In all my courses, I really have to teach the basic message of my life…that the rewards, the satisfactions, are not in being partner or making a million dollars, but in recognizing evils, recognizing injustices and standing up and speaking out about them even in absolutely losing situations where you know it’s not going to bring about any change – that there are intangible rewards to the spirit that make that worthwhile.”
–Derrick Bell, law professor, activist, author
Recently you interviewed me for a Policy class (in college, how did that happen?) about why we left Brooklyn behind and moved to this side of the Hudson. We had a good talk about segregated schools and my deeply held beliefs about integration and educational equity. I always am impressed by how much you’ve grasped of these complex issues from an early age, not that you had any choice given the unusual circumstances of your initial school years. But you also bring me back to more grounded facts. Didn’t we also move here to have a HOUSE and a YARD? Yes, of course, that too: for the tangible joy of a big yard and the freedom it afforded you and your brother to be your rambunctious energetic selves.
But there’s more to the story that you weren’t privy to, given your young age. And much that you recall in broad strokes that I remember with a finer brush: the details and texture that made it such a rich and wonderful time, and the bittersweet denouement, saying goodbye to the apartment with a view of Manhattan and the neighbors who had become dear friends and the special relationships built with the cashiers at the Met and the guy who sold Jamaican patties and the barbers at Benoit’s who had been greeting you since before you could walk.
Goodbye to the subway down the block and the park up the street and the public library that was such a welcoming haven, except that time your brother accidentally set off the fire alarm and the place had to be evacuated… Goodbye to all the breakfasts at the dueling Dominican coffee shops on either side of Flatbush Avenue (we called them big Castillo and little Castillo)
Goodbye most of all to PS 9, your school for 3 years, a major part of our life, which embodied – in its glorious reality and its disreputable reputation – all the good, the bad and ugly that left me in the end saying that Brooklyn broke my heart.
The presumed impetus for the move from city to suburb: “white flight,” is a long outdated cliche, given current demographics and economic climate. I cringe every time I hear Trump talk about the dark, dangerous inner-cities– both the racism underlying his vision, and its utter inaccuracy given the new economy that has made New York (and San Francisco and other cities across the country) increasingly white, affluent, and unaffordable to those like us with modest means, and more importantly, the communities of color who have for generations found their neighborhoods taken over by people who often savor the architecture and location yet have little appreciation for the history and people that preceded them.
Neighborhoods like the one we left in Prospect Heights Brooklyn, which went in short order from mostly black to predominately white, hip and wealthy. We were lucky to live there in that sweet spot that briefly existed in the middle, although as we learned, the integrated housing patterns were not reflected in the local schools, part of the country’s largest and most segregated educational system. I kept a journal of sketches called “Scenes from the Class Divide in Brooklyn” filled with observations of worlds colliding but never quite merging, a dynamic many newcomers were uncomfortable acknowledging, or chose not to notice.
You can consider this a scrapbook, something you can go back to some day. I don’t expect, or even know that I want you to read it right now, but I’ve felt the urgency to write it – or perhaps I should say to finish it in some imperfect form, since the drafts have been on my queue for years now, and now is as perfectly imperfect and scary a time as I’ve known to share it. While the misogyny in the current presidential election is receiving much deserved attention, the blatant racism is equally if not more frightening, given that issues of economic and racial inequity tend to be less widely examined by most middle class white people.
It’s your story, but told through my reflections, and the deep-held beliefs that affected your life. I think those decisions were for the best, when I see how you’ve turned out. I know you’re still a work in progress, but I’m so proud of who you are, I like to think I had something to do with it…that you’ll always have the courage and kindness to try to step into someone else’s shoes. And I hope you’ll recognize one day, as Derrick Bell notes above, that it’s not always about winning, that there are intangible rewards to the spirit in fighting the good fight, even when you don’t get the results you want.
I take that to heart as I share what has taken countless hours to write and assemble and compress, although it remains long… but life can be complicated and heartbreaking and funny and too interesting to contain. There are rewards to the spirit in telling your truth, and I hope someone out there will find equal rewards in reading it.
HOW WE GOT HERE
After nearly 20 hours of the last stage of labor – I’ll explain that to you someday, but it’s excruciatingly painful and generally lasts up to an hour, not 19 (Don’t worry, I’ve never held it against you) you are born. The nurse whisks you off to be cleaned, weighed and measured. “How does he look?” I ask in an exhausted and elated fog, wanting some reassurance that you had all your fingers and toes, or some warning if you had a pointy head or jaundice. “He looks very intelligent,” she says, which seems an odd way to describe someone who isn’t even 10 minutes old. So early to start with the praise and comparisons. There’s a whole lifetime to pile the pressure on you. Just kidding. I was glad you were healthy. And boy, were you beautiful.
We live in Brooklyn, where you grow and thrive in a wonderful apartment in an art-deco building in the heart of Prospect Heights, back then the slowly gentrifying but still predominately black working-class cousin to adjacent Park Slope – with the same great architecture and amenities, beautiful tree-lined streets, proximity to the park and even better subway access (2 train lines stop right on our block!)
Life outside the womb is new to you, but this strange often suffocating world of modern parenthood is new to me too. Well into my 30’s, I’ve had a lot of time living on my own and except for our family, my adulthood has been blissfully free of children, at least the ones on whom the sun rises and sets.
I’ve spent more than a decade living in the great mosaic that is New York: working on affordable housing, cultural equity and racial justice issues. My professional and personal lives take me to all corners of the city, from the most impoverished to the most powerful and wealthy. My peers and colleagues range in age from their 20’s to 60’s, they are gay, straight, new immigrant, blue blood, artists, social workers, policy wonks,
struggling and successful. I knew there were lots of young people who lived far more homogeneous lives, and I accepted our parallel universes. We each had the freedom to live how we wanted. Until you came along and made that more challenging
Culture Shock 1.0
When you’re a month old, a woman stops me in the park, ostensibly to comment on the pink blanket you are wrapped in and the blue one covering her daughter. and we get into a discussion of gender issues and sexual fluidity. (this is Brooklyn after all…) S asks me to join her mommy group. I say yes, assuming that’s a group of sleep-deprived women who sit around talking about politics, music and all the grown up stuff they long to re-engage with, at least those with a baby as adorable as you (I realize all parents say that) where every conversation revolved around your perfect little face, and how lucky I was.
But when I first attend a meeting in someone’s pristine brownstone, all anyone wants to talk about are… babies! And products! the best slings and strollers and nursing shirts…there’s a lot of discussion about nursing. (I don’t share the funny conversation I had with your pediatrician: “Dr, can I give him a bottle once in a while?” “Yes, but make sure the shades are drawn so the neighbors don’t see.”] You’re all beautiful babies, but every one of you is white, tended to by affluent young women between the ages of 26-38.
There’s already an aura of competitive competence. I watch in awe as a woman balances a phone in the crook of her neck, ably supervising the renovation of her brownstone while nursing twins! Another mom, whose husband was a hedge fund manager, bragged that she had found a sitter for several dollars under the going rate. I attend one more meeting and then decide I am better off spending my free time reading the paper or smuggling you into the movies while you napped.
S later admits that she saw me in the park and ‘picked me up’ because she thought I looked interesting and she wanted someone else to talk to. I left the Mommy group but she and I remained friends, and you and her daughter did too.
We spend most days out in the world but I feel a sense of isolation much of the time.
I love our new neighborhood but on a personal level I see the underlying racial and economic tension, and it’s not always pretty. That unspoken edge, the assumptions on both sides: that someone is arrogant, that someone is ignorant, that someone intentionally butt in line because she thinks she’s better than you, that someone can’t really care about education because she only has a high school diploma. (When research shows working class parents who don’t have a higher education in fact care as much or more because they feel more is at stake – there is no safety net, no one to help their kids if they screw up.) It’s so weird to go to such homogeneous gatherings after years of that beautiful melding of cultures that I moved to New York for…
Starting at the age of 1 you spend a few days a week at childcare collectives so I have some time to work. You aged out of one and went right into the next. We have to be interviewed to get you accepted, like at those exclusive schools on the Upper East Side, but the Brooklyn version: the parents had to be “interesting” in a vague undefined way: liberal, creative, with some inspiring story-line like giving up banking to become a therapist. They strive for racial diversity, but economic not so much, given the tuition and the type of family they wanted in their midst.
They’re both great schools: warm, nurturing and stimulating, although the parents spend endless hours in crazy-long email exchanges about burning issues like if Pirate Booty can be an afternoon snack since it has green tea extract, which has tiny amounts of caffeine. Don’t these people work? I wonder, but the answer is and how! They are successful young journalists, filmmakers, designers involved with well-known tech firms, production companies and publishing enterprises.
Through my friendship with an editor, you are the anecdotal lead in an article on the increased popularity of daycare centers among middle class families in one of two popular weekly magazines that many people received in the mail [before 24 hours news cycles of online information we now take for granted.]
My gut feeling was that it is better for kids to be around other children,” says JH, a consultant on community development. “It helps them with socialization skills, and to get that they’re not the only person in the world. “ B, now almost 2, has been going to the co-op 3 days a week, and J is thrilled with the results. “I see a big difference in his general confidence and curiosity. It’s helped him to be a very friendly, outgoing kid.”
– Newsweek, 2000
Of course you already were a friendly, outgoing kid, but that made good copy. The main point was that I wanted you to have a sense of the bigger world around you, and not to inure yourself in a bubble, a value I am happy to say you seem to have internalized through your childhood and adolescence, and now as a freshman at the most diverse college campus in the country.
2001: Public School
So you’re an adorable little kid in a sweet little school with lots of friends, and we’re at a monthly pot luck dinner at the temple we attend near our great little apartment when the conversation turns to schools: public schools, the next step in your educational trajectory we’ve yet to address. A couple with a daughter a year older than you are shouting to a riveted table of congregants.
“We LIED!! We had to lie! The schools are so lousy we didn’t have a choice!!” The dad yells, lamenting the ethically dubious but widely accepted practice of lying about one’s address to get his daughter into a highly regarded school in another neighborhood. “The local school is so terrible, what choice do we have?!” the mom exclaims as others at the table nod in sympathy.
All except the woman in her 60’s sitting next to me -she reminded me a bit of your Bubbe – sensing our camaraderie from the barely contained look of horror on my face, she leaned over and whispered, “or you could just go to the local school, attend school board meetings and get involved, work with other parents and community leaders to make it better. That’s what we did.”
That rang more true to me than collecting gas bills from some acquaintance in a better-resourced neighborhood, and so just shy of your 4th birthday we enrolled you into the same “lousy” school we had heard so vehemently dismissed, as a 1% minority white student [likely the only time you will be in the 1%! ] and one of 23% not eligible for a free lunch.
But the truth of PS 9 was far from the common reputation culled from statistics on a page, or the stark visuals from those passing by its premises and watching its students from a distance, through the rusty fence into the rundown playground and concrete that passed as outdoor space for hundreds of rambunctious energetic students.
“I HATE those kids,” said the owner of a store around the corner from the school. The first of the nifty new shops catering to new residents, it specialized in things like vintage aprons and hand painted dog bowls. You hate these kids? Really?? Whose neighborhood is it? The kids of families who have been here for generations or you, newly landed in this unfamiliar place?
I heard variations on that theme from many neighbors who had never visited the school or met a student there. “B is so smart,” they’d say to me. “Are there any other smart kids there?” What was I doing taking a bright nice kid like you and throwing you into a lion’s den of the underclass? (yes, they used that word. a lot.)
First I did my due diligence. I spoke to neighbors who had favorable experiences there, calling the Pre-K the neighborhood’s best kept secret. I met with the Principal and talked to other parents. I went and observed the classroom. I spoke to your potential teacher, who was our downstairs neighbor – literally: we lived in 6F and Mrs. B contended with the sound of your little feet stomping across her ceiling in 5F.
The kids, the atmosphere once inside the dreary old building, the two-block walk – I loved everything about it, and practically wept with gratitude when they found a spot for you …and for the $20,000 we’d be saving by attending a free full day Pre-K. I couldn’t believe our good fortune. Or that this school was so reviled.
You were accepted and embraced immediately, and I was relieved at the ease with which you made friends and openness of your classmates. It’s bullshit to say that kids don’t see race – only white people say that – but at age 4 the fact that you were the only white kid in your class was more intriguing than anything else. For you, who lived in a mostly black neighborhood and attended racially integrated schools, it wasn’t that big a deal. You were more interested in the cultural differences: the different food or the way your friends lived with extended family or celebrated different holidays.
And your classmates, in turn, were interested in your cultural differences, and celebrating your holidays.
Many had never before played with a white kid, and I realize a few months in, while leading a class project making latkes and lighting a Chanukah menorah, that none had ever met a Jew! While I expected questions about the holiday, they were more fascinated by the fact that we didn’t go to church. What do you wear to a temple? Do you get all dressed up and wear fancy hats like the church ladies? I tell them we get dressed up for high holidays and wear these little hats called yamulkes. I don’t even touch on the fact that I grew up a secular Jew, that your religious education to date consisted of a once monthly family service. And in the end, who doesn’t love greasy potatoes?
Odd Mom In
I was asked a lot about how I felt as a parent at the school. Research shows some tipping point of about 20% of the same race/cultural background that most people need to feel comfortable in a group. But after years of working on racial justice issues, I was used to being the only white person on the subway or street or in a meeting. At the time you started at PS 9 I was working for the Empowerment Zone in an un-gentrified Harlem, where the woman who hired me actually asked if I’d be okay being the only white person in the room (which by the way, I don’t think is a legal question.) I shrugged and said I was used to it. I realize that’s not the norm, but it made the school a comfortable place to be.
The fact is, which I rarely admitted, I felt more at ease at PS 9 than I ever had at the mom group or your other childcare centers, where I first encountered parenting as a blood sport. I regularly listen to news reports on public radio by a mom who cancelled a playdate with you and her daughter when you were all of 18 months old (and her daughter was 2) because she decided you weren’t verbal enough! Both still in diapers, she was already concerned about maximizing her child’s intellectual development.
By the next year you basically had taught yourself how to read and write and I was confronted with the other side of the coin, the deeply competitive resentment of parents. “I went to Columbia J school, we’re very verbal, how come my daughter isn’t reading yet?” I just shrugged and said we got lucky. Sure, we had books around and we read to you but there’s only so much you can control. This seemed a hard concept for many white educated parents to grasp.
So I was relieved to find myself at PS 9, where parents were deeply invested in their kids education in a way that felt more genuine and less bloodthirsty. Our differences had more to do with cultural upbringing or immigrant lifestyles. When a social worker held a meeting with the parents to encourage them to make playdates for their 4 year- olds, most of the room turned around to look at me, the one mom in the room who must know what she was talking about…
After the meeting your friend Z’s mom shyly asked if you would like to come over and play. When we arrived at their home we found that her Haitian family occupied every apartment in the building. Z had 2 little brothers, and young relatives down the hall and upstairs…why would he ever need a playdate? You thought that a whole building full of cousins was really cool! Still, his mom was so happy to have you there, she printed out some pictures for you to color and frame to celebrate what turned out to be the first of many playdates.
But perhaps nothing was as enthralling to you as the difference in celebrations.
You go to approximately 50 birthday parties. They all begin at 11 am. Everyone arrives by 11:15, there are games until noon, then pizza followed by birthday cake, (gluten free options for those needing it), and everyone leaves by 1:15.
Sweet, predictable, one blurring into the next.
Parties: 2002 -2005:
The invitation says 3-6 PM. You want to get there at 3 on the dot but I persevere, correctly guessing that we’ll be the first guests there when we arrive at 3:30. In fact we are the only guests until around 5 pm when a few others start trickling in. By 530 the place is hopping, and at 5:45, fifteen minutes before the party is scheduled to end, the birthday boy’s aunt, who owns a popular Senegalese restaurant in Fort Greene, arrives with two enormous coolers filled with food. Burners are lit and she sets to work. At 6:30 we call the friends we are supposed to meet at the Brooklyn Museum of Art down the street – there’s a popular event called First Saturday, with free entrance and activities for all ages and one of the rare socioeconomically integrated scenes in the borough – and tell them we don’t think we’ll be able to meet them at 7.
Around 7:30 there’s a huge feast of fabulous food and about 40 people jammed into the apartment, eating and dancing to music that floats down to the street below, following us as we leave at about 9 PM: the first to arrive and the first to leave. You are practically sleepwalking the long blocks home in the dark, and as you finally collapse into bed at 9:30, you proclaim it “the best party ever!”
Until the next one.
For 3 years we go to parties filled with food and music and crowds of friends and relatives from St. Lucia, Pakistan, Trinidad, and Puerto Rico… (You study your atlas to find out where your friends are from.) We talk and eat and although we’re usually among the first to leave, we stay up hours past your bedtime. At every party we are the only white people present. Every party you proclaim the new “best.”
As a parent, I’ve never stood out more than I did as the mom of the white kid at PS 9, and yet I’ve never had more of a social life, or felt more welcomed.
I feel in a minority in my thinking on several levels. One, that I think that B’s socialization is as important as or more so than academics. He’s a bright motivated kid, he’ll thrive anywhere. Yes, I want him to be challenged, encouraged to learn and stretch himself, yes, I want him to be with other bright motivated children. I’d never put him in an environment where I didn’t feel he was safe, where he wasn’t treated with respect but I also want him to do all that learning in a place that reflects the greater world, not in a bubble. Ideally, he’d be in a more integrated school. But given the options, I’d choose our local school over a more rarefied environment any day. So many problems in the world come from a lack of understanding, the sense that we are separate from other people and their culture, their struggles. The fact that we can bomb innocent people and children shows some basic spiritual disconnect.
For B, I think going to PS 9 has made him a much more open, less judgmental kid, also a curious kid, because he asks a lot of questions. We spend a lot of time studying world atlas to find out where his friends are from. He easily plays with kids across a very broad cultural and economic spectrum. Without question I want and realize how much better it would be for him to be in a more integrated school. But there is also no denying the learning of going outside our comfort zone, of socializing and working with people from vastly different places. Our life is populated by Trinis and other West Indians, but also Boricuas and Pakistanis and D’s uncle was in Run DMC – how cool is that?
Journal entry, 2003
2. People.Make.Change. and other hard lessons
If just being a beautiful baby made me invisible, sending you to PS 9 made me more visible than I could have imagined. I was regularly stopped and asked about my experience at the school, by people I knew and complete strangers who knew that we went there..
I developed some pretty stock answers to common questions, mostly positive and reassuring: Yes, the teachers were great, the Principal was competent and committed, open to parent suggestions.. Yes, parents were involved. Best of all the kids were fantastic. Bright, curious, fun, engaged.
Yes obviously the school is mostly black and low-income, but If you attend it will be less so. And yes, there are lots of things that need improving. But the biggest deterrent to that improvement is a lack of social capital, parents like you, who have time and contacts and a sense of entitlement to advocate for improvements, aggressively fund raise, help organize cultural outings and enrichment programs.
While PS 9 held an annual fundraiser with a DJ from a popular “urban” station, a bouncy house and a bake sale, the school half a mile away held a literary benefit featuring 3 Pulitzer prize-winning authors from the neighborhood!
Which school do you think got the newly refurbished and well stocked library?
As time went on I became more active, working with the school PTA,the Principal, elected officials, and community leaders, trying to bring various factions together. I enlisted the help of another mom new to the school, a brilliant, devoted woman, who, while black, also was an anomaly of a different sort. K and her husband were graduates of Harvard Law School, doing impressive work in civil rights, with 2 beautiful young daughters (They were like the Obama’s of Brooklyn). Together we hosted meetings for prospective parents, which were eye-opening and at times stomach churning. Unlike the parents who had stopped me of their own interest, many of these parents were far more blunt in naming their concerns.
This is what I heard regularly about your classmates and their families:
1. They (parents) don’t have the right middle class values.
2. They don’t care about their kids’ education.
3. A lot of their parents are on drugs or have criminal backgrounds. I wouldn’t feel safe having my kids go to school with them.
3. There’s so much cultural difference, i’m not comfortable being around them.
4. They’re mostly underclass or ghetto kids – no way am I putting my daughter in that environment!
5. Their kids aren’t as smart. If we go to school with them, our gifted kids will be dumbed down.
6. They’re wild and badly behaved because of their home lives.
7. I’m sure some of them are perfectly nice but I’m not sacrificing my child’s education for some p.c. social experiment.
8. They don’t go to Europe in the summer or attend Broadway shows, I want my son to be around more cultured kids.
Did your classmates know how their new neighbors felt? Could they sense the disdain or fear? How could they not when they saw the crowds of white and upper middle class black kids and parents at every bus stop, piling onto buses, racing down the subway stairs, walking past them , all on their way out of the neighborhood they claimed to have moved to for its diversity. While I became close friends with many of your friends’ parents and we discussed a lot of issues quite openly, I could never broach that specific question: How does it feel to go to a school that your neighbors reject, to see them every morning escaping this opportunity to connect? Did they even feel like neighbors?
Is Playing While Black a thing? It seems so. Recent research from the Yale Child Study Team shows black students – especially black boys – being disciplined more often and more harshly than their white classmates starting in Pre-K, even though their behaviors were similarly disruptive. It’s a short road from playing while black to Stop and Frisk aka “walking while black” and “driving while black” which will likely shorten your lifespan, especially if you are male.
For all my political savvy, I admit I was shocked by what I heard We expect racially-biased comments to come from certain factions: Donald Trump’s hard-core supporters; right wing, evangelical white Southerners; even some of the Republican or Independent Suburban woman so coveted in this election. But self-identified Progressive Democrats, sophisticated city dwellers, people who actually used the term ‘hipster parent’ without being ironic?
I emphasized facts to allay their fears, most importantly that widely respected research consistently shows that putting children from different backgrounds in school together raises up, increases opportunities for those from lower incomes yet does not impede the learning of middle and upper middle class kids. Working class parents, especially new immigrants, care as much or more about their kids education – they see it as the way into the middle class.
But this information often fell on deaf ears. My dearly held belief in the social contract was as foreign to them as shopping at Cookies in downtown Brooklyn where we went to purchase the blue pants and yellow shirts you were required to wear (eventually they made the uniforms optional.) That was the last straw for hipster parents who I recall reacting in horror. “We are too bohemian for that!”
For the parents we convinced to at least come and visit the school, their encounters drew mixed results. Yes, the teachers seemed competent, the kids engaged and bright, the classrooms and hallways cheerful and inviting like at other schools, although there was an awful lot of Afro-centric art and such: pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. My kids might not be comfortable with all those pictures…
Did they teach regular history too? I assured them the school was not run by the Black Panthers and it was healthy to have images that mirrored the student body, to see leaders and role models who were black. But if they were still uncomfortable, there was always the big poster of white men who had been President.
Still, no takers. “Well, you make the school better, then we’ll attend,” a neighbor said. I couldn’t explain to her that it doesn’t work that way. I was fast losing faith.
As you entered the 1st grade and another year in the 1% I decided I’d try one last idea, a last ambitious effort to bring social change, and applied for community fellowship for an idea I’d been developing to address the need for affordable child care, and how this might be a catalyst for change. As I saw at First Saturday and other free events with high-quality programming (Like the Charlie Parker Festival I attended annually), if you offer something affordable, accessible and desirable, they will come, from all backgrounds and races and economic strata.
So I found a child-care center that ran until 3 that would provide after-school space. I met with leaders of every major institution in the borough – the museums, zoo, botanical garden, and library. I met with elected officials and community leaders on the rise (these include a current New York City congressman and the likely next Brooklyn DA) and got their support, as well as that of the Principals and parent leadership of PS 9 and the school in Park Slope where many of your neighbors went. I met with a professor at Bank Street who offered guidance, and a young mom who ran the education program at the Guggenheim Museum, who offered to help me come up with a project budget and scope of work.
It was an impressive undertaking, and I was proud of what I had accomplished, if only in bringing all these factions together to work on shared goals. I wish you had known me back then, when I was energetic and resourceful. I had such good leadership and consensus building skills, talents I’ve had to put on hold (and now when I try to use them, am told I’m too old and irrelevant!) I have faith that you’ll always respect women, and I hope you’ll challenge the type of misogyny so manifest in this election. But as you hear girls and young women given encouragement to lean in, keep in mind all the capable ones who are too busy leaning over and picking up other people’s crap to even dream of leaning in. As with everything else, there’s room for widening the circle of inclusion.
I submitted my proposal in September. That fall brought a perfect storm of catastrophe. In November your brother V was diagnosed with autism, and soon after Mrs. B was diagnosed with cancer. V started jumping and flapping about the apartment. Mrs. B was receiving chemo, coming home exhausted and nauseous. Her sister asked us to keep it down. It was a damp and cold winter, so I took V out in the hallway but neighbors started complaining about kids in the halls. We went to the basement near the laundry room where he could regress and perseverate and I could sob in peace.
Staying home wasn’t fair to Mrs B, but being out wasn’t fair to either of you. V started attending a special school on the other side of Brooklyn, another child leaving the neighborhood every morning. More and more I longed for change: a way that you could both go to the same school, somewhere inclusive where everyone was respected regardless of race or ability or economic standing. A house and yard so I didn’t have to tell you constantly to be quiet, to stop moving, not to be yourselves. We started looking at houses in other neighborhoods in Brooklyn, at other schools. Everything was too expensive, too segregated, too hard to imagine anymore. I wanted out.
By the time I received the letter that my proposal was rejected (the goal was improving resources in low income neighborhoods; not as I aimed, to improve resources in a way that would bridge class divides), I was actually relieved.
When my cousins told me their school district had a state-mandated desegregation program, I said sign me up. I had seen first-hand that certain change doesn’t happen without laws or some legal mandate. Voting rights for women and blacks, the Civil Rights Act, the People with Disabilities Act, laws to project the environment and consumers. Desegregated schools. You can’t just ask people or businesses to do the right thing; usually you have to make them. And they’ll still kick and scream, and it will still require enforcement and monitoring.
Of course these laws and changes come about through the efforts of people on the ground – protesting, organizing, participating in the democratic process. I learned the history of this town to value those who had made it possible for you to attend integrated schools.
And so I gave up nearly 20 years of 212 and 718 for the less unimpressive 973, a prefix signifying to many complete surrender. New Jersey. I had family here, it was familiar turf – and surf. Yet by this point I had no problem being a Jersey girl, as uncool as that was to my city friends. For half the cost of a 2 bedroom apartment in Brooklyn we were able to buy our house, with its big yard in the South End of town. Like our old neighborhood, historically black but still integrated. It’s not how everyone ends up in this town – which has a lot of Brooklyn attitude of its own – but it’s how we got here.
Postscript: New York still has the most segregated school system in the country but there are pockets of hope. At PS 9, the young mom from the Guggenheim was so impressed with my proposal and intrigued by the school that she got together a large group of white parents with toddlers to enroll in the Pre-K, who eventually became involved in the school, using their social capital to provide the same improvements that the other nearby schools had. It’s now fully integrated, economically and racially, with a new playground and library. It would have happened eventually, but I like to think we helped get the ball rolling.