If I were a working class post-black kid
I recently discovered that when I was in elementary school in the mid-to-late nineties, two-thirds of Baltimore City public school first-through-fifth graders were reading below grade level. Fortunately, I was reading above grade level during that time. And I don’t credit my elementary school for that, nor do I believe it had to do with any innate ability I possessed.
This isn’t to suggest that I didn’t receive exemplary instruction from very committed, talented, hard-working teachers; I did. Nor do I want to shy away from my aptitude or natural talents. Rather, so much of my success is the result of the efforts from my parents and extended family. After all, it was my mother who encouraged me to read in the early stages of my development and fostered a rich learning environment. She ensured that I had enriching educational experiences during my formative years before I entered the public school system and made sure that I had a solid foundation, both academically and culturally — I sometimes joke that I was initially clueless to the pervasiveness of white hegemony, given that my formal education prior to elementary school was so focused on African American achievement, I was largely unaware of the existence and concerns of white people.
This is an important point to consider; I now understand how it is that members of the white majority can be so culturally unaware and inept. This cultural unawareness can be both empowering and debilitating. My mother tried her hardest to make sure that my education would neither be indoctrination nor subjugation — trying her best to avoid the trap that James Baldwin wrote so fearlessly about. She was so committed to my education that she moved us out of our predominately black, West Baltimore neighborhood and into a more culturally diverse (this means that there were white people) Northwest community so that I had an opportunity to attend a better elementary school.
But it wasn’t just my mother. My stepfather, grandparents and countless aunts pushed and guided me toward academic and intellectual pursuits. As an elementary school student and middle schooler, I would watch Charlie Rose with my grandfather and he would interrogate me on world affairs, history and public policy. I would discover James Baldwin on my own, but my mother guided me toward Richard Wright, and her favorite author, Langston Hughes. My aunts introduced me to comic books and speculative fiction, spring-boarding me into a love of writing, reading and literature. The cultivation of any talents that I might possess was truly a family affair and the same has been done with my two younger sisters, who will be entering their final year of high school.
And this is why the riddle of public education is so difficult. I benefited from attending some of the very best public schools that Baltimore City has to offer, but had it not been for the preparation that my family gave me, or for all of their support and encouragement, such opportunities would have surely been wasted. Education is transformational, but the public conversation has been limited in scope and focus; we seem only concerned with schools and teacher performance. This is a mistake. I wrote about this years ago. And so have policy experts and educators across the political spectrum. The public certainly needs excellent schools and excellent teachers; without them, my mother’s hard work would have likely been for naught. But if we don’t address the many other issues that impact educational growth, schools and teachers will only be able to do but so much; this isn’t defeatism, it is fact.
It took quite a bit of work and sacrifice for a solidly working class family to produce three academically inclined children; I shudder to think of what would have become of us if we were truly poor and disadvantaged and left without our industrious, nurturing parents.