Discover more from the examined family
When joy is the center of a school community
a reflection on why heterogeneity is such an A+
If you’re new here, head over to the Introductions post and tell us about yourself! This is an amazing, global, justice-loving, capable-of-nuance, community.
Examined Family is written by a 43-year-old, Enneagram 2, mother of two, believer in the power of 3s, who will never leave you alone on the dance floor no matter what. If you subscribe already, you know all this. And thank you! If you don’t, now’s a great time.
When we were deciding where to send our oldest daughter to school in 2014, we weighed many pros and cons of the neighborhood public school. We are White and it is majority Black, with about a quarter newcomers to this country (immigrants from Eritrea and Mexico and Iraq). Our household income is far above the city’s median; 75% of kids at the school are on free and reduced lunch. Almost none of our friends in the neighborhood—White and/or Asian-American families—were sending their kid there. It was a 1 out of 10 on GreatSchools.org.
Among many other things that reassured me that it was the right decision to send Maya there despite our demographic differences and the worrisome rating, was a simple hunch: being in community at this school would be joyful.
Culture can be such a slippery thing—hard to write about, pin down, define, particularly for White people who are used to White-majority spaces. I went to a White-majority public school. The culture there was comprised of the things that White parents, White moms in particular, thought were wholesome and fun and worthwhile. I remember a “bicycle rodeo” in second grade where parents drew chalk outlines of exactly where we could ride our bikes around the blacktop playground. I remember barely tolerable “recorder” concerts organized by our Type A music teacher and something we called “openings”—which were little scripted plays we performed for the whole school. My brother was Picasso once. I was a scientist in a white lab coat warning people about chloroflorocarbon in the atmosphere.
It’s not that this wasn’t fun. It was all I knew at the time. But looking back, having now experienced a different kind of elementary school community, I’m struck at how scripted it all was, how reflective of the adults’ control and comfort and interests.
I can see that now—the water I swam in at 9 and 10 and 11 years old—because I’ve had deep, sustained experiences of something else now. A different water.
At my kids’ elementary school, the best day of the year is the Black History Month performance, where each classroom does a group dance or recites an original poem, or a variety of other things, created by them. We don’t celebrate holidays like Halloween or Valentine’s in the classrooms, because there are so many different families with different relationships to these traditions (in some case, none at all); this means no frenzied cutting of pink construction paper at 2am, which suits me just fine.
Last Saturday was a very quintessential case in point. Maya, now a rising 4th grader, has been looking forward to the Legacy Festival for months. She spoke wide eyed at dinner about all of the things that would happen there. I could piece at least this much together: It was the culminating event for a hip hop curriculum they’d been learning. Eventually I texted her teacher to confirm the date and time, because I could tell this was a go-or-die situation for Maya and I wanted to protect it on our calendar. She confirmed.
Culture, it turns out, is also defined by what doesn’t happen. No one asked me to volunteer at this festival. No one sent home a complicated communication about what we should expect. No one outlined the opportunities for our children and encouraged us to select which activity our kid would be a part of and help prepare them for the big day. It was vague, exciting, kid-communicated, like so many of the best things that come out of our experience at school these days.
When the big day arrived, we navigated to an industrial part of Oakland and wandered into a warehouse-type space that was starting to fill up with families from five different schools. I ran into a dear friend that I had no idea would be there and Maya got to give her 3rd grade teacher a giant hug.
There was a fashion show, that sort of looked like kids just wearing their usual clothes, but strutting and speed-walking down an aisle while we all screamed our adoration. There was lots of call-and-response rapping, choreographed dancing that was damn good, and one little girl, who couldn’t have been more than 7-years-old, who sang a devastating R&B ballad about lost love all by herself, slightly off-key. It was perfect.
There was a “marketplace” where kids could sell things. Maya and her best friend sold flimsy bookmarks that Maya had spent weeks coloring with markers and keychains—rainbow letters and hearts covered in contact paper. I had no idea what it had to do with hip hop, but someone explained to me that the point was entrepreneurial spirit. And in fact, there was so much of that. Kids—9, 10, 11 years old—selling Perler bead creations and slime and lollipops advertised as “the best watermelon lollipops on Planet Earth.”
So what if there was a bit of hyperbole? Hyperbole is hip hop, too. The prices were refreshingly low—$1 at the most—and the kids bartered with one another and marveled at each other’s creations, and there wasn’t one “science fair” parent at a table—you know, the kind who do the project, but pass it off as their kid’s?
The bounce house was beautiful chaos. No adult supervised. “That sounds dangerous,” I said.
“Not really. Only one kid got hurt and it was only because someone stepped on his hand,” said Maya. And I believed her.
Kids were playing chess, rotating their hips inside sparkling hula hoops, and painting a giant wooden board together outside under the Oakland sun. A dad we know and love came solo with all four of his kids so I stole his baby and she fell asleep in my arms.
The shrimp Jamaican patties sold out, but there were plenty of beef and chicken as the hours wore on. A local Black entrepreneur sold 75 pounds of french fries in a few hours. When he started to run out, everyone in line agreed to ration how many we ordered so that more families could have access. As he tossed yet another steaming batch in a giant, aluminum bowl, as graceful as a dancer, I overheard him tell someone they were “Belgian style with Black seasoning.”
Stella, my 6-year-old, saw her 5th grade buddy from school—Toot—and ran into her arms. Toot and her friends made an escape room, which in fact amounted to walking through a tunnel and answering five questions. It was also perfect.
I feel like I’ve escaped something, too—7+ years of adult-centered, volunteer-intensive, highly-organized, fundraising-oriented, email-heavy, competitive community life. And it didn’t take a million clues to do so. It just took seeing through the bullshit that the only school communities worth being a part of are the ones that score well on GreatSchools.org, have preposterous demand rates, and are economically, racially, and religiously homogenous.
As another school year ends, despite all the ups and downs of a 7-day strike and funding woes, it’s the joy that feels most palpable. Stella running into Toot’s arms. A little girl strutting down the makeshift runway in a tie. Maya complimenting the girl next to her on her “super cute” light-up cloud invention. I’m so lucky to be a part of their world.