Much is written bemoaning public schools. Flagging test scores, worries over college acceptance, and constant battles over funding make the pervasive tone around public schools one of concern at best, disdain at worst. Especially now, as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on making further remote education necessary, schooling feels uncertain and fragile, like a dream of a distant past. Despite these challenges, I believe there are real, tangible gifts that a public school education delivers. Most everything I pride myself on as an adult was planted or nurtured in a Chicago Public School. I can say without a doubt that it was the seven years I spent in CPS schools that taught me joy, resilience, tenacity, and compassion.
At my sixth-grade dance I learned that it doesn’t matter if you are good at dancing; it only matters that you try. In the contrived dark of the Language Arts classroom where we usually went over reading comprehension questions, Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” thumped over borrowed speakers as a crowd of 11-year-olds writhed gracelessly. Sure, there were some girls who took dance classes who flitted beautifully in and out of the crowd, and of course there were boys who seemed to still feel the echo of break dancing, but mostly it was a mass of frenetic energy pouring off of preteen bodies in the decidedly unromantic dusk of 6 PM in Chicago. Even I, a nerd of the highest order, then bespectacled, braced, and bowl-cut-banged, threw caution to the wind and thrashed around, dancing alongside peers who on school days usually ignored me. The lesson of the middle school CPS dance was one of participation, of enthusiasm, of not taking yourself too seriously. Whatever you do, even if you look stupid doing it, you have to at least try.
As a crossing guard I learned that community is a wide-reaching thing. For the hour or so I spent every morning and afternoon wearing a bright yellow sash, it did not matter if those I helped were people I knew, or my peers. I held my arms out and stood while students, parents, and strangers walking their dogs crossed the street. It didn’t matter if it was snowing or raining, cold or hot, I had to stand there because I said I would, because I had committed to the community that I would be there. Being a crossing guard instilled in me the sense that Mary Gage Peterson Elementary School extended beyond its four walls, that a school’s commitments were not only to its students but to the neighborhood it inhabited. Looking back, most of the adults I helped cross the sidewalk probably did not need my assistance. Still, that action taught me responsibility, of doing things even if they were boring or seemingly irrelevant to me, because there was a larger network of people to whom I was held accountable.
I learned a lot about outside society too, even if obliquely. When the police marched a sobbing seventh-grade boy out of school because he had stolen another student’s iPod, the mood in our classroom was one of stunned, somber incredulity. How could it be that these adults did not understand the feeling of a child looking at something they desperately wanted but could not afford? What was the thought process that allowed criminality to encroach on a 12-year-old? What was the basis for the profound lack of compassion in this action, so evident to us, a class of preteens? Couldn’t he just have given the iPod back? The boy came back to school the next week. I did not learn what eventually happened, but never forgot the profound injustice, the suspicion, the shock. I think back to it especially now as students across the city lobby their local school councils to rid their buildings of police officers. I trust and believe deeply that these students have learned the same things I did as a child; law enforcement is heartless and belongs nowhere near children in schools.
There was this lesson of the cafeteria, of learning to love biryani and spaghetti pie, the antidote to previous cafeterias where my own Japanese lunch was ridiculed. There was the lesson of International Night, of Tinikling and Korean fan dance. There was the lesson of friends wearing new hijabs and leaving to pray during the day, of respect and admiration for other faiths without demand for explanation. There was the lesson of after school snacks in the homes of families who were undocumented, who worked low-wage jobs, who showed us children deep and abiding hospitality nonetheless. There was the lesson of kicking one boy who ridiculed me mercilessly so hard in the shins that they turned blue, and being told anger is fine, but not to express it through violence. There were lessons of heartbreak, of tragedy that I cannot share here. There were lessons of learning to come back to school, to face the day even when I’d accidentally shaved off my eyebrows the night before. There were lessons of learning that some teachers were wrong in the way they treated us, their clear favorites and barely concealed disgust at the varied needs we had as a classroom, students clamoring. But there were also the lessons of the teachers that loved us, cared for us, chose books with characters who looked like us, encouraged us even as we failed them again and again. (It would be these teachers I would deliver donuts to nearly a decade later during the 2019 CTU strike, who stayed in those classrooms, who taught us perseverance and faith.)
August is over. The last few weeks have carried days that hint at autumn, breaching the surface of dawn with cool, clear mornings. It is a sensation for me that brings with it a rush of nostalgia and affection for school. As I write this now, I imagine the squeak of the hallways, the cacophony of the yard, the clang of the blue locker I would inevitably fill with junk. The stern white and black face of the clock and the sweep of its crimson second hand, the stairways filtered with watery light, the bell brr-ing, abrasive and clucking. The laughter of a distracted class, the huge hands of a teacher, grinning in a doorway. The bathrooms, their short stalls, the lack of a mirror to preen in. Each classroom and its seemingly immovable windows, the plastic-backed chairs and scuffed desks, the piles of books to be distributed. This hallowed hall where I was taught all that has helped me become the adult I am today. v