My first memory of school is really about the journey rather than the destination. We were living in Pennsylvania, on the side of a mountain in a fantastic two-story brick house with a wood porch and a spacious, sloping yard. There were no stores or factories or buildings nearby – at least none I ever noticed. I was in preschool though, so there is admittedly a lot I probably dismissed as unimportant. I do know that my preschool was not located within walking distance because we drove there every day. I vividly remember climbing into the front seat of the wide-bodied, white boat of a Chevrolet, feeling the black faux leather against my skin, barely able to contain my excitement about the day ahead. I attended the Jewish preschool because they were the best in town and my mom was impressed by their creative approach to learning. I may not be able to confirm her assessment from memory, but I can pinpoint preschool as the beginning of my lifelong passionate belief in the importance of education and its role as the answer to pretty much everything.
I attended kindergarten in Pennsylvania as well. We lived in a mixed socio-economic area, which meant we had a decent number of Title I kids who were eligible for free or reduced lunch. The only problem was that Garfield did not serve lunch. In fact, Garfield did not even have a kitchen; students were expected to go home for lunch. In many families, both parents worked, which meant that those kids were locked out of their houses and were not able to have lunch. An added problem was the cold and snowy winters made travel on foot for elementary aged kids somewhat perilous. There was no parent organization to take up the cause, something my parents found distressing, so they established a PTA with my father as president and my mother in charge of projects. Next, they went to work on securing lunches for the students at Garfield. The school board responded cynically, claiming that parents just did not want to have the bother of feeding their children at lunch and there was no way they would install a kitchen to address the problem. My mother argued the issue was the children who were due free lunches and were not receiving them, that a new kitchen was not required, and that lunches could be prepared at other schools and brought to Garfield. The stalemate might have continued indefinitely but it so happened that my parents attended church with the school principal. My mother made it her mission to seek him out every Sunday and pointedly observe “The kids still don’t have lunches.” I do not suppose I will ever know if he gave in to get my mother to leave him alone or if it was one of her other strategies that led to success. The most important result of the experience for me was the graphic demonstration that there were ways to influence the schools.
From Hell to Heaven
We moved to Kansas City the next year, the result of my father’s laboratory closing. My mother likened it to moving from “hell to heaven” because it was so clean, a stark contrast to the coal country town of Altoona. Our new house was located just about in the center of my new elementary, junior high, and high schools. I could literally walk across my backyard, climb the fence, skip over the creek, and I was on the playground. Across the street and down one block was the junior high and the high school was less than a quarter mile away. That part of the location was certainly attractive as it would allow my brother and I to participate in school activities without needing to have my parents drive us. Both my parents worked in Missouri — the Kansas/Missouri state line was not far from our house — but nothing would have persuaded them to live in Missouri because the schools in Kansas were better. A lot better. In the time I lived in Kansas City, not one educational tax increase was ever approved. In contrast, not one educational tax increase was ever denied to my Shawnee Mission schools. We later learned that the subdivision we had moved into originally had an unwritten rule that no families of color were permitted, a rule subtly, but effectively enforced by the realtors. It was no longer in force by the time I moved to Prairie Village, but change is slow and diversity was more of a word than a fact in my neighborhood.
At the time I was a student, I did not know that the schools I attended in the Shawnee Mission district were ranked among the top in the nation. I remember being disappointed that I would not have Mrs. Bunn, the young, lovely kindergarten teacher; I remember Mrs. Hoare, my energetic second grade teacher who stood barely taller than us; I remember my third-grade teacher, a stern, older woman who terrorized her students with threats of desk dumping. There was a report on India in fourth grade, I was accused of plagiarism in fifth grade, and broke my leg in sixth. Then along came junior high, a whole new world full of lockers. bells, new students, class choices, and better lunch options. I took drama, French, and orchestra, among other classes, experienced my first and last honors class, joined the track team, and became the volleyball team manager.
High school was not appreciably different from junior high. There were more bells and lockers and new kids, more choices, and even better lunch options. This was the first time I had ever heard of college track versus career track. I knew who would wind up in career track – the kids who took shop and home ec, wore black, and were usually found hanging around in the smoking lounge. Career track was never on my radar, though. I was taking classes like French, chemistry, and geometry. My father came from Southern Illinois poverty and was the first in his family to get past the sixth grade. He went on to graduate from college by way of a teacher’s scholarship and later returned to school while I was in junior high to obtain his Masters of Public Administration. My mother graduated from medical technology school and later obtained her bachelors degree. No one ever suggested I take anything but challenging, college preparatory classes, and bring home good grades. The question was not if college, the question was where college.
When I was a senior in high school, my mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. For the better part of the year she lay flat on her back in bed, barely able to get herself to the bathroom and back. Liquid soap appeared in the shower because Mom simply could not hold onto a bar of soap and I remember my father taking me shopping for my prom dress. Mom in bed was the new normal. Then, one day in the spring she got up, got dressed, and went to work. I had no idea what was going on – had her illness gone into remission? Did people with MS have remissions? I had no idea and was afraid to ask. All I could do was hope that this miracle would continue, one day at a time. I found out later than there was no remission, there was a phone call. The urologist’s office where my mother had worked for ten years needed to know if she was coming back soon. If she was not, they were sorry but they could no longer hold her job open. That put Mom in a bad position. She was not better by any means but she also was looking at the first of four years of private university tuition. They could not afford to send me to college without her working and for her, there was no question what came next — once again my mother showed me that education is important enough to warrant sacrifice.
Most of what I believe about education comes my family. I believe education is worth making an effort, like the one my parents initially made by driving me to the best preschool in the city. I believe education is valuable for all children and that fairness is a worthwhile endeavor, something I learn by my parents’ passionate efforts on behalf of other children. I believe education is worth sacrifice, something my mother showed me by getting out of bed to ensure my educational opportunities. Most of all, though, I believe in the power of education to inform, to transform, and to change the world.