Thinking about School Segregation as a Parent (Part 1)

segregation

I was late to reading this piece in the New York Times Magazine by Nikole Hannah-Jones about ‘Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,’ but it’s a good one. What’s most powerful about it is that, of all the great things that have been written and produced about our deepening problems of school segregation, this piece by Hannah-Jones can speak with a poignancy and authority because of how honestly and earnestly she wrestles with these issues through her family’s own school decisions, her own daughter’s schooling.

What we wish for our society’s schools and what we would want for our own children’s schooling can be surprisingly hard to reconcile. I’ve learned that tension as a parent, but also as a teacher who has sat with parents for long hours, listening to their troubles and conundrums, and also as an educational researcher. “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children,” says John Dewey.  That’s been a precious notion to me, one that I make part of my mission as a teacher, that families should feel less of a gulf between their hopes for their own children and the whole school community’s hopes for every child.

But it’s not so simple to agree on what the best and wisest parent wants (or who the best and wisest parent is), nor on who “the community” is and isn’t. Because integration– not just “diversity,” but transformative, anti-segregation, good-for-all-of-us integration– involves some very different people with some very different ideas being willing to coexist. And not just coexist, but to find common cause and harmony on the most important, and often most sensitive, thing to almost anyone: raising their children.

I want to keep thinking and writing about this in this space, knowing that the issues are very personal and also socially complicated, and therefore the problems complex and gnarly. Which is to say, I’m not prepared to offer a listicle of “How to Become Involved in Desegregating Schools as a Parent” or “Ten Tips for Reconciling the Deepest Divisions and Suspicions in Our Society Through School Rezoning Meetings.” I think Hannah-Jones’ piece is a great place to start, but accompanying that is an agreement to respect how important, particular, and often wrenching these decisions are for parents, no matter what their ideals or concerns (as Hannah-Jones devotes more than a few words to acknowledging.)

For our own part, my wife and I have shared the ideals that our daughter’s social-emotional, intellectual, and personal development weren’t best served at a cloistered school exclusively serving “high achieving” and privileged White and Asian kids. Nor were they best served at a school where her culture, language, passions, and personhood as a Chinese-American would be unrecognizable or reduced to stereotypes. Although we are theoretically on the same page, this hasn’t always meant perfect agreement on the practicalities, the real decisions. So far (and we’re not far into it), we’ve felt really blessed that the school district where we work has many examples of great, diverse (actually diverse) schools, one of which offers a Mandarin dual-language immersion program. It is challenging for the school to be as integrated as some others in the district, though I’ve often been encouraged and impressed by the staff and families and their commitment to inclusion. The school is not a high poverty school, but it is about 35% Latin@, 20% Black, and 20% Asian, though I believe those demographics skew differently in the DLI program, for understandable reasons.

So the complicated questions aren’t at all settled for us, and we expect them to remain difficult, especially as we continue to try to be committed as parents, educators, and (for me) a researcher in this district to all schools and all kids while we parent our child as we ought to. But I take from Nikole Hannah-Jones’ example a model of transparency and probity that I hope might be helpful to others who care about these issues.

As the discussion continues, I’m reminded by two bits of wisdom from today’s Revised Common Lectionary passages of the Bible, if you’ll allow my drawing from them. One is the source of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)” song, Ecclesiastes 1, which reminds us that there is a time and a season for everything. The second is Matthew 25, where Jesus says that whatever we’ve done unto “the least of these,” we’ve done unto him. Taken together, the passages are reminders that we should not be quick to judge or cast blame on individuals as they search out what is the right time and choice for their own children, that there is “a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them together.” Yet we’re also reminded that we’re judged not only by how we have taken care of our own kin, but also by how we have taken care of “the least of these,” of children least privileged by our historically unjust systems with power and resources, as our own children. As my satirical listicle title above is meant to suggest, I know this is placing a huge weight on a very tough and tender pressure point, working out our deepest rooted divisions through our most delicate and defensive worry, our children’s lives. But hopefully, for exactly those reasons, we realize we can’t shirk our responsibility to thoughtful and careful dialogue, to rolling up our sleeves and working toward better answers. I think we owe that to our children.

 

Happy New Year

Turning the page on 2016, looking towards a difficult but pivotal 2017, I’m thankful for:

-friends more resilient to fight than ever, renewed or reawakened as activists and poets in the face of frightening times

-family who gets tighter with each other the more adversity we face, even when it’s uncomfortable

-fellow teachers and researchers who inspire me to study, collaborate, write, and teach with vision and love

-faith, however shaky, in a God who does not falter.

Leaving Behind 2016’s Chariots and Horses

Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.  Psalm 20:7. 

While catching up with old friends yesterday, I admitted 2016 was the worst year of my life. In addition to the world’s specters of violence, exploitation, and vicious politics, in addition to great struggle in my family and work, I was sorely disappointed in myself and what I’ve become.

Looking at the new year, I am disillusioned with our technologies of speed and power, and I’ve lost faith in our cultivation of breeding and strength. I choose today the name of our Lord. God is doing something bigger than me and my goals. God is doing something bigger than our daily fights and struggles. God is doing something bigger than our games and competitions, even the ones of global consequence, the ones with nations, economies, and lives at stake. Yet what God is doing encapsulates all of these layers. Just not always the way we expect when we put our trust in the players within them.

We will trust in the name of the Lord our God.

Rolling up the Post-Election Sleeves

The slow dawning crawl of devastation on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, as I watched the election returns, watched on CNN and MSNBC and occasionally Fox, watched the NYTimes needle flip wildly in the other direction in a matter of hours, watched the unthinkable occur, all curled up like a ball of pain and recrimination in my stomach, late into the cruel hours of the night, until I watched with bleary and incredulous eyes as John Podesta dismissed the mournful crowd of Clinton supporters and then Trump took his stage, preening with humility as fake as his entire line of false and unsubstantiated promises to a resentful America that even now he is betraying with his Wall Street and establishment appointments. Eating up in my stomach, this horror, that having put my faith in people (I know, I know– popular vote majority, etc.), in democracy (I know, I know– electoral college system historically built for landowners, etc. ), and in decency (I know, I know– I don’t know, actually…), that right or rationality would prove itself.

The recriminations were about the echo chamber that I was part of. The coastal elites. The cosmopolitan urbanites. Fooled by our own Nate Silver bullets of data and Plouffe-ian ground game and Jon Stewart sneering at the idiocy of the campaign. Recriminations that we were so stupid and shallow ourselves. I had already been incredulous that Trump had gotten this far, and so had sought out the Arlie Hochschild studies and the JD Vance explanations that explained why some would wind up in that place. But the sheer numbers, the proportion that was enough to tip the scale, the “repudiation” of red caps and white college educated women, the haranguing of right pundits and self-flagellation of left, the steady and expected and deeply wounding flow of vitriol and harassment and hate crimes as the dams of civility burst… how could we have overlooked it, all except Michael Moore and this guy? And the Christian in me asks the necessary probing questions– let’s assume all human beings are both rotten to the core and imprinted with God’s image, and therefore in the pain and cry of these voters, yes looking past the egregious unfitness and bigotry, but genuinely hoping and believing in something… what is the source of this pain? How have “we” managed to leave so many of them behind? What is the repudiation of this election a forceful call for? For us to stop correcting their mispronunciations of our names or misattributions of our pronouns? For us to stop the cruel pressures of globalization on the slowest to change, or to at least moderate its impacts for the sake of forgotten towns? Or just to shut the hell up and go back to our countries? What is the cry that is behind the pull to make America great again?

Those were the recriminations. But also, rage. Rage balled up. Rage that so vile a peddler of unsubstantiated boasts, shifty doublespeak, dog-whistle murderous speech, predatory exploitation, bitter skulking, fearmongering hatefulness– nearly everything on the list of things that we try to teach our children not to become— had been elevated by our voters to the highest office of the land and the world’s most consequential seat of power. Charge me with extremist language but only biblical and apocalyptic imagery seemed apt to describe the feeling. And between grappling for these abstractions to speak the horror, I thought long and hard about specific people– that friend going back underground without DACA, those immigrant elderly vulnerable to exploitative health insurance, the stopped-and-frisked young people pushed out of school and into incarceration, our children growing up on a planet careening towards climate catastrophe. Rage at that smug face and those flippant hands who proved himself right, that circular morality that being a winner made you a winner, that you should run for the party of those you think are the biggest suckers because you could shoot someone in the street and they’d still vote for you, so long as you told them what they wanted to hear while installing every policy that will continue to guarantee their future poverty and continued dehumanization, wrapping them in lies that feed on vindictiveness and existential dread and real pain.

All that was Tuesday night, a maze of unfathomable emotion all pinned to the traumatic rendering of red on electronic maps.

Wednesday morning, I woke up. Determined to get to work. Determined to roll up my sleeves. Determined to… I wasn’t sure. What was I doing? Where do I take the fight? How do I stand up?

March? Write? Speak? Teach? Reach out? Petition? Conspire? Preach? Cry? Reconcile?

I realized that what I most needed to do was to get busy doing what I was supposed to be doing. Teaching and trying to influence education at the same time, so that we learn civility and compassion as we learn language and literacy. Speaking of a faith that gives grace to the humble and lowers the proud, that stands beside the oppressed and suffers with the hurting. Creating and critiquing cultural engagements that mold and form our consciousness and understanding of one another. Taking care of my family and friends, while learning to speak to those who would make us “other.”

But it’s not just business as usual. There was more I had to do. Withdraw from the sedative of social media, and concentrate my engagement. Stop to listen to discern where I was supposed to spend my time, my energies, my ears, my words. Do better. Do more collectively. Fight smarter.

And I watched as collective action happened around me, from journalists and essayists working harder to understand better, to activists and service workers stepping up to make our presence known, from people of faith coming honestly to prayer and truth-speaking, to progressives redoubling their efforts to combat white supremacy, patriarchy and misogyny, amok capitalism and oligarchies, abuses of human rights and inequality. And I was re=inspired to roll up my sleeves and not just watch.

Over this weekend, I’ve been figuring out how to roll up my sleeves, and where. It’s not worth sharing because it’s so specific and individual. Others are composing great lists of how to act, and those land on my list as well. But first and foremost, I sit and listen. I hear God telling me that despair and depression are a way to death. I hear that for me, right now, it’s time to get to work.

Graduating… from Preschool

Eden Preschool Graduation

Tis the season for graduations. Lengthy commencement speeches endured in sweaty crowdedness. Florid leis and loud hoots reminding us that every kid deserves a family that roots for them, that takes pride in their strut. Pictures, pictures, pictures, and muscling other people for position… for pictures.

In our small household, we “only” had a preschool graduation (someone isn’t done with his dissertation….)  I remember, early in his national fame, Barack Obama on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me ribbing the notion of a preschool graduation ceremony (I think Malia was that age at the time), suggesting wryly that maybe we ought to set our sights a bit higher. I know what he means, but I sure appreciated a little (actual) Pomp and Circumstance, because these first five years felt like they deserved some ceremony, some celebration. Is a preschool career worth that much hullabaloo? I say yes. Not because she’s accomplished the remarkable feat of surviving naptimes. But let’s call it a dress rehearsal for the bigger things that are bound to come, as well as an appreciation of the importance of these years for us.

As we soaked in the cuteness of dance performances and pledge recitations, I reflected on the significance of preschool. I won’t repeat here the promise and power of preschool for all, as has been eloquently argued by one of my heroes, David Kirp. Suffice it to say, there are few social policies that I’m more assured would make a positive impact than guaranteeing quality preschool universally. I know that sounds simple, and it’s not so simple– for instance, preschool teachers in our current system are severely underpaid compared to their K-12 counterparts, so we might be looking at a fairly expensive proposition to expand preschool access. But the investment in those critical years has a substantial body of evidence to show huge long term benefits. Especially if we can make sure the preschool we provide kids is quality.

But I’m immeasurably thankful that our kid got a great preschool education. Truly great. Those teachers of hers are amazing. We really didn’t need them to drill her in the ABCs, she had that covered. We didn’t need subtraction worksheets, or tough discipline for the “unruly” boys who pushed her off a slide. What we cherished was the social-emotional learning, patiently and lovingly rendered by her teachers. The way they comforted her when she was hurt, whether physical booboos or emotional ones. The way they taught her to talk to her classmates about taking turns, or not biting people, or joint projects of Magnatile kingdoms.

My wife and I teach adolescents, so early childhood’s not necessarily our realm of expertise, but we know enough to know that what’s going to be most consequential for her future test scores, earning power, and whatever reductive social indicator you want, is how capably her preschool teachers helped her to set goals about what crafts she made, how gently and persistently they taught her to respect boundaries, and how patiently they listened while she practiced using her words. What made our kid’s preschool quality was not how they “pushed” her towards “achievement,” but how lovingly they included and integrated all of the kids: the non-English speakers, the inattentive squirmers and handsy pokers, and all the four year-olds parroting their parents’ home-brewed inanities to one another– including ours. So three cheers to her preschool teachers, and to preschool teachers and staff everywhere.

I mentioned the dress rehearsal for things to come. As a teacher, one of the pleasures of the job is to see families come out to celebrate their children’s graduation. Especially when you have an inkling of the dedication needed to wake up every day and send them to school fed, the trials and tribulations to make sure their children aren’t left behind, and even the struggle with teachers and principals sometimes to broker a fair shot for their kid. Despite all of my family’s advantages and privilege, I can think of many times when my ability to provide the right steerage and environment for my daughter’s learning was tenuous. So I can only imagine the challenge if a parent is raising multiple children at different ages and stages, perhaps on their own, dealing with financial or legal insecurity. Parenting a child, even through those first five years, takes tremendous resilience.

A preschool graduation is a little oasis, a foretaste for those parents of those rewards, and a reminder that the efforts, headaches, and arguments were worth it for the wonder of the little one who is becoming her or his own person with every milestone.

 

 

Thank you, Revolutionary Mamas

magnificatCircumstances in my life have helped me to appreciate mothers much more in the last five years than I imagined I would when I entered my thirties.

But I’ve become convinced that, against the neglect, brutality, and arrogance of a broken, patriarchal world (I’m complicit), motherhoods are a kind of revolution. The kind we most need. I have a long way to go in fathoming this, even longer in living according to its lights. But today, specific to my flesh-and-blood mother, to the indefatigable mother of my daughter, and to the mothers in my community, I salute and give thanks.

Cultivated Gardens and Cacophonous Circuses


We don’t have many mirrors in our house, but sometimes I’m shuffling around rooms and I catch a glimpse of myself on some reflective surface. What an unpleasant intrusion! Besides the disconcerting reality of my actual face and proportions (so different from the picture of myself in my head…), those glimpses also reveal to me how often I’m in this house with a screen in my hand, a device in my ear, a pair of VR glasses enshrouding my visage. Just kidding, I don’t have VR glasses. Why, do you know where I can get some?

My point is, there are a lot of electronics in our house. I’m responsible for every one of them. I look around a room and say to my wife, “Looks great, but you know what’s missing? A twenty-two inch monitor!”I hate gardening. 

For some reason, maybe because I’ve turned our house into a buzzing den of energy-sucking machines, my wife has taken to gardening in our backyard. Our garden areas are comparatively tiny, and the flowers and plants she and our daughter nurture aren’t anything grand. I see her find the right time, in the cool of the evening, to water them, repot them, consider their colors and the shapes of petals, the red rotundity of three strawberries. It’s beautiful. And I’m already bored and impatient. Should I go heat up some dinner for us? 

Thanks to my friend, Pastor Albert Hong, I’ve begun reading The Cultivated Life by Susan S. Phillips. She’s a spiritual director and Sociology professor at New College Berkeley, and the book contemplates the spiritual cultivation (read: agricultural metaphors, nurturance, organic growth, other stuff that takes a long time) that runs counter to our contemporary noisiness. Her metaphor for that noisy world is the circus, crowded with entertainments and artifice, sideshows and sugar, flashing lights and fast rides. 

It’s hard to deny that pretty much all of us are intoxicated by the instant pokes and persistent vibrations of our super-programmed digital environs. And actually, when people begin tirades against our “digital media age” and the short attention spans our children are apparently condemned to because of the marketing and manipulation we’ve inflicted on them, I actually bristle a little bit. I think we overstate the case, imagining our own fanciful weekday afternoons bicycling by the creek under tree-shaded sunsets granting us the Wisdom of Ages, waxing self-congratulatory nostalgia against the kids we see who seem perpetually Snapfeeding memekatz or something superfluous like that. It’s classic curmudgeonliness sometimes, to condemn the channels and pay so little attention to what goes through them. Thank God I’m not like those teenagers, obsessed with their cell phones, while they are posting, Lord have mercy, I’m disgusted with myself…

Not all gadgets are evil, and not all gardens are good. That’s beside the point, though. The reality is, I find in my life a wasteland of dead crops, metaphorically speaking, of Genetically Modified Organisms instead of fruitfulness and flowering. Strewn around my soul are enclosures of desiccated, trampled grasses and flooded, gasping planter boxes. 

I find myself obese with media, gluttonous of connectivity, and vomiting communications all over the spiritual terrain of my surroundings. I could easily have the same problem without technology. Just come over and check out the piles of books and boxes of DVDs wallpapering our home. But the problem with my iPhone, tablets (yes that was plural), and laptops is that they torrentially pour this kind of contact into a garden that’s meant to be sprinkled and watered. We’re created to laugh out loud, to poke, to comment, and to share… but at speeds and in seasons that were supposed to be subjected to the rhythms of life. 

So here are a few simple moves of tiny salvation: 

-My phone has stations in my home. It can stay there. I will hear your call/ text/ FaceTime/ FriendRequest/ LinkedInEndorsement when it’s the right time. 

-My bedroom will be a sanctuary of materiality. Tunes with no i, candles with no Kindles, and friends with no profiles.

-I will spend time in the garden, allergies be damned. I will contemplate branches. I will leave my Macbook inside.