Monday, November 24, 2014

Why We Left Our Neighborhood School

In her WBEZ Curious City article "Why So Few White Kids Land in CPS* - And Why It Matters" , Natalie Moore seeks to find out why most white students fly off to private and parochial schools, while only a small percentage touch down among the brown majority educated by Chicago Public Schools.   

I wish she had looked harder for her answers.  

In never seriously examining the perspective of a family who rejected CPS based on class sizes, programming, or because they just wanted more for their children, the piece promotes the idea that school segregation is primarily a result of white families not wanting their children going to school with "those" kids, and thereby browning CPS.  To me, "Why So Few White Kids. . ." lends itself to shaming parents who refuse public schools.  And it's not only white parents who avoid CPS.  There are plenty of African-American parents who reject their neighborhood public school, for reasons that are just as complicated as their white counterparts if not more so.  

African-American parents like me.  

We moved to Hyde Park over nine years ago.  As a mixed race couple -- my husband is white -- we loved its diversity and village-y feel.  We knew we'd be starting a family in the near future, and bought our home so that the then leading public elementary in town, Ray, would be our neighborhood school. We loved the idea that our children would attend school with children from varying socio-economic groups, with different color skin, who spoke different languages at home, whose parents were gay or lesbian -- you name it.  "Difference" would be the norm, and they'd receive a quality education.

However, by the time our older child was ready for kindergarten last year, the school had changed. The principal who presided over the school's most recent grand era retired, and the following administrations were plagued by dissent and scandal.  Furthermore, with the wave of school closures, Grades 7 and 8 were added, destabilizing a school that felt comfortably young.  The shiny school on which we had pinned our hopes was tarnished.

We had sent both our children to intimate, nurturing preschools with inquiry-based, child-centered curricula, and a low student-to-teacher ratio. But these schools were costly, and wanting a tuition break, we decided to give public school a try.  Our son, Mr. R, didn't test into any selective enrollment schools, and as far as the lottery-based schools went, we didn't stand a chance.  Our high lottery numbers were pointing their fingers and laughing at us.  

So Ray it was.  After all, we had many trusted neighbors and friends -- loving and intelligent families -- who sent their children there.  With their vote of confidence, it had to be good. 

We talked with many parents to get the lowdown.  We were warned about large class sizes, sometimes stressful homework, and bullying incidents -- daunting, but nothing out of the ordinary.  Still, each family reported that their children were learning -- thriving even.  They had wonderful teachers and had formed solid friendships, which, really, was all you could want.  And bonus, it was a community school.  

We exhaled and moved forward.

But on the first day of school Mr. R came home and told me about how a boy was pushing other kids during movement, and he asked the boy to stop.  The boy got in his face and used words that included "niggas" and "asses," words we do not use in our home. To boot, Mr. R reported the incident to the teacher who was a special, not his classroom teacher, and was met with, "Go sit down, you’re fine," or something similar.

I emailed the classroom teacher the next day, who said, understandably, that she could not get involved because she hadn’t been there. If she stepped in, it would turn into a he said/he said situation.  It didn't help that since it was only the first day, Mr. R could identify neither the boy, nor the teacher.

Incidents like this became fairly regular. To be fair, these things happened when he was away from his classroom teacher. When he was one child among the 70 plus supervised by three adult staff members at lunch and/or recess.


At home, Mr. R. was an anxious, frenetic mess.  He began using the bathroom every 10-15 minutes.  

By the Friday of the third week, enough was enough. I found a bruise on the side of Mr. R’s hip one night as he was getting ready for bed.  He had been thrown off a rocking horse on the playground.  But that wasn't all.  "I have a bump on my head," Mr. R confessed, rubbing above his ear.  Apparently an older child had told him to close his eyes and run. "Why did you?" I asked.  Mr. R didn't know why, but he did, and wound up running into a pole.  Once again he found himself crying and reporting to the aide in charge.  He had identified the culprit, but the boy had denied it and had run off laughing.  

We were done. Earlier in the week, Hubs had called the local Catholic school, the one we had originally written off due to cost and the fact that we aren't religious. However, there was no way we could continue to send our son to a school where he was being hurt, received no comfort and witnessed no establishment of accountability.  No matter how much I appreciated his teacher, who was both kind and competent, I couldn't send my son to a place where once he was out of the classroom, the adults didn’t seem to care about him.  That was simply unacceptable – a deal breaker. 

The next Monday we sent Mr. R to school, while we finalized registration at our local Catholic School.  Just to make sure we weren't making a rash decision, I decided to check out recess at Ray for myself.  Three adults stood stationed around the perimeter of the unfenced playlot, while hordes of children played.  And then, I noticed the behavior that drove me to march on over to that Catholic school and sign my son right up: three boys peeing in the open, plain as day.  The adults in charge didn’t notice a thing.

The next day, Mr. R was a Catholic school student.  

Even though I did discuss the hard time Mr. R was having at school with our neighbors, I felt awkward about telling them that we were pulling him. I knew it would raise the question of "Why isn't it good enough for you?" With some of them, but not all, I mentioned the elephant in the room.  My immediate neighbors were all white.  Their children weren't subject to the same social pressures mine was.  Surely my son would have to develop the ability to "hang," navigating the line between "proper" and "street." But not like this, and not when he wasn’t even six years old.  

Even though he was in a diverse environment, I feared what staying there could have done to my son. Mr. R was absorbing some devastating ideas about race because, heartbreakingly, it was African-American boys who were treating him so badly and whom he observed making such poor choices.  Mr. R was trying to have fun and fit in, but was unsure what to do when things became too rough.  Without proper adult mediation, how long before Mr. R began fighting to defend himself, and was then lumped in with the troublemakers?  His brown skin made that label too easy to come by and too difficult to shed.  We couldn’t take that risk.

We've been happy since we left CPS.  Mr. R is in a diverse environment where there is both care and rigor. We realize that we were unlucky – Ray meets the needs of many families beautifully, but it was a terrible fit for Mr. R.  Are there other CPS schools that would meet his needs now, or possibly in the future?  

Probably so.  

Do we still believe in and support public education?


We wanted to love our neighborhood school. But like many parents from varying backgrounds, why would we sacrifice our child at the altar of public school, when we have the resources and the wherewithal to do otherwise?  And should we really be expected to? 

Chicago's racially polarized public school landscape is broken, and must be analyzed and overhauled.  Surely, some of this segregation is the result of racist and elitist white flight. But instead of guilting parents for school segregation, let's look at why parents reject CPS. Let's have a look at the deeply complex issues involved, and realize that at the beating heart of school choice is parents' fierce love for their children.  

*- In this article, CPS stands for Chicago Public Schools, NOT Child Protective Services. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Why I Celebrate My Kids' Half Birthdays

When we tell people we celebrate our kids’ half birthdays, they say “What the @#$& is wrong with you?”

They don’t, but they don’t have to -- I can see it in their EYES.

My kids are exactly eighteen months apart to the day.  Which means that one child's birthday is the other child's half birthday. Pretty cool, huh?  

Actually, it’s become a monster. It was supposed to be a sweet way to acknowledge both children, but has morphed into an indulgent mess of 21st century over-parenting.  A habit that breaking, like pacifiers and rubbing backs at bedtime, is like trying to stop an avalanche with a teaspoon.

Our little snowball started when my son came to the hospital to meet his baby sister. We hoped and prayed that instead of feeling betrayed, Mr. R would walk into the room, gaze lovingly upon his sibling, and feel complete.  

But when he walked into the room and saw me breastfeeding Lady A, a look of confusion and despair took over his sweet little face.  "Who the hell is this, and why is it sucking on my mom?" his wide eyes and frown asked. He immediately tried to hoist himself up on the hospital bed to sit on top of me. And his sister.  

As a peace offering, we whipped out some presents for Mr. R. 

Six months later, when Mr. R turned two, he had a party at home.  Lady A got a gift or two, not so she'd feel acknowledged – she was six months old for Pete’s sake -- but so we'd feel like we acknowledged her.  

But then it happened.  Lady A turned one, and it killed her brother that his sister was in the spotlight.  He was pissed OFF to see the house decorated for her little party.  He wanted to help her blow out the candles. The few presents he got were not enough. 

That should have been our cue to put the kibosh on this half-birthday crap, but no-o-o.  We were only children, and wanted each child to feel equally special, even if that child acted like a total brat.  Instead of the “we love you just because” kid feeling happy to get anything, it made him less respectful of, and just as entitled as, the top dog, ready to pull a Tonya Harding at the first opportunity.     

Call us criminals, but we love to go whole hog on birthdays, especially the kids’.  We live vicariously through their happiness – satisfying the needs that as an adult are so hard to fill.  It is a real kick in the ass to see envy and disappointment – suffering on the part of one kid, when we’ve worked so hard to make them both feel treasured to the endth degree. 

And we keep trying, when we should probably stop.

The thing is, life has a way of teaching us that we are not, in fact, that special. That’s why childhood is such a treasured and unique time in our lives.  Similar to Santa Claus and company, one day we will explain why we celebrated half-birthdays when the ritual is a thing of the past. 

Someday, I know my kids will celebrate their sibling’s birthday, remember a lovely tradition, and wonder what the hell they had to complain about. 

They better.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

50 Reasons We Moms Deserve An Award

I was born in the 1970s.   

The early 1970s, which today seems positively medieval.    

We got spankings. Hours upon hours of the day went by with out a single children's television program on the air.   

And if you sucked at something, not only did you not get a trophy, but your teacher, or your coach, or maybe even your mom told you so. Told you so and then told you that you were a big girl and needed to stop all that ridiculous crying. 

As for "just showing up," that was what you were supposed to do, and you weren't going to get any goddamn award for it.   

But now, looking at these coddled millennials, not to mention my own brats cherubs, I feel cheated.   

I want to be not only acknowledged, but actively celebrated, for all the mundane and dutiful shit we moms do. Every. Day.   I mean, come on people, don't these things deserve some recognition?

1.      We took two kids trick-or-treating. When it was 40-degrees, gale-force winds and SLEETING.
2.      We eat their Halloween candy in moderation. That’s why it’s still here!
3.      When a few pieces of candy turned our kids into a couple of rioting prisoners, we reacted calmly instead of screaming.
4.      We cobble together great, healthy dinners with stuff we have in our pantry.
5.      When our house looks like a crime scene, we at least try to remain loving and kind, before screaming, “Do I look like the maid to you?!!”
6.      We managed to take twenty-minute nap today. With one kid at home.
7.      We remembered to order the kids new snow boots. Before the first major snow!
8.      We turned off the TV/iPad/X-box when we said we would.
9.      We exercised today by involving our kids. Sure, we only burned off three tic-tacs, but how our effort was completely magazine-worthy!
10.         We tried a new recipe, and everyone asked for seconds!
11.         We arranged a playdate with that girl our daughter loves, the one whose mother is a huge "rhymes with glitch."
12.         We grit our teeth and left the house with our daughter in an outfit so garish our ego is bruised and our eyes are practically bleeding.
13.         We got off Facebook and played with our children. And then got back on when they stopped playing fair.
14.         We cleaned the fridge. And only bitched about it a little.
15.         We finally downloaded all those photos onto the computer.
16.         We put our phone/keys/wallet in the right place.
17.         We left enough time to get where we needed to go.
18.         We packed enough food for everyone. Including ourselves.
19.         We remembered to ask them to go to the bathroom, before getting on the road.
20.         We had some alone time.
21.         We trusted our gut, and got them out of harm's way. FAST.
22.         We let them cook/clean with us, even though it made that ten-minute task take 90.
23.         We remembered to call Great Aunt So-and-so.
24.         We answered with a firm "no," and put it out of our head.
25.         We finally read that book.
26.         We found "him" on Facebook, and realized he isn't, and probably never    really was, all that and a bag of chips.
27.         We stopped complaining to your friend and did something about whatever "it" is.
28.         We went to bed early for once.
29.         And woke up ready to take on the world.
30.         We drank more water than yesterday.
31.         We wrote.
32.         We meditated.
33.         We paid bills.
34.         We saved money.
35.         We let it go (and didn’t even think about the song).
36.         We checked several items off our to-do list.
37.         We spoke our mind.
38.         We brought more whole foods into our diet, bonus for not spending your whole paycheck at the store of the same name.
39.         You learned something new.
40.         We got rid of stuff we don't wear anymore, bringing our closet out of 1999 and up to maybe 2010.
41.         We forgave.
42.         We danced, just because.
43.         We stopped caring so much about what everyone else thinks.
44.         We finally cleaned out the fridge and cabinets.
45.         We walked there instead.
46.         We ordered it on the side. And used it sparingly.
47.         We went on a date.
48.         We got organized.
49.         We sent a thank you.
50.         We realized we don’t have to be perfect to be amazing.

Now it's your turn!

Why do you deserve an award?

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