Thoughts on Schools

I’m writing to you from the magical land of Maplewood, NJ…ever heard of it?

Maybe you, like I and 10,000 other families, stumbled across this piece and immediately narrowed your Zillow search to 07040? Or maybe you longingly read this dazzling portrait of a town filled with diverse families and progressive journalists and authors and artists and entrepreneurs and tree lined streets and clapboard houses and even, holy hell, garage bars!? Or this one about those same progressives wrestling with what it means to actually BE progressive with just a touch of schadenfreude?

Or maybe it’s on your radar because of this one, this one, or this one?

Part legitimate Utopia, part Truman Show experiment, part Real World. This is the true story…of thousands of ex-Brooklynites…who live together… and have their lives written about by their neighbors who all happen to work at the New York Times …to find out what happens…when people have two kids…and start living in the…SUBURBS!

Well, things have gotten really real now kids.

TL; DR: There was a pandemic in March of 2020, and it shut down all of the schools, and parents were pissed off that their kids’ education was suffering, and then other parents were pissed that they weren’t cutting the teachers and the schools some slack, and then there were no plans to re-open the schools (and parents got pissed again) so then parents started pods with a paid teacher or proctor ensuring their kids don’t fall behind, and then other parents got pissed at the elitism and further degradation of a school system that was already (as you’ve read) suffering from segregation despite the community’s claims to be the most, THE MOST, progressive place on earth; and then the decision was made after much back and forth and total confusion to start the school year completely virtually, and parents were pissed, and then there was an option to go hybrid and people were, yep, pissed about having the option at all and about what the specifics of the option entailed. And then we went hybrid for a week (with elementary aged kids in school for two half days) before the SOMEA, the teachers’ union, said hell no this isn’t safe, and the schools closed again, and some parents supported the union and were pissed at the Superintendent, and some were pissed in the other direction.

And saying “pissed” is being glib. Parents are distraught, devastated, torn, enraged. Friendships have been ended over which side of the divide (only virtual or kids in schools) you fall. Facebook is a landmine of snark and name calling; every time you encounter another human outside of your own home you go into a fugue state and start speaking in tongues about SOMEA, asynchronous versus synchronous, the reported gas leak in one of the school buildings (unrelated to the pandemic but hey, let’s add that to the list).

There are some issues in life and politics and progress where people say “it’s complicated” when they really mean “I don’t want to be blamed for not being on the right side of history.” One example of that is the choice to vote for Trump or support any Republican, on any ticket, after 2012. It’s not complicated, you just don’t want to answer for your choice. To hear my thoughts on another thing that isn’t complicated but people want you to believe it is, you can read my 20,000 word travelogue called Postcards from Palestine in your spare time.

But here’s what I think about the school issue:

1) This actually is really, very complicated.

2) I don’t have an opinion.

Bye! See you next time!

Lolz. Of course I’m not doing that! Y’all are paying good ass money to hear my thoughts and I know you won’t let me off that easy.

The truth is that given how things have shaken out, I don’t have an opinion about whether we should open or not, or when or how, or what’s up with the union or if the Superintendent is a bad actor or not.

But thoughts are different than opinions. So here are mine.

We’re scared.

People are pissed because people are scared. (That’s generally how it goes). Parents are scared about their kids falling behind, being denied the educational experience for which they feel deserving, suffering from mental health issues due to lack of socialization. These are real fears, and I share some of them.

But our fears are much deeper than whether our kid will stay on grade reading level, or need a tutor next year to make up for the live instruction he’s missed out on, or be awkward when he’s around kids again.

We’re not just afraid school has been taken from our kids; we’re afraid everything has. We’re not just afraid that that the school building isn’t safe for our kids; we’re afraid it never will be. We’re not just afraid that things won’t get back to normal by fall, we’re afraid they won’t get back to normal, ever.

And it’s a lot easier to pick a villain - like the union, or the Superintendent, or the parents pushing for school to reopen, or the ones demanding that it stay closed - than to sit with the pain of this moment, and the pain of the uncertainty about what lies ahead of us.

We’re desperate for control.

Where do I file a complaint? Who can I bitch to about how all of this panned out? Where is your f**king manager?!

Yes we took our rage to the ballot box, and thank the goddesses that our voices were heard. But still, there’s still an itch to be scratched right now, and I’m actually legit proud of us, collectively, that given the anxiety of the moment, waiting in line at Trader Joe’s hasn’t turned into a daily Brazilian jiu-jitsu hair pulling match.

So this is one place where we can, with relative safety, bitch and moan and “call people out” and “demand answers” and “refuse to comply.”

There’s no better tool to wield in a fight to the death than your own offspring!

We’re lacking connection.

It’s been a long time, my friends. A long time since I had an interesting conversation at a cocktail party, a random encounter on the train, a challenging meeting that left me feeling aligned with a coworker I used to distrust.

This lack of stimulation or inputs or new memories turn small slights into festering dramas. I’m not implying that the crisis in our schools is small, but maybe the way someone worded something on Facebook that made you say you were disgusted and ashamed to be their neighbor was? Maybe it felt kind of…energizing? To actually care and engage with someone and have a new story to tell yourself, or your therapist, or your friend from home?

I think we maybe have forgotten, as the death toll climbs to numbers incomprehensible and the end inches further and further from our sight, to remember that maxim that we all should try to live by. “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.’ Does everyone include the union leaders, the teachers, the superintendent, the mother raging on Maplewood Moms*? It does. Now more than ever.

Things actually didn’t have to shake out this way.

I mean despite the fantasies of having a competent non-fascist President who hadn’t just fired the entire infectious disease team that specialized in animal to human transmission and told us to drink bleach…

What if on March 13th, or even anytime before or around summer, scientists informed leaders that they know this was going to be a very long haul, a very long return to full normalcy. And that the best thing we could do was freeze time, freeze the illusion of time, which we now equate with production?

What if our national leaders, driven and informed by scientists rooted in reality, decided that the 2020-2021 school year would not happen? If you “graduated” from Kindergarten in June of 2020, you were going to start 1st grade in September of 2021.

In the meantime, what if we put energy and funding into safe, free outdoor activities for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have anything to do? What if instead of trying to come up with a half-assed solution for my upper middle class child who is not diagnosed with a learning disability and lives in a house with two working parents who have pretty close to ultimate control over their schedules, we collectively decided to invest in and create solid systems for the kids who have parents that are both essential workers? Kids in single parent households? Kids with special needs?

What if we had corralled the technology of our time and the genius of humanity and created national public access television channels with rich educational programming tailored to each grade? Mo Willems starts the 2nd graders off with drawing class at 9am, while the Kindergarteners get an update on Fiona the hippo at the Cincinnati Zoo, and the 5th graders get a tour of the International Space Station led by Kate Rubins? Tell me that we couldn’t have made that happen.

What if we had gotten $2000 a month to stay home? So that our insane but understandable drive to earn, earn, earn in order to keep our families alive hadn’t overridden actually caring for them?

Look, if you’re here for detailed policy solutions and actual math, you’ve stumbled into the wrong damn Substack. But I am certain that when the toll of the disastrous handling of this crisis is accounted for, as well as the lifelong effects we will all carry from having to soldier on and pretend life and work and school should still happen in the midst of this trauma, my plan would have been a whole lot cheaper.

But that’s not where we are, is it? Instead we’re in Maplewood, where SOMEA and the district struck a deal late last night, meaning my kindergartener can go in to a cold school building in his mask and sit in a chair six feet away from any other body for eight hours next week. And it feels like a victory, to me, though a very, very small one.

The bottom line is that I am the most privileged of the privileged of humans on earth. I have the resources to get my kid what he needs. That’s not because of my hard work, by the way. It’s because of the way this fucked up, racist system is rigged.

So my opinion is that I support everyone - the teachers, the Superintendent, the janitors, the people assembling the free lunches given to every kid to avoid any stigma, the other parents with all of their fear and pain, and the kids.

I wish I knew the answer but I never have, and I never will. And though it may make me a relatively uninteresting Real World cast member, on this one I say - we’re all doing the best we can. It’s hard, no matter how you slice it.

Even in Utopia.