Sometimes it is really hard to be a Liberal. Lately, some of my doggedly-held values around social justice and being part of a diverse community have been challenged. I am learning that when you become responsible for sending a small person out into the world, it can lend a highly specific perspective to what were previously only abstract concepts. I am not particularly comfortable with some of what I am discovering about myself but I think it is important to ponder. So my husband and I have just hopped on the loopy carnival ride that is securing an education for a child in New York City. While clearly this process is mystifying in many urban centers, NYC has a famously complex network of public neighborhood schools that are either failing miserably or so successful, such bright spots in a dreary oblivion, that people buy and sell apartments, use the address of a deceased relative, beg, borrow, steal, WHATEVER IT TAKES to gain entry. And even then, they are not guaranteed a slot in the local school because of overcrowding or their kid may end up in a kindergarten class “annex” in a bodega around the corner.
I would like to state for the record, that our child just turned 1 and so in this moment our focus is on preschool, which doesn’t happen for another full year and yet somehow requires our urgent attention. I feel whiplash, like I just recovered from having an infant and I haven’t had time to put my purse down before we are off to research schools. There is pressure where we live to tour preschools, apply and get on the waiting lists NOW, even though because of a late December birthday, our daughter won’t even be eligible for preschool until 2014. As an aside, our day care of preference (if we had chosen the day care route or would want that to bridge our daughter until preschool) has a 1-1.5 year long waiting list and the people we know whose kids go there now had the good sense to apply when they were newly pregnant. And they still waited. And oh by the way, you tour, interview and apply to these places that you then have the privilege of paying for. . . the amount of money varies from modest rent to modest salary.
Now that we are in this process, we are naturally having to look at our daughter’s future options for school where we live. Our values dictate that our child will go to public school. I was educated in an excellent public school system in California and I grew up with this idea that you build community and strengthen local schools by participating in them. Even if we had the money, private school was not a value of ours. My husband went to private school because there was no appropriate public option where he lived and he came out of that experience enriched, but feeling like he wanted something different, something more inclusive, for his children.
Diversity is a buzzword, but it also means something to us. We live in New York and in Brooklyn, specifically, because we want to live among a wide range of cultures, races, ethnicities, walks of life and we want this for our daughter, as well. But the fact is that we live in a “burgeoning” neighborhood in Brooklyn that has mostly deficient, even sometimes dangerous public schools.
The de facto segregation that the school struggle creates here is widely known and continues unabated and we are likely on our way to contributing to it. What happens in our community is that the poor children (almost exclusively of color) go to these lacking public schools in the neighborhood and get an inadequate start right out of the gate. There are also charter schools with limited spaces (also a much-talked-about phenomenon) and these schools are not a panacea. Charter schools are controversial in a number of ways (Do they really educate kids better? Are they creating their own form of urban flight? Are they bad for the neighborhood schools that the children “abandon?”).
We live in a building that is like an island in our neighborhood. It is full of upper-middle class folks who moved in when this warehouse building was converted to loft condos 7 years ago. This is the story of so many historic ghettos in Brooklyn. The affluent people get pushed out of Manhattan and/or choose a different lifestyle and begin changing the face of the neighborhood. We see the seeds of inequality every day, right outside our door. Across the street from our island, we have a poorly-rated and, at times, unsafe public school. In our entire district, there are maybe 1-2 schools that we would consider, none of which are near us and all of which would all require an exceptional process if we were to apply.
What most people on our island do is game the system in some way: they apply to schools using a different address; they happen to know someone somewhere; they apply to a million places outside the district and are willing to wait until August to get a “yes” if the school has space; they have their child tested for “gifted and talented” status and ship them off to a school with a program, etc. All of this is not only exhausting it has the effect of landing like-people in like-places. Here we are, priding ourselves on living our diverse experience and we will almost certainly usher our kid toward a school or a classroom where she will be surrounded by kids that are almost exactly like her in most ways. We will recreate the island and we don’t feel we have any choice about it.
I have begun to call into question what I mean when I say I value diversity. It is easy to say this academically, and it is quite another to live in a neighborhood where there are shots fired 25 feet behind you when you are 8 months pregnant. It is easy to say that you want your child to be exposed to every kind of experience until you watch the kids from the local school hang out just steps from the entrance, in broad daylight, smoking weed and let’s just say “talking disrespectfully” about women. It is easy to say that you love the many threads of our beautiful fabric until you feel so intimidated by the guys on the corner that you walk the long way, and then cross in front of the police station, to get to the subway. Of course, these experiences are not reflective of the entire character of the neighborhood, but they are an undeniable fact of the culture here. I want to believe that people of every background can be truly integrated, but sometimes I feel like we all just end up living parallel lives within the same space.
We sat in a classroom with 60+ other parents on Monday to begin the tour of our desired preschool FOR 2014. I looked around the room and saw lots of hues, heard a few different languages, noticed some non-traditional parents and felt a little better about myself. Of course if you pay attention for long in a situation like that, you start to realize that everyone is talking to their children in the same way, using the same phrases, asking the same questions, carrying similar gear, coming to and from similar jobs. It seems like this level of diversity will have to do for now until I can come up with a way to feel more “of” our neighborhood. And so (if we get in!), we will travel back and forth from one island to another with our daughter and hope that the trip along the way becomes smoother sailing.