Liz London is from New York City. She graduated from Vassar College in May of last year after concentrating in creative writing. As a Chicago Corps member she works as a Program Assistant at America SCORES Chicago, a soccer, creative writing and service learning after-school program.
I have spent my entire life in school, until now. It’s surprising then, that my greatest learning about school has come since being out of it. Partly it is due to the clarity and change in perspective that comes from more distance. Partly it is due to working at an after-school program and, correspondingly, the time and investment I’ve put into observing and studying schools and education. But more precisely, this year is about unlearning and then relearning schools on the most basic level: what is a school, what is education and what is their relationship to each other? It is not so much about acquiring new knowledge and information as it is about revising the “knowledge” I took for granted.
My experience in school is intrinsically linked to my privilege. I don’t mean attending private school or being in racially and socio-economically homogenous populations, neither of which is representative of my pre-college schooling. I mean that one of the main pillars of privilege is an idolization of education as the key to success for, more or less, all people. Consequently, a school’s primary role is to house this education; it didn’t occur to me that the purpose of schools might be more fundamental than that.
A couple of weeks ago, the morning of the day “snowmageddon” hit, my office discussed whether work would be cancelled. This depended mostly on whether Chicago Public Schools closed, which hadn’t happened in twelve years, a surprising fact if you’re familiar with Chicago winters. I immediately thought about my snow day memories. Though they were uncommon for New York City public schools, I fondly recalled the excitement of staying home and playing outside.
A coworker then explained that one of the main reasons CPS rarely cancels school is because, for a large portion of students, not being in school means not eating or not having heating, or both. I had to process this disturbing information before facing the disgust I felt with my own ignorance and triviality. Even though I work at schools where at least 90% of students receive free or reduced lunch, it would take more to un-train my mind from taking certain things for granted.
The public discourse regarding budgets, educational approaches and academic measurement is significant and essential; however, it can obscure the fact that devoting funds and attention to schools also should guarantee that, for at least part of the day, children have their basic needs met. Many families from the communities I work in struggle with homelessness, hunger, and lack of health care and, though schools may not solve the root causes of these pressing social issues, they are still relevant in this dialogue.
Schools may best be described, or really, envisioned, as a resource center for kids, one of which is teachers and teaching but also includes shelter, food and medical care. Education only has a chance of happening if those basic needs are met and the most frightening reality of our schools is that in cities and communities across the country, this is not the case.
Nowadays it is common and even en vogue to discuss education, especially among privileged classes of people. And, to be sure, these conversations about teacher’s unions, charter schools, Race to the Top, innovative teaching methods and funding allocation, to name a few, are immensely important. But how will we successfully educate or equalize opportunities for children when they attend school in dilapidated buildings, when they don’t have adequate heating, or when schools can’t provide affordable meals to their families? Unfortunately, this topic is somewhat less attractive to discuss at the dinner table. In fact, it is dangerously overlooked.
I was tremendously lucky that I didn’t rely on school for any basic needs but it led me to a false understanding of ‘the way things are.’ As with many types of privilege, it takes seeing the way things aren’t, to correct that.