Anne P. Beatty
Editors' Pick

Unexcused Absence

“I want you to move to class with all deliberate speed!” This sentence boomed over the loudspeaker each day at my first teaching job. The principal meant to discourage stragglers, sometimes several hundred of them, from ending up in the tardy room, a morning euphemism for the cafeteria.

My homeroom students ignored him, applying mascara or flicking paper at their friends, but the oddly formal language resonated with me. I could not place it until my husband pointed out that the phrase was lifted from the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which ordered public schools to admit the plaintiff students “on a racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed.”

The phrase did not mean to move quickly at all; instead, its intentional vagueness allowed the freedom to lollygag, stall, and give the appearance of planning to someday, eventually integrate (or go to class). At the time, this absurdity struck me as funny, a perfect symbol for the contradictions of a Bad School in Los Angeles where nothing meant what it was supposed to. Fifteen years later, it makes me sad and puzzled to think how often we say we are doing one thing, and perhaps even believe it, when in fact we are doing the opposite.

***

I now teach in North Carolina, at a school widely recognized as the Best School in our county, by some measures the state. A public early college, it is elite but free, housed on a beautiful private college campus. The school district maintains our buildings: two trailers striated with rust and mildew in jewel-toned golds and greens. People seeing it for the first time don’t expect the Best School to look so bad.

“We go to school in a cardboard box,” my students joke.

Student take classes for two years in the cardboard boxes, and then, as eleventh and twelfth graders, they take college courses in stately brick buildings with Doric columns. Most enter college at eighteen as juniors. Our counselor fields phone calls from parents of rising kindergarteners. What schools should my child attend to end up at your school?

I have students who are brilliant, who score fives on AP exams as 14-year-olds, who can code and write poetry and play cello. I have students who are suicidal, who take anxiety medication, and who sometimes plagiarize because they worry their own brains are not enough. I have students who fear they were accepted into this school only because they are black.

Though my students are not all affluent, their support systems, intellect, and drive make me think of this school a place of privilege. They all choose to be there, as do I. When people ask whether I’d send my own children to this school though, I hesitate. My students sleep so little, are so anxious about getting into college, not to mention med school. I’m not sure it’s what I’d want for my own kids, assuming they could even get in.

***

In choosing our children’s elementary school—the public school five blocks from our house—my husband and I did no research. We were busy. The school-choice hysteria dismayed us. We also live in a middle-class neighborhood and made assumptions about its school, which hosts the annual Easter egg hunt in spring, the sledding hill in winter, and, in summer, a garden of beans and strawberries that parents sell at the corner farmers’ market. We deemed it Good Enough, and for the past five years, it has been.

When we visit for Science Night or the talent show, I take comfort in the hundred-year-old brick building. The metal handrails worn to a greenish patina, the scuffed tile floors, the thumping sneakers and shouts at the water fountain—it all feels familiar and just as an elementary school should, an aged institution thrumming with new life.

The imperfection of Good Enough public schools appeals to me. I want my children, who are white and middle-class, to encounter some hardship as they venture out into the world. I don’t want their every experience to be people of all skin colors and religions joining hands to work in harmony, every adult they encounter sharing my beliefs and values. Sometimes at school you get bit. Sometimes you are humiliated or picked last, or you suffer through the year with a bad teacher. Sometimes these experiences teach you the most.

But lots of parents in our neighborhood choose something they deem Better: the Montessori private school, the Quaker private school, the Spanish-immersion magnet school, the performing arts magnet school, and various charter schools, which have infested North Carolina over the past several years.

Parents opting out of our school give many reasons, some of which I agree with:

Class sizes are so big.

We don’t want our child’s spirit squashed by all the testing.

We don’t want our child to hate school. We want her to know learning is fun.

The teacher in me has long been concerned with questions of public good, the system-wide effects in our schools; the parent in me now feels, with a passionate intensity I sometimes distrust, the clutch of personal interest.

Choice seems unequivocally good, until you take your five-year-old to Target to spend his gift card and realize choice can be hell. School choice presents a similar conundrum: the presence of so many choices implies we are remiss to send our children to the default public school. And because I understand why parents would want their children to learn Spanish, or worry about kindergarteners having homework, what churns up my suspicions about this obligation must be the knowledge I have as a teacher.

***

The Bad School where I began teaching fifteen years ago was in South Central LA. The associations the words “South Central” likely conjure are mostly accurate: overcrowded hallways, almost no white kids, the specter of gangs, catastrophically low test scores, huge rates of teacher and administrator turnover, drive-by shootings on the corner. It was also a place with some of the best teachers I’ve ever seen; students, albeit few, who went on to Yale and Grinnell; and classrooms, albeit few, where kids decided to become writers or scientists or historians. I say this not to claim it was a Good School—it wasn’t—only to illustrate that labels are simple, reality complicated.

Midway through my first year, foundering as a teacher, I observed a class taught by the English chair, Ms. Jackson. Her students looked like my students, dressed in the same oversized pants and spotless white sneakers, carrying the same SpongeBob backpacks. Yet they filed in quietly, respectfully, and took index cards from a jar to get their writing assignment. Ms. Jackson never raised her voice. She didn’t have to. She exuded calm command and respect for her students, listening thoughtfully to what they said. In turn they offered thoughtful comments. She was affectionate and stern, supportive and demanding. Students joked and laughed, but they worked. When one student dawdled at the pencil sharpener, making what in my classroom would be an indiscernible amount of noise, the teacher, without turning around, said, “What are you doing with that pencil?” The boy apologized and sheepishly returned to his seat, instead of responding as a student might have in my own class: “I’m sharpening it, bi-otch!”

By the time I met her, she was a grandmother, a black woman who had raised her highly successful kids in the community. I was a white twenty-something woman, charging into South Central only to peel out again a few years later.

I remember saying on the phone to my dad: “I feel guilty, because if I had kids, I wouldn’t send them here.”

He said, “No one would, if they had the choice.”

But some parents did. Ms. Jackson did. It occurs to me now, years later, that maybe my dad and I meant no white parents would.

***

Last August, a new school opened that markets itself as a progressive, experiential charter school. Twenty-five kids left my children’s elementary school to attend. Twenty-five kids equal a teaching position, so one was cut.

Since the charter school’s downtown building is still under construction, it meets in a warehouse owned by an evangelical church on a two-lane highway outside of town. Friends who have decided to send their children there moan about the gulag-like appearance, or the thirty-minute drive, twice a day. “I think there might be snake handling on Sundays,” one dad confessed to me. Others fret about paying rent to an organization whose members’ values probably overlap very little with those of these left-leaning parents.

Because they tend to be progressive, these parents understand why charter schools are a problem. One of them tells me that a founder of the school rationalized it this way: In theory, we are against charter schools, but in North Carolina, it is the only way to create the kind of school we want and make it free and public. This twist of logic feels slippery, especially here, where research shows charter schools have become the latest incarnation of white flight, the place where more affluent families in the public schools send their kids.

“Who can afford to drive their kids half an hour each day to and from this school while they get the new building sorted out?” I rant to a friend. She isn’t sending her kids there, either, but, like me, knows plenty of people who are. “Who can stand at the bus stop for an hour waiting for the bus that drives all over the county to get there in the afternoons? People with full-time jobs?”

“I know,” she says. “I said that to someone and she said, ‘Well, it keeps the riff raff out.’”

***

The year before my oldest child, Dominic, went to kindergarten, I took a job for the first time at a Good School: mostly white, mostly affluent, suburban. Every classroom had a mounted LCD projector on the ceiling; every hallway a fresh coat of paint, every flowerbed impeccable mulch.

According to my students, other teenagers who came to the Good School for sporting events said it felt like a mall. The sunlit atrium, the braided ficus trees, the buffed tile floors. Perhaps they meant it was cleaner and newer than most schools, or perhaps they meant it felt airless, artificial, and insular.

There I taught August Wilson’s play Fences, about a black family in 1950s Pittsburgh, to standard tenth graders in a class roughly half white and half black. Before reading we discussed how we were going to handle the word “nigger.” It shows up too many times to count, always spoken by black characters. I wanted to let students decide whether, as we read aloud, readers were going to say it, omit it, or use a substitute like “N.” I still second-guess my decision to debate this. I want the students to take ownership of a choice that adults struggle with, but there are so many ways this could go wrong: What if 15-year-olds don’t feel like they can speak their true feelings about this word? What if some students don’t agree with the class decision but stay silent and seethe in resentment? Should the white kids’ votes count as much as the black kids’ votes? What if students turn it into a joke?

Teaching racially charged literature means I often feel uncomfortable with where the discussion goes, as do my students. This discomfort is an indicator of something real and honest happening in the classroom, all of us chewing on a bitter subject too big to swallow. When I teach slave narratives by Frederick Douglass or Olaudah Equiano, fiction by Sherman Alexie or Sandra Cisneros, poetry by Lucille Clifton, I struggle to say enough and say it right. I struggle to ask good questions and not alienate students and keep them from alienating each other and pry them open to all the authors can teach us. I second-guess lots of my choices.

***

After chaperoning the kindergarten holiday party for Dominic, my husband noted he was one of seven white kids in a class of twenty-four. We found this surprising, given that the school borders two majority white neighborhoods, and also encouraging, since it meant the pronounced segregation of our city’s neighborhoods does not extend to his school.

That year, I decided to teach Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man at the Good School. In one AP class I had two black female students, in another, three. No black male students in AP English. I wanted to teach this novel because the language is heady and rich, because I don’t fully understand it, and because I hoped confronting race in America would shake up my lovely but mostly privileged seniors. Also, as I pointed out to the other AP teacher, we had too many white authors on our syllabus: Cormac McCarthy, Mary Shelley, Tennessee Williams, Jane Austen, Shakespeare. In response, she said, I don’t think we have time to teach another novel. Oh, I know! Let’s stick in a few Langston Hughes poems.

Now I have nothing against Langston Hughes. I love his poem “Theme for English B,” in which a student speaks back to his teacher. Something in me clenches each time I read the lines “As I learn from you, I guess you learn from me—though you’re older—and white—and somewhat more free.” But why always Hughes, only Hughes, when he was born a century ago and so many poets have come after him? Why is he so frequently taught that you cannot pull out “Harlem” or “I, Too” without some student sighing, “Not this again”?

After my colleague proposed teaching Langston Hughes, I wish I had immediately said, “No, not a few poems. We need to teach a novel. If we don’t make room for these authors on our syllabus, who will?” I didn’t say it. Why? Because challenging her would implicitly criticize her denial of the need for more authors of color? Only a few days later did I say, “I think we need to do this. We need to make room for other voices. Let’s do Invisible Man.” And she agreed, as if perhaps she too had been haunted by our conversation.

***

Again and again, I hear parents say, The good thing about magnet and charter schools is that they actually help with integration. Our neighborhoods are so segregated, these schools allow people to move across boundaries.

This claim is unsupported by the evidence, which shows charter schools here are richer and whiter than public schools, when taken as a composite. Disaggregated data reveals even more explicit segregation: Individual schools tend to serve either a richer, whiter population or a poorer, minority population. Whenever I hear people make the pro-integration school choice argument, I think back to the Bad School in Durham where I taught before moving to the Good School, sixty miles away. Many of my students in Durham had lives that resembled my students’ lives in LA, lives laced with violence, drugs, gangs, abuse, and poverty.

I first learned the history of Durham Public Schools at 27, sitting in a graduate classroom after leaving California. By then I knew firsthand that schools in LA were being re-segregated, but I didn’t know how recently schools in North Carolina had been integrated. In 1970, a federal court order required Durham City Schools to implement “immediate racial balancing.” Despite the sixteen years since Brown vs. Board of Education had found the doctrine of “separate but equal” unconstitutional, and despite two previous court orders, the Durham schools remained essentially segregated.

In the decade before this court order, from 1960 to 1970, Durham’s city population had dropped 40%. Under the shadow of integration, white families moved to small towns—Rougemont, Bahama—for the county’s separate school system. This white flight created a bull’s eye, mostly black city schools surrounded by mostly white county schools, a pattern which remained in place until 1991, when a city-county merger forced Durham schools to integrate. The school zoning map was redrawn in the shape it resembles today: a pie divided into wedges, each of which pulls a narrow slice from the poorer, darker neighborhoods in the asphalt city center and widens out to the richer, whiter neighborhoods in the flat green county.

When it was a county school, the Bad School had been a destination for white families fleeing the city. For years, the school’s students had mostly come from white, rural families more likely to have a fishing hole on their property than an association with Duke University, eight miles away. By 2010, after two decades of the merged school system, the school was less than half white. By 2018, the white population was 22%. In twenty-five years, it has gone from being a mostly white school to a mostly minority school, a familiar story retold around the country. Where had those white students gone? Private schools, magnet schools, charter schools.

***

The myth goes like this: school choice allows students like the ones I taught in Durham or LA access to a school like the one where I now teach. Yet our choices as parents are mostly uninformed. Parents choosing their children’s schools often have little insight into what happens in the classrooms, so they rely on coded labels and neighborhood scuttlebutt. Schools are Good or Bad, Best or Worst. We rarely talk about race and class, though that is often what middle-class parents mean when they talk about schools. I distrust all these labels. At a Good School, I found plenty of bad—insularity, racism, mediocrity. At a Bad School. I found plenty of good—community, passion, determination.

We use the language of territory to talk about schools. Bad Schools are “wastelands.” Good Schools are “havens” or “oases.” People “desert” or “abandon” or “reclaim” schools. The metaphor seems apt. Public education is a shared space; everyone has to sit beside someone. Also, people feel tremendous scarcity. There aren’t enough Good Schools to go around—or Good Teachers, or classrooms with Smartboards, or textbooks, for that matter. Or bathrooms with stall doors and soap in the dispensers.

Fear drives this panic. Fear makes people buy houses in specific school districts because we believe there are Good Places to live and Bad Places to live. Fear makes people rent Airbnb houses near certain schools when their children turn five. School choice thrives on this fear, but fear also thrives on school choice. The more choices we have, the more we’re afraid of making the wrong one.

***

Invisible Man, published in 1952, has a scene in which a black man, Tod Clifton, is shot by a white police officer. We see this unfold through the eyes of the narrator, who, like Tod, is a fiercely intelligent, searching, politicized black man. It reads:

“And somewhere between the dull roar of traffic and the subway vibrating underground I heard rapid explosions and saw each pigeon diving wildly as though blackjacked by the sound, and the cop sitting up straight now, and rising to his knees looking steadily at Clifton, and the pigeons plummeting swiftly into the trees, and Clifton still facing the cop and suddenly crumpling.

He fell forward on his knees, like a man saying his prayers just as a heavy-set man in a hat with a turned-down brim stepped from around the newsstand and yelled a protest.”

A student asked, “This was happening even then?”

That was the year of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner. In our seminar, I asked students to bring in an article about a current event related to their understanding of the novel. I pushed them to consider why and how the book is still relevant. In the student desk I had pulled into their circle, I twirled my pen or sat on my hands. Many students also fidgeted. Towards the end of a discussion about race relations that some students had been happy to agree was a problem created by our nebulous enemy, “the media,” a white student, exasperated, said, “What I want to know is, why is it never news when a black person shoots a white person?”

A pause. Don’t speak, don’t speak, I chanted in my head. Let them own this space.

One of my black students at last said, in a voice shaking on its own wire, “Because they go to jail.” I was proud of her even as I hated she had to be the one to say it. Maybe I should have said it. I’m not sure about my choice to keep silent.

The next month, we read Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, a checklist demonstrating how privilege plays out in everyday life. One item reads, “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.” Some white students were unsure of what this meant. Every one of my black and Latino students knew. They commented on having had to play this role in their classes, and I thought back to that moment: Because they go to jail. How many times throughout the year did I force this role upon them?

Schools have always been the place where I get to know people who are not like me. For many children too, schools are where this exchange happens—integration in the fullest sense—a place where people hear each other’s stories.

The transmission is not perfect. I question so much: Does diversity disproportionately benefit advantaged kids? Who learned more from our seminar on Invisible Man, the white girl who asked the question or the black girl who answered her? Do I really hear the stories my students have to tell? Yet not to sit in the same room—to continue to segregate our schools by race or class—only further limits the stories we hear and the truths we know.

***

I get a brochure in the mail for yet another charter school opening in our city. One school changes everything, it declares over a picture of three grinning children. A black child is front and center, flanked by two white children (we have diversity, but not too much diversity). Inside: lots of pictures and large-font buzz words, scant details. The brochure touts advantages such as “great teachers” and “academic excellence” and the disturbingly bracing “moral focus.”

The school has a regional name, but the information on the back of the brochure is for National Heritage Academies, which is based in Michigan. I look it up and learn that National Heritage Academies is a for-profit company that runs two of the biggest charter schools in our city, in addition to nearly 80 others across the country. The founder and chair of National Heritage Academies is a Republican donor who sits on the board of a right-wing think tank.

Other parents, I gather from talking to them, do not know that several desirable charter schools here are run by a politically aligned for-profit company halfway across the country. In fact, most parents don’t even know what charter schools are.

There’s, like, a lottery? one mom says to me. And kindergarteners only have a 20% chance of getting in, I heard.

Another explains, It’s free, and it’s public. But you have to drop the kids off because there are no buses. And food gets delivered from places like Chik-Fil-A, so parents have to volunteer to sort the lunches.

I don’t believe one school can change everything. My ninth graders at the Best School, in the very top percentiles, come from all different schools—charter, private, and public—yet they seem equally prepared and qualified for the Best School.

It would be nice if exercising personal choice in education simultaneously benefitted the system at large. We like to believe personal interest and public duty can be so neatly conjoined, that for those of us with race or class advantages, choosing something better for our own kid also helps someone else’s less advantaged kid. Yet this belief ignores the fact that parents choosing to give their middle-class children a “better” school has a price, a price mostly paid by other people’s children.

***

Whenever we opt out of something, we leave behind our absence. Whether we are teachers or families leaving, we like to think of our absence in schools as neutral, a net zero. Often it is a loss.

I didn’t love teaching at the Good School. Although I loved many of my students, I never felt at home there, even in the building itself. When a chance to teach at the Best School arose, I took it. I feel ambivalence about that decision.

Our choices are not clear-cut, as teachers or parents. What about my colleague, who teaches in a public school and protests for education funding in Raleigh, yet sends her black children to private school? What about my friend dying of cancer who decided to switch her kids from public to private school, so they might be nurtured as much as possible after she was gone? What about a teacher who chooses to send her children to a Good Enough school, but knows there are schools she would not deem Good Enough?

Sometimes I try to imagine the choices I could make that might feel more moral. I could keep teaching at a Bad School. I could send my own children to a more impoverished school. I could live in a neighborhood that doesn’t feed into the loop between high real estate values and good schools, a loop bred and nourished by white supremacy. I haven’t chosen to do any of these things.

At the Bad School in LA, a student told me once, to explain another’s absence, “Jonathan got jumped. He got beat with a tire iron.”

What?” I asked, thinking about quiet Jonathan, sweet, lazy Jonathan, hands hooked in his pockets, holding up a five-dollar bill to signal he needed a pen and would trade money as collateral. Jonathan, who never talked in class, who was polite to everyone.

“Some dudes jumped him and bashed his head in, is what I heard,” another girl offered.    “But why?” I asked.

The kids just looked at me. Because that’s what happens in this world. One day your English teacher is nagging you about an essay, and the next day people bash your head in with a tire iron.

At the end of that week, Jonathan and his older sister, pushing a stroller, appeared at my door. Purple bruises covered his face and neck.

“Jonathan, are you okay?” I asked. “I’m so sorry. I heard what happened.”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said. His eyes were hard.

“We’re checking him out of this school,” his sister said. “It’s too violent, the kids here are crazy.”

It seems naïve to claim the stakes of staying could never become too high, either for myself, or my children. Surely if your child is beaten with a tire iron, the stakes are too high. So many middle-class white parents are opting out before that point, though. What I return to is the Kantian belief that if everyone who can leaves, we will collectively be responsible for the collapse of our public schools, even if we choose not to see it that way.

***

Being a teacher has made me worry a lot less about my own kids’ education, and a lot more about other kids’ education. I never worry much about the Dominics in my classes, who are not always white males, but are curious thinkers that read at grade level and either like school or play the game willingly, whose parents show up at Open House with donations of hand sanitizer. They mostly do fine. The myopia of procuring the very best for our children keeps our attention—our fears—so focused on our own kids we barely see what is happening to other people’s kids.

The kids for whom public schools are not working, by and large, are not the kids whose educated, middle-class families are opting out. The most alarming problems in schools—the mind-numbing homework, the testing craze, the mandatory corporate curricula, the loss of creativity—have the worst effects on students who don’t like school or think they aren’t good at it. It’s these kids, the ones for whom school is the safety net, who are most endangered by our overcrowded classrooms and obsessive bubbling. Students with resources may bob around a bit in the misguided educational trends of the day, but they surface more or less unscathed to don graduation caps with tassels. Students with fewer resources drown.

Parents have the right to choose what we think is best for our children, but we also have to shoulder the consequences of our choices. This burden applies to more than the schools I pick for my kids or the schools where I choose to teach. It includes the places I don’t go, the things I don’t say, the books I don’t teach. Perhaps we are responsible for these absences and omissions as much as for our actions.

During the school day, I am freed from thinking about my son. I know other people will take care of him and worry about him all day, just like I worry about other people’s kids. As a teacher I remember what as a parent I sometimes forget: we have responsibilities to kids other than our own. We don’t need more choices. We need more reminders of the societal consequences of our choices.

On Monday mornings, when I drop my son off, I linger in the traffic circle to watch his shaggy head in the rearview mirror. His Hot Wheels backpack bumps against his thighs. But by the time I turn on the main road, my thoughts have already strayed to my teenaged students, the one who owes me an essay, the one who plagiarized, the one newly in a wheelchair, and the hundred others waiting for me. I also call them mine.

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