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Half of the nation passionately believed that in silver lay salvation, the other half as passionately believed that that way lay destruction. Do you believe that a tenth part of the people, on either side, had any rational excuse for having an opinion about the matter at all? I studied that mighty question to the bottom—came out empty.
—Mark Twain, “Corn-Pone Opinions,” 1903
You are only two and a half, but listen: I was not prepared to be a parent, and I am not the most available father, but I am the father you have and, mark my words, you will be educated.
Though I know little about pedagogy—and what little I know I picked up in more than a dozen hour-long open houses at D.C. schools trying to sell me on their philosophy as anxious new parents like me failed to quiet the tired children wailing on their laps—I have opinions.
If I have anything to say about it, you will not be skipped from the first grade to second grade against your will, as I was; you will not give your tween years over to video games and sandwiches made of American cheese and potato chips, as I did; you will not be set upon by a large classmate at your large public high school and inexplicably punched in the face at 13, as I was; you will not lose your virginity before you learn to drive, as I did.
Let the public schools make their case, but diversity is not always strength, and I care only so much about bilingualism. Let the private schools make their case, but if they are hives of Republicans or anti-Semites, you will not attend. And let the charter schools make their case, but I frown upon any institution younger than its wards manned by twenty-something “educators” armed with a hip philosophy, inscrutable acronyms such as DIBELS, and a copy of Michelle Rhee’s new book, plotting a move from Ward 1 to a faraway campus on New York Avenue.
But we will find you a school. We must. Sure, you are only a toddler, but there are ground rules: 1) no gangs; 2) no drugs; 3) no sexting; 4) no budding date rapists with slight moustaches.
The world is your oyster. Money is less of an object than you might think. My liberal politics are forgotten and useless, like an appendix or vestigial tail. You will become whatever you want to become, whether you want to or not.
Know this. Believe me. Watch it happen.
Your mother and I visited a public elementary school today. The school is four blocks away from our house, and we visit the playground often. Though the playground is new, the school is forbidding on the outside—bars, grates, security guards, and shady spots facing the park where I’ve seen teenagers smoke marijuana. Freddy Krueger might work in the boiler room.
Inside, things are friendlier. The school is huge—a labyrinth—but has been remodeled. There is a library made over by Target that is well-lit and pleasant. Students seem happy.
If the world made sense, you would attend this school, for free, until sixth grade. But, for reasons not clear to me, the institution doesn’t reserve places in its PK-3 program (that’s “pre-kindergarten for children 3 and older”) for students who live in our neighborhood. Thus, you must enter a lottery to compete with other toddlers from Wards 1 through 8 to attend a school that is a four-minute walk from your bedroom.
Should the lottery not go your way, don’t fret. This school is no gem. Though an administrator points out that results are different in younger, presumably richer and whiter classes, in 2011, 47 percent of its students lacked proficiency in math, while 62 percent lacked proficiency in reading. In 2012, despite D.C.’s shocking demographic shifts over the last generation, the numbers got worse. And 91 percent of these kids are not white. I quote your pediatrician: “She’d be a real minority there.”
Spoiler alert: Some ugliness follows.
You are the white daughter of a white man born little more than a decade after the demise of Jim Crow, schooled among Jewish, Korean, and black classmates. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu graduated from my public high school outside Philadelphia. So did “Mr. October,” Major League right fielder Reggie Jackson. Tensions did not always run high, but they ran.
Though your paternal great-grandfather was a prominent Jew and the founder of a national clothing chain, I was raised Catholic and used the word “J.A.P.” Though one of my best friends was beaten by her mother, a Korean evangelical, for talking to boys and removed from her home by child protective services, I was no stranger to the word “gook.” And though I had black friends—and, though it’s not relevant, worshipped Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, and Public Enemy—I was not allowed to visit the “black mall” three miles from my house, would not dare sit at the “black table” in the cafeteria, and when a black girl took me to prom, relatives frowned or, if they did not, gave themselves credit for not frowning.
I tell you this because I want you to know: Like many born in America in the 20th century, I must try to outrun my racism every day. But, when it comes to your education, political correctness—a value essential in any workplace or community—will not cloud my thinking.
If a public school that is majority-minority is failing, you will not attend for kumbaya’s sake. If MS-13 tags appear on a playground, you will not use it for recess. And if you can get a decent education in a Spanish-immersion classroom, wonderful—but if the education isn’t decent, fluency won’t redeem it.
Regretfully, race and class are linked. According to the census, white people have, on average, 20 times the net worth of African Americans and 18 times the net worth of Latinos. Poverty and poor educational outcomes are also linked—as the National Center for Educational Statistics explains, “poverty poses a serious challenge to a child’s ability to succeed in school and its prevalence is markedly higher among certain racial/ethnic groups than in others.” I’m no statistician, but I think this means that minorities are more likely to be poor, and schools with lots of poor people are more likely to be poor schools.
If the school in our neighborhood isn’t that great, you shouldn’t be surprised. The odds are against it.
This is unfair. The social inequalities that result in the systemic failure of urban schools in impoverished neighborhoods must be addressed. They should have been addressed long before you were born. Children should not have to address them.
You will not have to address them.
Your mother and I visited a charter school today. Some D.C. charters stuffed into church basements and former garages outgrow their locations within a few years, forcing parents to endure a search for a new property that can result in a school around the block moving to another ward. Not so with this charter, which has lush digs in a neighborhood not incredibly distant from our own—surprising, given the dearth of buildings that can be turned into schools in the District.
This charter has cred. At least one of the school’s founders still works there. (Her children attend.) It predates Rhee’s tenure as D.C. Public Schools chancellor. It’s been funded by Bill and Melinda Gates. It’s been visited by the Obamas. I stood in the school’s new gym—a gym in a charter school in D.C.!—which already smelled of teenagers’ sweat.
It smelled like possibility.
But the school’s metrics are depressing. Half of the students in the upper school lack proficiency in math and reading. The lower school is slightly better—proficiency levels are above 60 percent.
Why do this charter school’s students get worse with age? I cannot think of an answer that does not play into obscene stereotypes about race and class. Parents of children at the open house for potential PK students are mostly white—really, there were too many whites—but there was a disconcerting paucity of white students in upper grades mingling in the halls. Does this mean that affluent, well-educated white families stick a toe into the swampy mélange that is charter school education in the District, then get cold feet when their kids hit adolescence and head to Bethesda?
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I want you to attend a school with a racial mix not unlike that of a cast of Top Chef. Some D.C. charters don’t seem to have figured this out. Maybe it’s not possible. Maybe such demographics aren’t Washington’s destiny. But if your classmates can’t look like the smiling global villagers who morph into one another at the conclusion of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video, that’s OK—if students are bushy-tailed standardized test-passers, I don’t care if you are the only white face in the hall.
And who are the white children swarming D.C.’s charters? Are they thriving members of forward-thinking families eager to redefine education in D.C., or merely the spawn of lazy reactionaries who wandered into the charter school and filled out a form to participate in its lottery—a form no more detailed than the one required to join the American Automobile Association or Netflix; a form that lacks essay questions that would demonstrate a family’s commitment to a charter school’s philosophy; a form that takes less than 60 seconds to fill out, giving parents the incentive to apply to as many charters as possible, see what the lottery brings, and make their decision weeks later; a form that’s little more than a return address label?
We have seen one mother at a number of open houses who always asks the same question—the one that matters most: How many applicants are there for how many open spots? You were one of more than 1,000 applicants for about 90 spots at a small charter school around the block. At best, you have a 9 percent chance of getting in.
This is considerably better than Yale’s class of 2016. The admission rate there is 6.8 percent.
Your mother and I visited a private school today. The school practices a 100-year-old educational philosophy with a comforting stodginess. We are greeted at the door by parent-volunteers. We are given donut holes and bagels and coffee. There are no questions about mandatory testing or No Child Left Behind.
Parents smile. Teachers smile. Students smile. They have calculated the volume of the school, just for the intellectual exercise. A young girl shows me how to do a complex mathematical calculation on an abacus.
The headmaster is not an innovator who decided to open a school in her basement pushing a nouveau curriculum with a name like Expeditionary Learning. She looks like a CEO—formal, even icy—but radiates competency, like an engineer in NASA’s Mission Control or Judi Dench as M in recent James Bond films. It seems she knows important people, and one wants to know the important people she knows, and to be an important person oneself. One wants one’s child to be worthy of this school.
It is like a small slice of heaven, and what is heaven if not exclusive?
Tuition for full-day primary is just shy of $23,000 per year—an amount I’ve heard called “Midas money.” In the mid-1990s, my parents paid more for a year of classes at a very expensive private university in New England, but just a bit more. If we enrolled you in this school, your education would cost more than 50 percent of my annual salary. In the Congo, the per capita annual income is $231.51.
I could afford the school. Real estate and audio recording equipment could be sold, graduate schools dropped out of, savings accounts raided, grandparents called upon, financial aid applications filled out. I could get a higher paying job, perhaps as a plumber or correctional officer, or make a go of it at the poker tables (though that could go south).
Why not? If I can afford a good school but won’t pay for it, am I then a bad dad?
I have not hesitated to judge the students and parents I have seen on other school tours. Now, as Christ warned, I face the prospect that I will be judged. For, just as D.C.’s schoolchildren are divided by race, they are divided by class, and in Washington—one of the most highly educated, wealthy, expensive cities in the country with one of the lowest unemployment rates, at least among whites—our family is not on the highest rung.
This school is west of Rock Creek Park. We live east of the park. Parents of this school may drop their children off in Range Rovers. I drive a 2006 Toyota Matrix with 90,000 miles on the odometer and no hubcaps. (“Our car is old,” you sometimes point out.) There may be playdates at detached houses with luxurious gardens where cappuccinos are served. Playdates at our small townhome—often interrupted by a leaping, 70-plus pound killer dog whom we might get rid of, yet keep partly because we like the security—convene in a basement that is also my band’s practice space. Families who attend this private school may vacation in the Caribbean. My last “vacation” was my band’s freezing tour of Germany in December, where I slept in former Nazi bunkers that had been converted to punk squats; our next vacation will probably be in Atlantic City, N.J. Should you grow up with friends who ski and shop at the Neiman Marcus in Mazza Gallerie? I’ve never done these things—but why shouldn’t you? A more important question: Should you grow up only with friends who ski and shop at the Neiman Marcus in Mazza Gallerie? Or should we broaden your cultural perspective by sending you to a more diverse school in transition while lowering our standards and, statistically at least, endangering your academic prospects?
Metaphorically, should you be allowed to visit the black mall?
There are things I won’t do.
I will not consider schools in Maryland or Virginia. Your maternal grandmother was a Washingtonian. Your mother is a native Washingtonian. After 15 years in D.C., I am a Washingtonian. Half of your family grew up in our neighborhood, and we feel that you are entitled to be educated while living in it. I am dimly aware of differences between BCC, Whitman, and Montgomery Blair High Schools, but am dedicated to forgetting them.
I will not consider religious schools. No Israeli or Palestinian flags on the walls; no catechism; no glorious, joyful, or sorrowful mysteries; no Christmas trees; no sabbath, shabbat, or jumah; no prayers before first bell or before lunch; no teachers or friends who could possibly be fans of Creed, even ironically. I am an agnostic, and endorse bland secularism. Possible exception: Quakers, because I am from Pennsylvania and have an affinity for Quakers, who are, in their way, bland secularists, and because William Penn graces my favorite brand of oatmeal, a blandly secular food.
I will not commit you to a school with curricular tunnel vision—that is, a school that focuses on Latin or Chinese instead of STEM (science, technology, engineering, or math) subjects, or a school that pushes STEM instead of soccer, or a school that fields an incredible soccer team instead of reading the novels of Edith Wharton. You will not have a specialty before you hit puberty. Your school will not have a restrictive theme. If it has a theme, the theme will be “liberal arts.”
Not long ago, Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel offered $100,000 to entrepreneurs who skip college to start a business. My hope: You will not take this challenge.
Six months ago, I would have said I would not, under any circumstances, home-school my child. Home-schooling seemed insane—the province of Sarah Palin fanatics and parents under 30 with eight children.
Unreasonably, it’s starting to seem reasonable.
You are lucky. You have choices.
Remember Ethan Frome. Remember Les Misérables and Oliver and Annie. Remember “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II).” Remember Lean on Me and The Concrete Jungle and Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds and The Basketball Diaries and Waiting for “Superman.”
None of these is your fate. Urban schools may be scary for affluent parents like me, but no matter what decision I make about your education, the game is already rigged in your favor. In all likelihood, you’ll be all right.
What a luxury it is to whine about options!
One day these letters will seem quaint, the ravings of a middle-aged man grown old who has forgotten his name. Perhaps in 2067, when your school experiences, whatever they will be, have faded from your memory, you will show me these letters and ask me why I wrote them and I’ll say: “I don’t know. These problems seemed unsolvable at the time. I had to act, but had no way to identify the right course of action.”
What I want you to remember is, wherever you were schooled, your mother and I did what we thought was best. Didn’t our parents, too? If we made mistakes and you were traumatized—haunted by bullies or drug problems or eating disorders or bad PSAT scores—it wasn’t because we didn’t try to understand the tidal wave of information that drowns any parent who goes beyond a Google search trying to figure out where to educate their kids in a city that’s supposed to be in turnaround but hasn’t quite turned around yet. If we made mistakes, it was because we lacked a perspective that didn’t yet exist. Or because we were too principled—too devoted to public education—to see what was best. Or because we were cheap.
A long time ago, people thought the best way to teach children was to beat the hell out of them. People were wrong. More recently, people thought that left-handed children should be taught to write with their right hands. People were wrong. Some today think that kids should be tested to death and tracked—the smart kept with the smart, the dumb kept with the dumb.
People are (probably) wrong.
At times of great uncertainty, I don’t put much stock in gut feelings. I have gut feelings about the later novels of Stephen King and the later records of Led Zeppelin, but not about schools, which I didn’t think much about until well into the Obama administration.
I prefer to have faith in momentum. I think The Who had it right: “Meet the new boss/same as the old boss.” If past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, you have little to worry about. White daughters of white privileged people enjoy advantages unfairly denied to minorities, the poor, and the oppressed. The likely result? These advantages, like poverty and oppression, persist.
You will probably persist too.