One of the most common reasons I hear for why people choose private over public schools is that they want their children to have “peers.” Now I will readily admit that I don’t want Braedan to be the only white kid in his class, any more than I would want him to be the only boy in his class. Being the “only” anything is lonely and isolating. Just ask the only woman in the office, the only black student in the school, the only gay guy on the sports team — it’s not easy.
But that being said, we all still need to look carefully at what we mean by that word: peers. Is it really only those who look like our own kids? Can’t they have peers, actual social or academic equals, who are otherwise different from them? Now there is no denying that there are a lot of children in the CH-UH schools who are very poor, often black, ill-prepared for learning, and living with parents who are uneducated and disengaged from their kids’ education. This is a sad reality. Many of these children will, unfortunately, never be the academic peers of my own children. But they are still good children, with open hearts and big dreams, and they too deserve the best possible educational experience.
Then there is another cohort of black children in our schools raised by mostly middle class educated parents who will no doubt be the academic peers — or superiors — of my children. Redefining who our peers are, or who our children’s peers are, and accepting that they may not always be the children of our own peers can be uncomfortable. But discomfort and pushing the boundaries and taking risks is the only way real progress is made. If we think about what it must have been like for our own parents, many of whom were born in segregated America, to see how truly integrated our schooling was, they certainly must had feelings of discomfort or maybe even distrust.
But that need not be passed down to the kids. Kids simply adapt to the situation they find themselves in and assume it is the norm. I didn’t know that my school experience was unusual or cutting-edge when I was in it, especially not at the elementary level. It simply was what it was. I thought everybody everywhere sat in a classroom that was half black and half white. I distinctly remember being stunned to learn how recently the civil rights movement and forced bussing had been to my own life. To me, that kind of legal segregation seemed like ancient history.
Not that we had reached a racial utopia. We had not and still have not. And this is the very reason we need to send our kids forth into this big and sometimes scary world and let them take the next steps. Let us let our children lead us to a better and more integrated and more tolerant society. We can’t just pat ourselves on the back because we voted for Barack Obama and think the struggle is over; we have not yet achieved that post-racial America of which he speaks. And we also can’t just shake our heads and say, “Wow, this really isn’t working, count me out.” We need to step into the ring — or allow our kids to step into the ring — and actually create positive societal changes.
I don’t mean for that to sound like I am sacrificing my kids, or their education, for some idealistic greater good. Quite the opposite, I believe I am giving them a gift by raising them (and educating them) in this unique community. I believe they will be better people because of it.
Cleveland Heights and the CH-UH schools have not gotten everything right, I know that. But I am not yet ready to give up on this great experiment.