Yesterday was our daughter’s first day of school! It marks the beginning of a whole new stage of our lives. She is now officially plugged into the public school matrix – in Georgia of all places. We will have to be hyper-vigilant to ensure that the beautiful flames of curiosity, inquiry, budding logic and self-confidence that all children have are not extinguished in her by the school system. It is a shame to have to view public schools in that way, but the reality is what it is. For so many black children, independent of class, the public school system can be a danger to their natural intellect and thirst for knowledge. The damning and persistent achievement gap between black and white students is evidence of this danger.
My wife and I experienced the bundle of emotions that you would imagine from parents sending their children off to the first day of kindergarten. We wondered about how well we have prepared her for this first step into the world? How have we supported her self-confidence? Have we encouraged her to ask questions and be reasonably critical of things? We even took bets about who might cry. The school organized a “Kiss and Cry” for parents to support each other after dropping their kids off.
Our little girl looked even more beautifulicous and smart in her crisp and clean school uniform. Her braids were interwoven with the precision and inertia of centuries of black women prettying up their little girls for new beginnings. Her face was shinny with Jergens Original Scent. Her uniform issue K-Swiss sneakers were immaculate. All was happy. She found several friends of hers in her class, her teacher was energetic, very welcoming and highly organized. The other children looked equally eager, sharp and ready to begin.
There are three girls’ classrooms in kindergarten at her school. Two of them are the same and one is for students who need a little more attention. The two regular classes (I recognize that I am guilty of assigning labels already) are very mixed as is the school. While the school is predominantly black, the incoming classes are reflecting the changing neighborhood and are increasingly white. My daughter’s class is majority white and the other is probably half black and half white. The third class is for children who haven’t yet grasped or been exposed to the basics of the alphabet, numbers, colors, shapes etc.
After leaving my daughter’s class and sticking my head in the other class which is right next to hers, I was happy. Looking at all the children and the proud parents was a beautiful and emotional experience. Then I went to take a look into the extra needs class which is across the hall. All the happiness of the moment was immediately knocked out of me. That class was nearly exclusively black. Of the 20 or so girls, there was one white girl who was obviously white and two others whose ethnicity I couldn’t discern. The public school system and its specter of brutality was sitting at one of the desks smiling wickedly at me.
How is it that at 5 years old, on the very first day of school, black children are already behind? It is possible that if their teacher is exceptional, they will be able to catch up to the others and level the playing field. In this school their teacher is. The problem is that in the system in general, the worst teachers are those offered to students with the most need. As groups, the learning curves and academic achievement curves between these little black girls and their “regular class” counterparts are likely to never intersect.
Their trajectory may have already been set and their first day of school was yesterday.