I had a fifth grade teacher whom I adored. Mr. Yeres. We all adored him. He was tall, pale skinned, stoop shouldered and fairly bald. He wore a ragged suit every day, with a tie. He was grandfatherly – kind as hell and highly respected. He handed each of us a hard candy at the room change on Fridays, a metaphor for the sweetness that was him. He had one way of expressing his dismay when it came to bad behavior. “Some people’s children,” he would say. “Some people’s children.”
He realized at some point that this was an indictment of their parents. And he changed the tsk-tsking phrase to “some people.” It was a shift in responsibility appropriate for children on the verge of middle school.
“Some people’s children.” I’ve been thinking about that in the midst of the national campaign against teachers. Who are those “some people”? Well, the children’s parents, of course. Where are all the parents?
In my neighborhood, the parents of school-age children are doing everything in their power to keep their children away from the neighborhood school. If they can afford it, they send their kindergarteners to private school. If they can afford less, they send them to the local parochial school. If they fancy themselves progressive they get their child on a lottery list for a charter school. The neighborhood school is the lowest of the low. Even my neighbors – the ones who have been here for generations and who are now raising kids in the same house where they grew up, the ones who think that the neighborhood school is “the best in the city” – would send their boys to the parochial school if they could afford it.
Middle class parents in my neighborhood used to put their homes on the market when their children reached age 4. They’d hope to sell and move up – to Roland Park. Where the public elementary school has a reputation for excellence. So the word on the playground says. My husband and I bought our home from a family who did just that.
But times have changed. As home values have plummeted, so has the game for middle class parents. More and more middle class families – homeowning families – are finding themselves stuck in homes that they can’t afford to sell before their firstborn enters kindergarten. What started as a starter home, a home in a decent neighborhood, a gentrifying one, even, has gone longer term. There is no Roland Park on the horizon. There is no private school option – unless one applies for financial aid and gets significant help. And there is no “moving to the County.” For reasons cultural rather than economic, that’s something this new crop of middle class families – highly educated, culturally capitaled, and only modestly monied – is unwilling to do. We are urban creatures. We like a little grit.
My neighborhood sits just west of the Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus – home to the undergraduate school of arts and sciences and the school of engineering. It’s the campus where my husband and I earned master’s degrees.
On our neighborhood’s far side is the highway leading out of the city.
The neighborhood is called Hampden. It used to be a city unto itself – a mill town with workers from Appalachia who’d come up to make cotton duck for Baltimore’s then booming shipping industry. At one point, the mills of Hampden supplied canvas for sails and mailbags the world over.
The neighborhood’s white trashiness is well known to John Waters fans. This neighborhood has been fetishized and commodified as the land of beehive hairdos and pink flamingos. Now it’s known to hipsters, too, and young professionals from D.C. looking for midcentury furnishings for their Dupont Circle livingrooms. And it’s become a haven for young, city-life loving couples – married first-time homebuyers who are having kids. Look around and you’d think there was a baby boom going on. The Hampden babies of yore – born to 16 year-old-girls who hold a bottle of formula in one hand and a cigarette in the other – have given way to babies bug-a-boo’d and cloth diapered by young professionals with B.A.s, M.A.s, MPHs and Ph.ds.
Times have changed here. The impoverished and uncultured class is being met with a lapping tide of middle-income homeowners with 16+ years of schooling (– not unlike the storyline of John Waters’ Pecker). We’re well educated but we have not cashed in our degrees – and probably never will. We’re older, in our mid-30s and early 40s. That means we’re closer to retirement than our parents were when they were putting their kids through school.
And with the times, the attitude toward public schools is changing.
The arguments of Waiting for Superman notwithstanding, it’s not the teachers who are turning us off our neighborhood public school. It’s perception. Perception created by other parents. On the sidewalks. By the swings. Around the sandbox. We are responsible for the viral notion that public school in this city – regular old neighborhood public school – is for families who have sunk to the bottom of the barrel. It’s not a matter of pride to send a kid to public school. It’s a matter of shame. It’s a sign of poverty.
The charter school groups I’ve been invited to join have proferred as their greatest complaint about the traditional public schools the mode of instruction. They don’t like that a teacher stands in front of the room, the students are sitting at desks. They like the sound – because they are into yoga and farmer’s markets and NPR and foreign language films – of play-based kindergarten, arts integration, music education, and project-based learning. They also like what we all want: motivated teachers, small class sizes, and recess. Yes. Recess. They (we) want all the goodies that the latest studies show develop young brains and stimulate the creation of new neural pathways and cortical networks.
We want the best for our children. And we have been stupid enough – or idealistic and principled enough – to believe that having the best and having the most wealth need not go hand in hand. In fact, that those things might in some cases be at odds.
This blog, which I’m calling Re:education in Baltimore because I like the simultaneous looseness and specificity of that title – is part of my attempt to figure out what to do with all that.