I’m not an expert on public education reform; I’m just a mother who recently visited a private school and saw, for the first time, the kind of education money can buy. I suddenly empathized with the mother on a 2008 episode of Oprah who broke down in tears when she toured the public school on the outskirts of Chicago. She wept for all of the privileges her own children had missed in what Jonathan Kozol calls an “American Apartheid” in which public schools are (under)funded by neighborhood taxes and those who literally step out of their place are criminalized. The mother wept as she stared at the high ceiling of the state-of-the-art gym, shoulders drooping like a defeated Cinderella anticipating the bell’s toll. I imagine that her tears were bitter with justifiable rage.
I felt something more than anger; it was a dull but painful resignation. I knew that, if granted the opportunity, I would gladly enroll my daughter in this school and bury my dreams of advocacy-within-the-walls beneath a stack of tuition receipts. I felt guilty. If the Oprah guest’s bitter tears were like fresh bullet wounds that invite sympathy and incite action, my own resigned awe was like a paper cut, albeit deep. No blood, no bother. If the Oprah guest’s song was Fantasia’s “I’m Here,” my song was Beyonce’s “Pretty Hurts.” I got the sense that guilt was the easiest, and most selfish, way to deal with my anticipated privilege. If I had cried on that visit, my tears would have tasted like candy—the expensive kind.
This expensive school was full of oxymoron: the brilliant kid who was unstressed about competition; the rested and smiling, veteran teacher; the principal who longed to get back into the classroom; the unabashed socialist teacher, who experienced cultural marginalization as an opportunity to teach curious students. It was like the first time that Shug Avery helped Celie find her love button. My imagination was stretched; I could no longer accept what Mr. _________ was putting down without knowing that there was a better time to be had at the tip of my fingers.
My commitment to public education notwithstanding, I cannot enroll my daughter in a school with six periods a day. I have seen sustainability and I can’t put her in a place conducive to burnout. I have seen a socially conscious teacher whose shoulders weren’t tense—who wasn’t carrying the weight of people’s lives home with her every day. For conscious teachers of color, the worst thing that could happen in a failed private school year is that the students leave the classroom with their Whiteness fully intact, convinced that their angry Black woman teacher is getting paid to play the victim and impose her beliefs on them. But when a conscious, Black teacher feels faces the year’s end at an under-funded public school, she may end the year knowing that her disengaged students probably had problems larger than they could handle; she may fear (though statistics tell a different story) that her “failures” in pedagogy are the reasons that her students are this much closer to the school-to-prison pipeline. That the court of public opinion would reinforce such fears is just one injustice of this country’s educational system.
Ironically, the students at the private school I visited were studying The Things They Carried. The narrator was a Vietnam veteran who struggled to tell a “true” war story, all the while discovering that trauma renders truth inarticulate. As a young man, he’d served with people who literally couldn’t see the forest for the trees; soldiers who knew they’d been dealt shitty cards, but were unable to direct their anger in productive ways. To read The Things They Carried is to understand how some unprepared teachers continue to experience public education as warzones in which the fiction of “us vs. them” is necessary for survival. To read that novel is to understand the privilege (and responsibility) of those like myself who never answered the call to cross the water.
From our vantage point, the shore is distant and American imperialism is an abstract inconvenience to people we’ve never met. Perhaps our sights are better set on the expansive skies, where the hands of the puppet masters are hidden in plain view.
Asha French is a writer and mother living in Atlanta. She tweets: @afrenchwriter