Saturday, January 29, 2011

Overschooled

This is another long and intense one, fair warning. I got very angry. I teared up at points. I just let things out. So, I don't blame you if you turn back and I thank anyone who sticks around until the end in advance.

Most of the time, when I want to blog about a current event, I find that many bloggers were quicker on the draw and/or far more articulate and knowledgeable than myself, so I give up on the idea. This time, I feel that the event in question has been under-reported, and that I have more to say than many other people. I guess the revolution in Egypt--there is no other word for it--is overshadowing a lot of other things. But I think a few of my words need to be spent on the case of Kelley Williams-Bolar, who was sentenced to jail for sending her children to a "better" school outside their assigned school district.

It could have been worse for Williams-Bolar and her family. The sentence for falsifying her childrens' records for school was five years, and since she had 2 children, there were 2 counts. Judge Patricia Cosgrove suspended that sentence and gave her 10 days in jail, 80 hours of community service, and 3 years' probation. The truly horrific part is that Williams-Bolar's education and ability to support her family was put into jeopardy. Because she has been convicted of a felony, she cannot earn the education degree she'd been working towards, nor can she continue working as a teaching assistant for special-needs children.

I'd like to think that the simple injustice of the state of Ohio hammering down so hard upon a desperate mother who wanted to give her children the best lives possible would have affected me. But the truth is, my own mother could quite easily have been in Kelley Williams-Bolar's situation. A few things were different, of course. We were white, and exurban, and this occured in the early 1980s in Florida. But like Williams-Bolar, my mother falsified my school records. The address on file for the Ohio girls was their grandfather's. The address on file for me was my aunt's.

My father was many terrific things, but he was a horrible provider and a gambling addict. Auto mechanics usually don't starve in any economy, and my father was a good mechanic, but he made absolutely lousy decisions with money. It pains me to type all that. My mother attended night school. Things happened, and we ended up living in a cramped little camper on a campground. The thing was designed for a weekend; we spent almost two years living in it. I spent as much time as possible outside.

I'd make friends with children whose families were there for vacations, and then these friends would be gone after a week. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was not to have friends from school over, or to tell anyone anything about where I lived. Eventually, I just sort of stopped making friends. They always went away or wanted to have sleepovers or acted like I was weird. It became much too much of a hassle. My only friend was "Milhouse," who'd been my besty since preschool and who had some family secrets of his own. Since he was a boy, sleepovers weren't an issue.

There was a reason for all that, though. Had anyone at my school found out where I really lived, I would not have been allowed to attend. At all. Technically speaking, my family was homeless, because we didn't live in a "permanent" address. (It seemed all too permanent to us.) I couldn't even have attended public school in a "bad" district. I envied the kids in my working class public school.

Then our pastor told my parents about a scholarship that a Christian private school was granting to a couple of elementary school students. When I entered second grade, I was one of them. That was a real culture clash, to say the least--some of these kids casually talked about having to pick up their rooms so they wouldn't embarrass their parents when the cleaning lady came over. I worked hard to win the spelling bees and the Bible verse memorization contests at chapel just to prove to everyone that I belonged at the school the same as anyone else. I was frequently accused of "thinking you were so smart" being the reason I was shy and quiet on the playground. Everyone told me what a terrific opportunity it was and how I'd better not waste it, but I'm still tearing up almost 30 years later at the memory of how incredibly alone I felt.

They thought they were doing something good. No, scratch that, they *were* doing something good. My parents believed in education and hard work. Another thing we put down my aunt's address for was a library card. I read a lot. My father would read 5 words from the dictionary each night. My grandfather gave him a standing subscription to National Geographic magazine; he would transfer it to me after my father died, and my step-grandmother is still maintaining it for me every Christmas. We loved maps, globes, and atlases. I watched my mother carry home textbooks after an exhausting day of work and bend her head over them, even when she was pregnant with my younger brother. We wouldn't always live in this camper, I was promised. We would get out and live someplace we couldn't wait to show off to everybody. We just had to work for it and be patient.

We did get out. Shortly after my father died, my mother was able to move us into a townhouse that looked like a damned palace after that camper. (I was so amazed that the upstairs was ours, too!) We didn't have to lie anymore. It helped a lot when I decided I didn't want to vie for that scholarship again and returned to my former public school. Then we moved to Orlando. My mother moved with an eye toward school districts. We moved a few times within the Orlando area, and always ended up in apartments that were within view of very nice housing developments. (Actually, they were often overpriced, hastily constructed McMansions that were way too freakin' close to each other, but you know, the fox really thought those grapes were sour, too.)

One thing my wife and I have in common is being relatively "poor" kids in "rich" schools. A year after her parents emigrated to America from the Soviet Union, she was able to get into a math and science magnet school. (She blushes a little when she says she attended it now, because she works as a martial arts instructor and hardly uses what she learned there at all.) We've talked about what a relief uniforms were for us at times. They make it a little harder to distinguish "scholarship kids" from everyone else.

"Of course, you can tell after a few minutes," L'Ailee said casually. She lists indicators quickly: "Shoes, teeth, jewelry, backpack, electronic equipment, a girl's lipstick tube. You get more if you talk." We wonder what distinguished the Williams-Bolar girls from their classmates, or if they trusted the wrong people with a secret. We wonder whether someone was out to get them. The Copley-Fairlawn school district hired a private investigator to catch them living in subsidized housing outside the district, which doesn't seem very cost-effective to us, just extremely mean.

I know that "better" school districts are usually better because they have more funding, and funding comes from property taxes. People who live in wealthy subdivisions will pay more into that system than people who live in trailers or subsidized housing, obviously. So one can legitimately argue that a person who falsifies records to get their kids into a "better" district is stealing. In fact, Williams-Bolar and her father were also charged with theft.

I don't offer any public policy solutions. For one thing, since we don't have children, we don't keep up on education-related news that often. However, I do know that my mother and Kelley Williams-Bolar are far from the only parents who've "stolen" a decent education for their children. I've come across others who'd done it or had their parents do it for them.

I don't think it's a good idea to further deplete poor school districts' funds by diverting them to charter schools. I think more needs to be done to ensure that all kids get to go to "good" schools, and that "school choice" will only ensure that good schools get overcrowded. Congress' failure to pass the DREAM Act infuriated me. It seems so medieval, so backwards, so un-American, so downright fucking *cruel*, to deny children and young people the opportunity to get an education and work their way to a better life because of the "sins" of their parents. Their productivity would be a good thing for their communities and our country!

I hear white rural and exurban people with working-class roots who wouldn't have batted an eye at what my parents did in the 1980s express hatred toward black people in subsidized housing and Hispanic "illegals." Because, you know, *they* are sponges who bilk taxpayers and rely on The System; we were just scrappy hard workers who did what we had to under the circumstances. The rhetoric by rank-and-file Tea Partiers makes me cringe and cry and want to slap sense into people. There are people who *want* everyone who makes less than 6 figures divided!

I want to see hard work mean something and actually lead to better lives. I want to see the people who scream the loudest about the importance of family and parenting and protecting the children and school choice stand up for Kelley Williams-Bolar. As a queer woman, I find that they only seem to get really concerned about education if their little darlings in the "good" suburban schools learn that Oscar Wilde was gay and are told it's wrong to call their classmates "faggot." And, of course, they want to protect The Children from Glee and magazine covers depicting happy gay-headed families and legal recognition for their parents' same-sex spouses and two women holding hands on the street. Children who live in subsidized housing or the tin ghetto, who face violence in their schools or fall through the social cracks, never ever seem to count among The Children. Maybe the real problems are just too damned hard to address. Maybe it's more profitable to simply *look* like one is doing something.

I "watch Egypt," as a co-worker of mine put it, and know we've got some serious problems of our own. I hope they can be fixed before people end up gathered on the street with metal pipes and Molotov cocktails. I pray that if, Gods forbid, we do end up on the street with metal pipes and Molotov cocktails, we at least know who and what to hit, and have sense enough to not use them on each other.

Links, if you can stand to read more:

Change.org's petition and Twitter campaign on Kelley Williams-Bolar's behalf. Also, the ACLU addresses this case.

A map of the Middle East used on Fox News When I was that little girl in that camper, I could have done better than that.

We all know most news media majors on the minors and minors on the majors. Sometimes the minors aren't even real things. Cracked.com illustrates that with a hilarious takedown of "terrifying online trends invented by the news media."

The Naval Academy shows a gay Marine's husband the respect he deserves. Hopefully this won't be news anymore real soon.

We need to save money--the snowstorms cut into our hours, and we need to pay my mom back for the money she shelled out so we could attend my uncle's funeral. So of course Grooveshark and Pandas International conspired against me with this T-shirt!

While I'm tempting y'all with T-shirts, I added a couple with Kurt Vonnegut quotes and an "I Only Look Preppy" bumper sticker to my CafePress shop.

Finally, the snowstorms have had lots of consequences. Leave it to the Onion to address pornography deprivation!

5 comments:

Carie said...

When I was a kid we were way poor as well, my mom was a nanny to my uncles kids so she used his address to send us to the school his kids went to, I hated it, I learned alot, but I never fit in...its sad, just sad that education isn't equal for everyone. when I had my daughter we lived in a house in a bad area for schools, so when she turned 4 we scoured the town trying to find an afforadable place in a good or at least decent school district. The school she went to was old and run down, but the teachers were amazing and Ashley was beyond top of the class. If we had not found this tiny house that we could afford I would have probably lied as well :( sad but true...I hate it, I am so sad for feeling that way, but here where I live it was just as much for safety as for learning...I feel so horrid for the mother and the kids, such a sad situation

BostonPobble said...

I have deleted a long, rambling comment and will suffice it to say that you are *not* the only one who has been watching this story. Hugs to you.

Raven said...

Though I didn't grow up poor, my kids are growing up poor in an otherwise affluent suburb, and I know it's been hard for them to not be able to afford all the stuff their friends can buy. Luckily I have wealthy parents who help out with some stuff, but they can only do so much.

I can't believe how hard they were on that poor woman. Who doesn't long to offer their kids a better life? In what way is that a crime? I don't blame you for being emotional about it.

DaisyDeadhead said...

Wonderful post... I wrote about it from a parent's viewpoint HERE... I dunno what is worse, lying about the residence to get in or actually attempting to move there, as we did, and figuring out it was a huge mistake.

I am sorry we *ever* did it. So much of the bad shit that happened with my daughter was because she just didn't fit in there. I had no experience with such things, so I really didn't understand what I was subjecting her to.

Dr. Deb said...

There are students here that don't "live" in the area. It doesn't bother me at all. School taxes where I live are extremely high from town to town to town.