Social Lessons – an excerpt

I started writing this story a while ago, and I think it might be time for me to get back to it.  Here is an excerpt from the very beginning of this very unpolished writing fragment.  To explain: I tend to write stories from the middle out.  That habit makes for a terrible editing process, but I generally find it easier to write whatever I feel like writing at a given time.    You may have noticed in reading this blog that I skip around a fair amount and don’t ascribe to any coherent theme.  Anyway, that disorganization is inherent in me and in everything that I do.  So get ready for an extremely abrupt beginning (and the ending is quite abrupt, too, because I didn’t feel like posting the entire thing today).

In fifth grade, I switched from private to public school.  It was September of 1990, and my world completely changed.  At the private school, we had uniforms and there were a lot of rules governing our behavior.  To enforce those rules, our teachers were permitted to use corporal punishment.  I had gotten in trouble a few times and was considered something of a trouble maker—in third grade, a boy who sat next to me got upset and said, “Shit!”  The teacher took him outside to spank him, and those of the class who hadn’t witnessed the drama first-hand surrounded me to find out what was going on.  I said, “Kenny said a bad word,” just as the teacher was coming in.  She hauled me right outside and I got spanked for gossiping.  Also in third grade, I got in trouble (by the same teacher, although this time I deserved it) for starting up a business with my best friend; this business consisted of us purchasing large quantities of pixie stix at a very low price from the drive-through dairy by her house and selling them at a considerable markup to the other students in our class.  At any rate, if it’s true that we learn to view ourselves through the perspective of the adults around us, I really thought I was a hard-core trouble maker… until I went to public school.

At the public school, it was ok to use curse words.  It was ok to talk back to the teachers.  It was ok to terrorize your fellow students.  It was awful.  As an adult, now, I can look back on it with a chuckle and tell myself dispassionately that it really was quite a paradigm shift.  But if I stretch my memory back and try to recall my feelings at the time, I become swamped by the terror that accompanies an individual being thrown into a completely new set of circumstances without the least bit of warning.  Every single rule had changed, and I didn’t know what the new ones were.  At the private school, which was associated with a large church, the coolest kids were the PKs, the ministers’ sons and daughters.  The hierarchy went down from there based on the relative position of one’s parents—my dad was a deacon in the church, so I ranked below the ministers’ kids and above the kids whose dads were merely church members.  At the public school, the hierarchy of relative coolness was based first on the socioeconomic status of one’s parents and second on how adept one was at making other children feel small and worthless.

My parents weren’t poor, but they didn’t think about status or the communication of relative wealth when we did back to school shopping.  I remember that pre-fifth grade shopping trip, because we had never done back-to-school shopping before.  My mother and my aunt talked strategy weeks in advance—jeans and t-shirts were cool as were tennis shoes (never called sneakers).  Then we went to Target or K-Mart and bought a few pairs of jeans, a few pairs of shorts, and a bunch of solid-color t-shirts and got some white tennis shoes from Payless.  To my mind then (and now, frankly) jeans are jeans—if they fit properly and are comfortable, what does it matter what brand they are?—but it did matter whether you wore Jordache or Guess vs. Wrangler, Lee, or Chic (Target’s brand).  Those kids could tell at a glance whether or not your clothes had the right label, and mine did not.  To make matters worse,  I had the habit of wearing the clothes I liked regardless of how many times I had worn any particular item in that week or in that month.  I had this neon-green zip-up sweat shirt with a screen-printed stegosaurus on it that I loved immoderately, and my insistence on wearing it nearly every day did not help my social status.

There were other, behind-the-scenes factors that contributed to my total uncoolness that I didn’t discover until it was far too late to do anything about it.  The public school had a program for its smart kids called Gifted and Talented Education (GATE).  Students had to test to qualify to participate in GATE, and, at the public school, there were budget limits on the number of students from each grade who could participate in the program.  Before I attended my first day of class at the public school, I had already alienated a rather large contingent of kids; my test scores forced out one of the more popular girls from participating in the GATE program.  Being ten years old, she vowed a vendetta against me and all her friends followed her lead.  I started my first day of school with fifteen female enemies I had never met before, and not a one of them would tell me why I was so uniformly hated.  It was very confusing.

I had better luck than I deserved, and I was able to make the acquaintance of three very friendly girls who walked the same route I did to and from school.  They couldn’t make me cool, but at least they helped me to avoid getting beat up every day.

My private school offered a much more advanced education than was available at the public school.  In fifth grade, I didn’t learn new math skills; I didn’t, as a result of the curriculum, increase my reading level (it was already at the high school level anyway).  In fifth grade, I learned the meaning of the words asshole, fuck, and the completely confusing mother-fucker.  I learned that people make assumptions about you based on your appearance, and there is nothing you can do to change their minds.  I learned that friends don’t keep your secrets if your secrets are funny.  I learned that money, the smell of money, the façade of money, is more important to other people than the genuine intentions of your heart.  In short, I learned that you usually can’t trust other people and that most of them aren’t worth knowing.  I am extremely glad that I learned these lessons before I got to junior high, but sometimes I wish I could unlearn them.

Elizabeth and Hazel – a follow up with thoughts on education and race

I’m a wee bit behind on my reflections and analysis.  I took a vacation to New York City (lovely) and have been on a mental vacation ever since, perhaps recovering from my vacation, perhaps recovering from the strain of living every day.  At any rate, I haven’t been in any position to write coherently about anything.

The final meeting of my workplace book club was on March 7, and, since we had already finished discussing the book, we met to watch an HBO special, “Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later”.  The documentary was a good companion piece for the book because, rather than focusing on the picture and on the microstory of Elizabeth and Hazel, the documentary focused on Little Rock Central High, how it had changed in fifty years, and what still needs to change.  Frankly, by the end of the book, I was done with both Elizabeth and Hazel, so I welcomed the related but different subject matter.

I was able to watch only the first fifty minutes of the documentary, so I can’t comment on the entire thing, but the portion that I watched focused on the disparity between the success of desegregation and the failure of educational equality.  Central High’s racial demographic was, in 2007, approximately 60% black, 40% white.  If one looks only at that percentage, one could smugly assume that desegregation was successful, that black students won, so to speak.  There are, after all, more black students than white at Central High.  The thing is, percentages don’t really mean anything because they provide quantitative information rather than qualitative.

Here are some other figures.  In 2007, the racial demographic of remedial classes was 95% black, and the racial demographic of AP classes was 95% white.  This figure, of course, doesn’t really mean anything on its own.  One could conclude all sorts of awful things: are the black students at Central High simply unprepared, are they deficient in some way, or does it have more to do with wealth than with race?  What influence does culture have on the educational outcomes of black and white students at Central?  And (here’s a big question) do the black students at Central actually receive a better education than they would have gotten from a segregated school?

The documentary features interviews with students (white and black) and teachers (white and black, AP and remedial) and parents.  It follows students from their neighborhoods, the wealthy ones predominantly white and the poor ones predominantly black, to school.  It discusses some of the social problems that plague black students (poverty, teenage parenthood, nowhere to go, etc.) and discusses the difference between the goals and aspirations of the poor students (nearly all black) and the wealthy students.  The wealthy families presuppose success for their children, which, as with most self-fulfilling prophesies, tends to result in success for wealthy students.  Poor families tend to assume that their children will continue in a like condition, which tends to result in exactly that outcome.

Anyway, why do I care about Little Rock Central High?  I’ve never even been to Arkansas.  The thing is, when I was watching the video, I was strongly reminded of my own high school experience.  My family is not particularly wealthy, but I was privately educated through 4th grade, and my parents certainly had expectations of success for me and my sister.  When I entered the public education system in Monrovia for my 5th grade year, it was immediately evident to the educators that I was one of the smart ones, so I was whisked into the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program then in use in the district (no idea if it’s still in use).  From 5th until 8th grade, I benefited from the best teachers and the most challenging curricula.  It was natural that I would enter the honors track when I arrived at high school, and it was inevitable that I would take AP classes and go on to college.  So there you go: my entire educational trajectory was decided in Kindergarten when my parents scrimped and saved and sometimes starved in order to send us to the private school.

The other interesting little factoid relating to my educational experience: in my GATE classes in junior high, I think there were 3-4 black students, 2-3 Hispanic students, and the rest of the 30 or so students were white.  The neighborhoods from which my junior high pulled students were either predominantly white (north of Foothill Blvd) or an even mix of black and Hispanic (south of Foothill).  The Asian population was negligible in that area.  By the time I got to the high school, even though the populations of nonwhite students dramatically increased (being from the entire city rather than just the northeastern portion), I recall fewer than 5 black students overall in the honors program (9th and 10th grade) and only 1 black student in my AP classes (11th and 12th grade).  So Little Rock Central High might be really far away, but the educational outcomes from that school mirror those of Monrovia High in sunny southern California.

I don’t know what it means, really.  It’s impossible to look at recollections and form firm conclusions.  Recollections are just too nebulous.  Maybe it means that household wealth is a strong determinant in educational success.  After all, that 1 black student from my AP classes was from an extremely wealthy family.  She went on to do undergrad at Johns Hopkins and is now a lawyer.  Maybe it means that there is a combination of racial preference at an early age and household wealth.  After all, my parents were not wealthy, but I received the full benefit of the best education possible in the Monrovia school system.  Maybe, if I’d been black or Hispanic, the administrators at the public elementary school to which I transferred in 5th grade would not have noticed or recognized that I was GATE material.  Who the hell knows?

I feel extremely grateful that I received such a good education, considering what little I’ve done with it.  When I think back on all that occurred, I feel a sense of sadness and helplessness.  I would wish everyone, regardless of race or gender (or anything else), to receive a good education, to experience the freedom of knowledge and critical thought.  It saddens me that so many people are taught only to follow directions, not to think for themselves.  It is depressing that there are adults who make it through the school system without mastering literacy.  That feeling of helplessness results from the reflection that my own excellent education largely derived from my separation from all the normal folk.  By taking classes only with other smart kids, I was able to learn how to think, how to speak intelligently, how to question accepted norms.  Would I have been able to learn those things if education were more egalitarian?  Does that make me a terrible hypocrite for wanting other people to have had a similar opportunity but not at the cost of my precious educational elitism?  It may be that there is no answer to that question.