The Miller Street School is a racially segregated school in a racially segregated community in a racially segregated city – post Brown v the Board of Education. All evidence – high stakes testing that can change the fiscal nature of a school, as well as its teaching methods, including the elimination of teachers and administrators, standardized testing, an increase in charter schools and home schooling, privileged students attending private schools (all this occurring while illiteracy rises) – suggests that, in practice, Plessy v Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court ruling of “separate but equal” – meaning, the acceptance of a dual system of education – is more appealing to the dominant class.
A “separate but equal” education system restricts access to social mobility; it strengthens a hierarchical socio-economic system controlled by few. The gains of the Civil Rights Movement are long forgotten in education. Privileged African Americans along with white Americans have given up the struggle for integration, receiving undeniable benefits from private academies. “Separate but equal” has become a rationale for a dual system in American society – the privileged succeed and the underprivileged must find what works, though always one step behind. We then call attention to the infrequent victories coming out of challenged communities, but we never bring up the obvious: the lack of adherence to Brown v the Board of Education. The truth is that the Miller Street School is the result of “separate but equal.” I represented a potential voice that could speak of the despair caused by indifference. But I sensed the parents also wanted me to address its cause – and my role in it. This is beyond what I had planned – research was all I was after, as we in academia like to say. But I was being pulled into something larger, the dynamics of which I didn’t understand. I was being led into a reimagining of myself as an educator.
I was deep in thought, reflecting on my predicament, when I spotted Juan Ramos across the street. He nodded hello from a distance and gave me a smile of recognition. Juan and I immediately took a liking to each other. He was a lanky, long-limbed, fifty-seven-year-old Puerto Rican born in the United States, who walks with a cane because his knees are arthritic and weak. Yet he takes his grandchildren to school on foot every day because their mother Sara—his stepdaughter—works long hours. There isn’t a father around. Juan sees to the children’s homework, gives them dinner, puts them to bed. He is a diabetic on Medicare and looks much older than he is, beaten down. He can’t work, so he lives on social security. (Juan went through a period without insurance that landed him in the emergency room because he couldn’t afford the prescribed medicine, and his blood glucose level rose to 800.) He is nearly blind in one eye, having sustained an injury when he was hanging a billboard; the vinyl edge of it snapped his eye in a strong gust of wind. As vulnerable as he is, Juan is the backbone of this small American family.
“Anything happens, you know, I try to be involved. I give something to everyone,” said Juan in accented English. “Kids need watching. There is no village to raise a child here. I take my kids to school feeling desperate, you know. I don’t know what’s there for them tomorrow. Maybe nothing. Gotta keep’m safe. Is all I can do, you know man. All I can do.”
He lowered his head and shook it back and forth. Then he pulled out a letter from his jacket pocket and handed the tightly folded square to me while leaning hard on his cane. It was from the Newark Board of Education.
“Look,” he said. “What’s it mean, man? I don’t understand what they’re saying. Whata they saying about my kid?”
We went into the school nurse’s waiting room, a quiet, private place, and sat side-by-side in gray plastic chairs. I read the document, which said that one of his kids, the oldest, Julio, needed special education because of his problems with reading. The Board of Education was informing Juan that they were going to provide his son with a special class to work on reading skills. The Board was willing to test Julio for “learning disabilities”. I reached for Juan’s shoulder and leaned in and told him that this was a good thing because the Board was acting on teacher recommendations that his grandson needed extra help. I looked him straight in the eye, my forearms resting on my thighs as if I were an athlete sitting on the bench waiting to be called into the game. Julio had been identified and would likely receive a modified education plan that would include additional reading classes. But I realized, having deconstructed the letter for Juan, that I was cast unexpectedly in the role of ad-man and apologist for the education system, explaining the best-case scenario, the ideal, in an environment that couldn’t possibly meet all the special needs cases it has. Julio would be added to a list of names and may or may not receive any adequate help at all. Or he might end up in a dull classroom with an unqualified “specialist” and spin his wheels. He might even be worse off – but I insisted on a better picture, doing the system’s bidding, erring on the side of hope not logic. I couldn’t locate the truth. I felt inadequate, something we may all feel when confronted by such despair. I was an “institution man,” not a teacher.
“I can’t get the kids away from watching TV,” he said, as if somehow Julio’s learning challenges were his doing. “They like to stay up late. Man, I know it’s no good. I don’t know what to do.”
Many parents blame themselves for their children’s lot in life, a mystifying narrative that is leveled by those who seem to think that simply pulling hard on the bootstraps will do the trick. Work harder is the mantra of a new racism in America that is subtle and profound. We did it, says this narrative, why can’t you? It must be that you’re not working hard enough, that’s what it is. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a sociologist at Duke University, in his book Racism Without Racists, calls this “racism lite”: “Instead of relying on name-calling (niggers, spics, chinks), color-blind racism otherizes softly (‘these people are human, too’); instead of proclaiming that God placed minorities in the world in a servile position, it suggests that minorities are behind because they do not work hard enough; instead of viewing prejudice against interracial marriage as wrong on a racial basis, it regards interracial marriage as ‘problematic’ because of concerns over the children, location, or the extra burden it places on couples.” This is the latest reasoning for man-made poverty and segregation.
“Why don’t they teach us how to help our children?” pleaded Juan in frustration. “This stuff is hard, man, you know. I don’t get the math. If they helped us, we can help them. I can help him read. I can. I just need some help. What can I do, man? Tell me. Give me something.”
“Well, one thing you can do is turn off the TV,” I said, unsure of how to begin to answer him. “We did this a long time ago in my house, and you’d be surprised how things change.”
“Oh man, that’s hard, you know. They ain’t going to like it. I sit with them and try to help them with the homework, but some stuff I don’t get. That’s what I need, help with understanding what it is they’re doing.”
I didn’t know how to help Juan, except to translate Board of Education letters. Education has changed; it’s more complex, subjects more sophisticated. But Juan has remained the same. The Math his kids take in school, the books they read are beyond Juan. No one helped him when he was younger so he doesn’t have the ability to help his family. It’s an endless, destructive cycle. Public schools such as Miller Street are barely able to provide for students, what can they do for the families of the kids, for Juan? The challenge is that schools in neglected communities, by default, become community centers, a hub. Families come to the school for answers. They see education as a place with answers, a place where knowledge is center stage. Families come to Miller Street to demystify the challenges they face. In our current zeal for education reform, we fail to understand that, in some places, community reform is needed if education reform is the goal. One can’t happen without the other. The insurgency from the mean streets is too strong.
Juan Ramos is in Miller Street every day – as are other parents – lending a hand where they can. They go on field trips, ask questions, and want to know how best to help. A sense of powerlessness comes from having to deal with confusing bureaucracies – education, health care, welfare, human resources. It also comes from having to walk the hazardous streets of the South Ward. In this complex square plot of earth, parents have limitations, as we all do, but the greatest of all is lacking the language of social mobility – a missing professional class that communicates about opportunities and has the means to fund them. Education is not providing the means for social mobility to the people of the South Ward. The problem in school begins and ends with the teachers.