School for Life: On Prep School, Poverty, & Education in the U.S.
As the Audacia conference approaches, I am excited and inspired by the prospect of two days of dialogue, reflection, networking, and collaboration which will ensue as we explore ways to secure education rights for girls and women around the world. As the product of 6 years of single sex education at a prestigious New York City prep school, I am familiar with the rich well of resources and inspiration that is born from a solid education. And when I talk about resources, I am not only referring to the first rate academic instruction and resources offered by an elite private school to its students, but also to the dynamic and complex landscape of experiences that will ultimately determine how- and if- you move in the world. To to this day, I credit my private school experience with fundamentally transforming my relationship to power- and the powers that be- and significantly influencing my inner workings and public life.
As much as it often pains me to think that I had to leave my community to be well educated, I am grateful for the opportunity. I don't condemn any community for ensuring that their children are educated and prepared for the challenges of a complex and intricate world. In fact, I regret that all people don't share this privilege and that systemic and institutionalized exclusion and marginalization have reserved learning for the privileged few. As someone who now understands the contemptible disparities in education for rich and poor in the United States, I am thankful that I escaped a system designed to make me fail.
I feel lucky to have received such a high quality education, particularly as a woman of color in this country. Might I add that this education was a woman-centered education? While today's reflection will really touch on the interactions between poverty in education in my community, I am proud to have been the product of a single sex education. Learning and growing in a community of women fortified my spirit, by protecting me (to some degree) from the gender inequities that affect learning communities worldwide. I had the privilege of learning in a space where women were respected, honored and celebrated. Women founded the school. Women designed the curriculum. And women learned, together, to grow into their own skin. I suppose that this was one of the greatest benefits of my experience, and the thing that I wish all students could have. A safe, healthy, rigorous learning environment that nurtures each individual to pursue their own truth, and be their very best at whatever they choose.
My desire to learn and explore the world were always nourished. No boys to distract or be given priority. No taboo learning areas. No limits. And perhaps, this is the single-most important lesson that I took from my experience. With the proper tools in hand, learning has no bounds. This is something that has stayed with me and shaped my life to this day. This is the root of my reflection.
As the first daughter of a working class mother, born in New York's 16th- and the nation's poorest- Congressional district, I wasn't supposed to succeed. Or at least according to statistics. By all official measures, my community was and is young (34.5% under 18 years old and 6.7% over 65, according to 2000 census data), mostly Latina/o, and poor with 42.2% of its residents living below the poverty line. Drug addiction, high drop out rates, alarming rates of violent crime inside and outside of schools, police brutality, disproportionate incarceration rates and high incidence of single, female headed households catalyzed by the extreme conditions of multi-generational poverty and marginalization, are the hallmarks of the community into which I was born. Oddly, I don't remember being- or thinking myself poor. By all accounts, despite modest means, we were fine and probably more fortunate than a lot of my neighbors.
I never missed a meal. I was always clean and safe within my home. My mother worked as a civil servant to provide for our household to the best of her ability, and later married my stepfather who also worked as a civil servant while he put himself through college and then graduate school. Like many of the men in my community, he had been in the military and in jail for a petty crime as a youth. The branch of his story rooted in both the prison- and military- industrial complex is much like many of the men in my community, at least the first half. He would later become a clinical social worker and therapist, counseling chemically dependent men and women and people afflicted by HIV/AIDS- two of the big "monsters" plaguing our community. While I never had a lot, I always had enough.
In the 5th grade, I was put through a series of tests and and began training for private school. Thanks to dedication of a very committed public school teacher who worked diligently to place as many of his students as possible, in good or better middle schools, I was selected to receive a scholarship to one of New York City's most selective independent schools. The annual tuition for my school was more than the average annual income for most of my neighbors.
Despite the obvious challenges of navigating a completely foreign socio-cultural landscape and the very palpable economic differences between myself and most of my schoolmates, I received a superior education. I should say as well, that despite an early introduction to racism and classism at the hands of babes, I received an exceptional education. Socially and academically, I feel that I was prepared for the world. The real world.
Beyond the profoundly rigorous academic training which distinguished my school even among the best, I also received a first rate education for life in a community of women that will forever shape me. Interdisciplinary courses in the sciences, arts, math, and humanities reinforced my father's teachings about social justice and human rights. Though not everyone would make the same conclusions about the fundamental inequities shaping our world, I would come to understand the world's history of conquest and subjugation, and humanity's tendencies toward resilience, resistance, and creativity in the face of extreme adversity.
At the tender age of 10, I would begin studying everything from the Victorian era Classics and Bible as Literature, to the histories of India, China, Women and African-Americans in the United States. Slowly, I would disentangle history while evolving as a student leader and youth activist in my own community. Slowly, I would begin to engage critical questions about my place in the United States, as a low-income, young woman of color. I would also begin to understand how profoundly my personal narrative would change as a well educated woman of color.
Education changed me. A good education, that is, changed me.
As much as I struggled with the day to day challenges of being "poor" and "colored" in an affluent, predominantly white setting, I also understood that I was privileged. Still poor. Still a woman. Still daughter of im/migrants. But privileged, and much better off than many of my peers and most anyone who looked like me anywhere else in the world, or my own neighborhood.
Beyond this moment, I could no longer be tracked into "gifted" classes where the being "gifted" meant I was allowed to read actual books rather than elementary texts. My peers no longer teased me for doing well in school. To the contrary. My new school was highly competitive. Excellence was a standard not an aspiration. While I often suffered because of my difference, I also met some of the most dedicated and competent scholars. Teachers and students. I made friends who have stayed with me my entire life. All highly successful women (and men) of color. I learned to interact openly and honestly with white people, and with that, to challenge white privilege while accepting the humanity in all people.
Rather than simply rejecting my "otherness" in this context- as I often did- I soon realized that sometimes you have to explore traditional bastions of power in order to fully understand how they operate. You can't just observe them from afar. You have to walk the path, taking in every sight and scent. Taste. Feel. And then, speak. Speak up- for yourself and for others. You have to understand power in order to effectively challenge it.
The practical differences between private and public school were easily discerned. I had more homework and study hours than all of my childhood friends and neighbors. I wore a uniform and "school girl" clothes, as my friends chided. I read novels and classic texts, conducted real science experiments and learned computer programming. Despite my lack of athletic prowess, I was required to experiment with just about every traditional American sport. I took jazz dance and drama, judo and yoga, photography (in a real photo laboratory), painting, and drawing. I studied French and Spanish, actually becoming literate in my second native language. By all standards, my education was well rounded and preparing me for a future filled with possibility- and choices.
Had a I remained in public school in my community- even despite my parents' most earnest efforts to secure "the best" education attainable- I know for a fact that what was truly the best (by all measures) would not be accessible. Even the best in my community was not good enough to compete with this standard, or prepare me to enter a good college or university. The public education system in the United States- and perhaps the rest of the world- is not designed to nurture critical thinking, life skills and a commitment to life long learning. It is not designed to create choices. It is not designed to prepare you to challenge and navigate places of power.
As an educator, youth worker, and someone who has worked within and in collaboration with the public education system, I know that most of our schools often feel like disconnected islands of desolation and discontent. Many of my students are lost in the classroom, and may by extension, be lost in the world upon completion of school. If they finish.
My students' parents are often just as lost. Mostly low income and immigrant or people of color, they entrust their children to a bureaucratic system that too often allows even the best to fall through the cracks. Because they lack financial resources- and therefore, access to the broader social fabric which defines "success" and achievement in our nation- many of my students and families are essentially struggling for the proverbial crumbs on the table.
Textbooks are rudimentary. Critical classroom time is devoted to preparing for standardized exams which capture very little in the way of learning. Critical thinking, dialogue, reflection, and learning are overshadowed by a standard school culture which seems to be more interested in imparting rigid codes of conduct than teaching. Despite cadres of dedicated teachers and administrators (in most cases), it always seems that what is accessible is never enough. Many of my students lack basic life skills and critical socio-emotional tools. They are neither academically prepared nor oriented as to the basic expectations of the "real world". As painful as it is for me to admit, some are not even literate.
As someone from a similar background who was privileged enough to experience one of the many alternatives, I am often disheartened by the state of public education and even, the state of our youth. I know that no people or community is born "unintelligent" or desires to be continuously relegated to the margins. I know that no community is innately programmed to fail. Unfortunately, what is designed for failure is our educational system, rooted in the inequitable distribution of power and resources, and centered on a Euroccentric worldview and culture of exclusion.
The youth in my community are bright, creative, resilient, and have as much potential as anybody to succeed if given the proper tools. Yet they are often trapped in a seemingly unending state of inertia, confounded by a nation's ambivalent commitment to equality in all things, including education. Even as I studied at one of the most elite- and perhaps elitist- educational institutions in the world, diversity, tolerance and inclusion were taught and celebrated. My classmates- mostly children of this nation's elite- understand that these are lessons for life, whether or not they subscribe to them. And yet this type of learning- both inside and outside of the classroom- seems light years away for most of the students I have had the privilege of working with over the years, in public schools.
As the mother of a toddler boy- statistically more likely than any other demographic in this nation to fail because he is black and Puerto Rican- I will continue to fight the good fight. I understand that I may not only have to explore but create alternatives for him and all of the other little boys and girls of color whose brilliance is threatened by a public education system marred by ineptitude.
In US inner cities, teaching everything from basic literacy to community organizing, seems to require an elevated level of consciousness and defiance, as you strive to challenge everything our children are taught from the time they are born. They- and we- must view obtaining a sound education as a revolutionary act. An act of defiance against a system- that whether by design or neglect- must be transformed to serve all of the people, all of the time.
For an interesting lecture on Changing the Education Paradigm, visit:
Please note that this blog is in draft form and will be updated periodically as I continue the reflection....