You already know the June scene: balloons and flowers, misty-eyed parents holding up cell-phone cameras, kids crossing a stage to receive graduation certificates, applause.
I walked in to the auditorium feeling a sense of astonishment that we had actually made it. Then, watching those culminating 8th graders give their speeches to each other, I realized that that they had done so much more than just ‘make it through.’
Nine years ago, we had enrolled our children in kindergarten, crossing our fingers and hoping that we had made the “right choice.” Ours were the first kids in a program integrating a few white/privileged kids with largely immigrant and working class kids in our gentrifying neighborhood.
I believed in the promise of what we were hoping would be built (indeed, it was that many degrees of maybe). I believed it deeply and wholly. The schools was not new, thousands of parents have sent their loved little ones before me; but we white/privileged families were new. And someone had go first. Just as well that it be me and my kid.
It has been… rocky. Parents have been anxious, teachers have been skeptical, administrations have been dubious (yes, plural. we have had many); support has been inconsistent and partial. And the kids, too, have struggled across the terrain of vastly different ethnic, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds with little institutional guidance. As a parent, I, too, could have had more discussion with my kid, been more intentional in the community.
Piloting something new is hard on everyone. As a parent, it is difficult to stay committed knowing that every kid after yours gets better, more. The learning curves for us all are steep; our second child’s much smoother experience provides constant reminder of this.
I steadied my parenty anxieties with the mantra that our middle class, white, neurotypical, every-privilege-check-box-checked kid would be fine. Because it’s true. When hearing friends talk about all the great goings-ons at other schools, I kept my comparisons consciously expanded beyond the limits of OtherMiddleClassMomsIKnow. “Seriously,” I would repeat to myself, “you’re not trying to raise your kids in Syria. Shut down that FOMO whining. You’re a middle class white mom with middle class white kids with all that privilege; enough.”
Believing hard in the mission was one thing, ‘going first’ felt like something else. I fantasized that there was something special about being part of a pilot story – though I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it was.
This year, with the class whittled down to a mere 6% of its kindergarten numbers (so many having left for “better schools”), the phenomenally thoughtful 8th grade teacher made sure that the kids knew that theirs was a special journey, that they were doing more than just showing up to school. Their kindergarten teacher, crying as she gave the keynote culmination speech, reminded them – reminded all of us – of the value of trying, of believing hard, of stepping up. And the students seemed to feel it, too; their weepy student speeches testified to that.
Someone likened this experience to boot camp. Beaten down, abused, made to do unsettling things in mud and sweltering heat while only being given trough-fit food, you emerge at the end as a unit, a team that has been through something transformative together. In that sense, maybe, yes. This is what it has been for this little group of kids.
To all of you out there who are building, who are sharing in the work, and whose kids aren’t getting ‘everything’ as this happens, hold on tight to your mission. Acknowledge the work with your kids, feel the pain AS growth. The discomfort is about something greater.