I started school when I was four. At the time, my mom had four kids and I was a particularly active little kid so my mom wanted to get me out of the house. I sound bitter but I’m not upset. This meant that I was a year younger than everyone I went to school with. There were good times. I was married off to other students at recess all through first grade. But as we got older, the difference between being our ages and the meanness of kids just came out. It was a private Christian school, but the kids weren’t nice. By fifth grade I felt left out. Kids refused to speak to me. They made fun of me. I didn’t know what it meant or how to handle any of it. I didn’t know that these were things you talked to a teacher about. It was hard. Still the highlight was the ride back and forth from Olney to West Philly during which the principal who drove us taught us the Hebrew alphabet, which I can still recite.
In the middle of the year, my mother began talking about moving us to public school. I liked the idea of doing something new. My mother talked to my first grade teacher who suggested that she hold me back a year if we switched schools so that I could catch up socially. So she did. I transferred to my local public school. I was in a class that was split 5th and 6th grades. Once I had my mother write a note saying I felt like the 5th graders were being ignored. I was like that. I made friends. Sort of. I was nervous. I didn’t know if people who didn’t go to church with me could be trusted. But mostly the students were kind.
In sixth grade, at recess, a fellow student molested me. I was embarrassed. I told my mom at lunch because we could walk home for lunch. She wrote a note to the teacher. The teacher brought me together with the accused and asked me if this happened. At first, I said no. He said, she liked it so much she didn’t even know it happened. I think that was a confession. My point is the public school teachers cared a lot. This teacher was very concerned and she did something about it. She was tough. Mrs. Fallon. I trusted her. She gave me a D in handwriting, and my mom explained to her at the parent-teacher conference that my brain worked faster than my hand.
Once in class, we were working on some project that involved duct tape. One student had the duct tape between his legs. I took the tape. Students laughed that I was trying to touch him. I was embarrassed. That night I went to local aerobics with my mom and the George Michael song “Faith” was on and I was so embarrassed given the earlier duct tape incident. But that kid was pretty sweet still. He wasn’t mean. These are the images I remember from middle school.
The next year, we were bussed because of overcrowding to a junior high kind of far away. I had to take SEPTA to Northeast Philly. I was in an honors class, I don’t even know how since I know now from a friend who was in my class who is now in the classics PhD program at Columbia that counselors scoffed at her mother when she tried to get her into the honors class telling her she was probably a difficult kid. Public school was sometimes without reason. I learned algebra. I had an amazing best friend who is now running her own tech company in Oakland. I was only there for eighth grade. I think at the time it was an 8th-10th school and they were adding a year every year to eventually become a high school.
I left that school after a year and went to the Philadelphia High School for Girls. It was a magnet school in Philly. My classes were full of people who were different than I was and yet not so different. I made friends with Muslims and atheist anarchists, Ukrainian Catholics and Jehovah Witnesses. It was cliquey, but everybody knew everyone else. It didn’t convince me that all-girls education was a good thing, because it left me with a sense that girls were petty. But now I’m not sure I blame the school–it might have been me. Anyway, I thrived. I played field hockey. I was in the play. I played lacrosse for a season. I studied Latin. I got one B, actually I think it was a B+–in calculus. That teacher, a Mr. Fallon (no relation to Mrs. Fallon from sixth grade) came to my high school graduation party. My grandfather ribbed him about giving me a B+. He told my grandpop that he might have given me a B+ but he showed up at the party. That’s what they did, those teachers, they showed up. I spoke at my high school graduation remembering something my freshmen English teacher had said about how even very smart people make mistakes — Homer nods.
I went to the College of William and Mary when I graduated, one of the oldest schools in the country. I took classes in the oldest continuous academic building in the country. Someone said during freshmen orientation that we should consider majoring in professors–find professors you love and take as many classes as you can with that person. That’s what I did. I considered majoring in history. Then I stumbled across a political theory course with a professor who made me the see the world in a whole new way. I had that joy of learning–I took four courses with that professor and then his contract wasn’t renewed. I didn’t take advantage of everything I could have. I was an intern for a senator the summer before my senior year. I didn’t know I could have gotten credits for that. No one told me. The school was proud of its capacity to teach students how to write but I still had to learn to write when I got to graduate school. I thought some faculty were capricious in their grading. One faculty member told another student that I had been upset about a grade, which I’m pretty sure was a FERPA violation. Did we even have FERPA then? But my classmates cared about the world, about thinking about it and improving it. Many of them went on to public education.
I spent most of my educational life in public schools. All of them were in some way in tension between their given purpose and what they thought they needed to do and be to be successful. But they saw themselves as having a public mission, as belonging to the community. I felt the reality of this tension when I taught at a public university for my first tenure-track job.
These institutions came to life through the people who were invested in education for the community. They made public education successful. Let’s not divest from it now.