them to work with, learn from, worship among, befriend and love people from other races and cultures.
Had I stayed in that Connecticut town, I may have scored higher on my SATs, but I would have lived a much poorer life.
I wouldn’t have been a dama in my friend’s quinceanera.
I wouldn’t have ventured into Bedford-Stuyvesant for my first big journalism assignment in New York City.
I wouldn’t have spent an amazing year embedded in one of Chicago’s worst high schools, or found it funny that every kid there called me “Mrs. Parker” because she was the other white lady at the school.
I wouldn’t feel so uninhibited speaking rusty Spanish to Colombian grandmas on local busetas.
I wouldn’t be living in my intentionally diverse community with my African-American husband (of 25 years) and sending my biracial daughters to its integrated schools, where I join my suburban Chicago neighbors in our loud laments over achievement gaps, microaggressions and high taxes.
I know integrated schools are not the magic bullet, but I wish they were. They provide children with a powerful inoculation against racial cluelessness, the kind that in adulthood too often metastasizes into isolation, ignorance and fear.