I am a Black woman, born and raised in the United States. I come from a working class family and have, over the course of my forty years, moved into a middle class existence… much to my surprise. I often wonder if it will last, still amazed that I can do things like buy a sweet treat without much concern for cost or swipe my debit card without the fear of its being declined.
Transitioning into a different class experience is not uncommon, though such a transition happens to different people for different reasons. I know the reason for my transition:
School. Lots and lots of school.
While some of my circumstances seemed precarious growing up, I was always good at school. Though we did not have lots of money, my mother was often able to locate locate cheap housing options in more affluent school districts, so, for most of my life, I attended school with richer White children. I was a shy child, preferring to fly under the radar and do as I was told, so my teachers either loved me or overlooked me. As I got older, academic success became more important. I worked very hard and was deeply invested in doing well in school. When I was fourteen, my mother got married. She, my brother, and I moved to a different side of town, and I began attending a high school that was majority black and otherwise quite diverse. I began enjoying school on a new level: now socially as well as academically. I finally felt comfortable in my own skin and not like an outsider. Despite my increased enjoyment of school, however, my home life declined. By the time I was finishing high school, college presented an escape from this negative home situation, and I aimed myself toward out-of-state elite women’s colleges.
I applied to two colleges early and was accepted to both. I graduated in the top 2% of my high school class, was voted Most Likely to Succeed by my classmates, and left my home state with a yearbook editorship and other strong academic experiences under my belt. College was more of the same: while definitely a new environment, I generally did well in my classes, participated in campus organizations, and worked hard.
My college experience varies from that of many in that I found out I was pregnant at the beginning of my senior year. I gave birth to my oldest child, Iman, two weeks after my commencement ceremony. When I graduated with my master’s degree in teaching two years later, I was pregnant with my second child, Elise. While there were some obvious challenges (morning sickness while in a lecture or while student teaching is no fun!), I did feel much dissonance between parenthood and my academic pursuits, or, later, my teaching career. One very much informed the other, particularly once I began teaching: my role as a parent helped me better understand my students and empathize with their families’ concerns; and I believe that I was able to establish boundaries and avoid burnout both as a teacher because I understood that my children would always be my first priority, though I very much cared about my students’ development.
I taught in an environment that many teachers would envy: I had a principal who saw teachers as professionals and encouraged us to be creative and do everything we could to help our students do well. We teachers were free to be ourselves in that environment and did not have to worry about the strict oversight that so many experience in this age of testing. Even with an administration change and as demographics of the school shifted from majority White and middle- to upper-middle class to majority Black and middle- to working-class, I still experienced much freedom in my work as an English Literature teacher.
I loved my job, because I got to interact with so many interesting, fun, caring young people every day. As I soon came to understand that much of what happened during the normal school day was, at best, not necessary – or, at worst, a waste of time – it was important to me to foster an environment where the students understood that if we had to do the work, at least we could have a bit of fun as we did it together.
By the middle of my teaching career, I was asking myself, “But why do we have to do this work?” Though I had long been interested in what is now called self-directed education, my financial situation didn’t allow me to stay at home with my kids. That interest surely informed some of these questions, though. Once I had taught high school for enough years to feel truly comfortable in the work, I was having a harder time understanding why we did what we did in high school. Why did students have to be in school for eight hours a day if we could probably cover the needed material in four? Why is attendance required? Why do we need to meet every day – in this information age, isn’t it feasible to occasionally do remote classes, video conferencing, etc.? Why do we need to be in this building – why not a coffee shop or a field or someone’s living room? Why am I supposed to teach this particular material to these kids, and to what end?
That last question was the most pressing for me, especially when I found myself expected to present literature from primarily White authors (whether European, American, Australian) to my primarily Black classroom. Besides some familiarity with so-called classics for my college-bound students, what help was a course content which presented an experience or world that was neither attainable nor desirable? What universal truths would these authors present that could not be accessed elsewhere, particularly from writers and thinkers that looked more like my students? More importantly, what did it mean that (besides adjusting for student access to differing and diverse perspectives) life lessons were assumed to best come from people that didn’t look like them?
I entered a PhD program looking for the answers to these questions. That’s right: I addressed my concerns about school by getting more schooling.
The concentration of my educational policy doctorate was the social foundations of education. I had the wonderful opportunity to explore the history and philosophy of schooling in the United States, to learn more about sociological issues in schools and about different methodologies one can use to study these things. I read about the structure of schools, and histories of specific schools and school districts. I debated and presented, wrote and read, asked and answered. Each step of the way, I learned more and more about Black children’s experiences with U.S. schooling in particular, from the time when most Black children in this country were prohibited from schooling to present issues with the achievement gap, school-to-prison pipelines, and the like. I also learned about positive interactions Black folks have had with schooling, particularly when it came to the social mobility that engagement with the institution has historically provided. There are myriad stories of Black people who used schooling to navigate and sometimes even surpass some of the constraints of this anti-Black setter colony called the United States. I am one of those people, in fact.
And despite the aforementioned benefits I have experienced from schooling, and while there are many, many stories of Black folks that love their schools and schooling experience, one thing, I know, is true:
Schooling as it is conceived in the United States is neither concerned with Black health nor Black wholeness. It never was.
So we need to let it go.