Our Original Sin is Exposure

I don’t know how you get people to love each other if they can’t learn things beside one another: 

Housing discrimination continues to keep black families out of communities with quality schools, according to a 2013 St. Louis housing study.

The most affluent black families in Normandy, then, often opted out of the local school system, paying to send their children to private school. As a result, Normandy’s schools ended up considerably poorer and more racially segregated than the communities they serve.

For years, the Normandy school system walked an academic tightrope. Then, in 2009, the state made matters worse.

New Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro decided that it was time to move on segregated districts that consistently failed their students. The state shuttered Wellston, a desperately poor, 500-student district next to Normandy that held the distinction of being Missouri’s only 100 percent-black school system.

One state official had called conditions in Wellston’s schools “deplorable” and “academically abusive.”

The issue for state officials was what to do next with Wellston’s students.

One thing was clear: The students were not going to be absorbed into any of the high-performing, mostly white districts nearby. Jones, the state board of education official, was blunt about why: “You’d have had a civil war.”

I was told, often, when I was pregnant, that once I had children I would understand the instinct for white flight, the concern over “property values” and how that’s not AT ALL NEVER NO NO NO code for “racist prickitude,” the need for “good schools,” meaning schools as far from the city as I could stand to be. We are only 18 months in, and instead of understanding this apparently automatic instinct more, I get it even less.

I take Kick to a weekly storytime class at the local library. I started doing it when she was four months old, mostly because I needed to do something with her, get us both onto a routine of excursions and activities together so that we would learn how to be two people whereas before I went around alone. Living as I do in the people’s republic, the storytime is populated by kids of all races, with moms, dads, grandparents and various caregivers much the same.

She learns things there, though: How to be around other people her size, how to share (which she thinks means giving a toy away and then immediately getting it back), how to listen in a group. It’s not a school setting exactly, but it’s the closest we get at her toddler stage.

FWIW, Kick shows just as much interest in the African-American kids at the storytime as she does in the white ones, which is to say if they’re not holding a toy she wants she couldn’t give a shit. Her ability to yell enthusiastically along with the teacher is not hampered in any way by some of the kids being named things like Beatrice and others being named things like Jamal. The other kids seem unbothered that she is so Caucasian as to be nearly transparent, my tiny German/Irish child in perpetual danger of sunburn.

I think we get so insane about schools not just because our fragile children are presumed to be unable to handle the rigors of dealing with kids who don’t look like they do but because school is presumed to be an intimate place. Learning something requires a great deal of trust. Learning something from someone is a very personal act, requiring suspension of any preconceived notions, and an openness to new ways of thinking.

We learn by letting someone else in. Someone who knows letters or numbers, space or form, in ways we don’t. We learn by entering someone else’s world, walking around in it, seeing if we fit there.

Maybe that’s what we’re afraid of, in our rush to keep “our” schools so lily-white. Maybe that’s what we’ve been afraid of all along.