I think back to almost two decades ago, my whole life being uprooted from this small island alllllllllllll the way at the bottom of the Caribbean and being dropped smack dab in the suburbs of New Jersey. There was no orientation because it was April, 2 months shy of the end of the school year and here I was, forced to assimilate and given absolutely no room to figure shit out…this was it. I had been separated from my mother for a year at that point, so while she was my primary parent, that year from age 10 3/4 to 12 3/4 was where I grew by leaps and bounds, so when we reunited we were strangers. I was coming into my own body, my own mind, my own thought process and none of it made sense to anyone I knew because I was super duper confused. I was forced to deal with constant questions about where I was from, questions about the culture, the way I spoke and all the while I just felt foreign in every single sense of the word. I was amazed though by the different groups of people at my mostly black and Latino suburban school. I hadn’t ever met anyone from Dominican Republic nor any of the other Caribbean islands to speak to and interact with. I hadn’t ever met anyone from Morocco which was where my one of my classmates was from and that blew my mind. I didn’t know about lockers, changing periods and having an actual gym time except for what I’d read in Sweet Valley High books. The United States was a really fascinating place and I was thinking I could actually like it more than I knew.
My school was great…the other children were not so great but the teachers were phenomenal. I was able to connect with the teachers like I said in my previous posts in ways that really transformed my existence. There were four teachers in particular who really made my life worth living and I wish I could share with them the impact they had on my life. As I was becoming adjusted, finding my groove and really settling into my new environment, I was told that we were moving. My small town that comprised of mostly black and Latino people who were low to middle class was going to be a thing of my past. I was moving to a more affluent town, with affluent people who absolutely did not look like me nor did they identify with my experience on any level. I met people who were from various parts of the Middle East, Asia and their bank accounts absolutely matched the size of their egos. I met people my age or slightly older who drove cars worth more than my mom’s entire life savings. It was an interesting shift.
You’d think I was talking about a divide separated by an obvious landmark. However there was no such thing. There was maybe a mile or two at the most that separated these two towns. However the economic disparity was evident in the way both towns were policed and the way in which the teachers and faculty interacted with the students. One town was absolutely scrutinized and made wrong because of race but totally having to do with economics. The other town had police presence but the police walked on egg shells for fear of being sued, reprimanded or whatever else people with money, power and influence can do to small town cops. The real shocker and eye opener for me was the way things were taught. There was almost a dumbing down at the school where mostly black and Latino kids attended. There wasn’t an extra push for us to actualize and rise to our greatness despite the efforts of a few educators. The other town was filled with resources, a library with new books, guidance counselors that were invested in who I was and what I could be. The vested interest at the more affluent school was apparent to me and I got value from it, but it didn’t quite feel like home.
Given that little bit of history, I think of schools in the Bronx vs schools here in the suburbs or even Riverdale which is in the more affluent Bronx. The economic divide is blatant and is displayed based on a few things; police presence in schools, the way discipline is handled, the way some educators interact with the students and the way conversations about the future are handled. I don’t know how any student, anywhere can function freely knowing there are police officers on the premises. The sad part about lower income communities is that police presence is a constant and while the experience could be a positive one, it usually is not. Police, being present in schools lets kids know that things CAN escalate and should it escalate the repercussions may not match the offense. There’s also a lot to be said about the fact that these same educators who would get on their walkie-talkies to call for “back up” are the same ones who have the lives of these kids in their hands. These are the same educators who make it their business to enforce suspensions and detentions but won’t talk about the bright future this child can have because they don’t see the point. The level of apathy in schools that have low income and black and brown youth is like a plague that you can see, smell, taste and go home with like a tattoo on your brain. The ways in which educators fail students start with what thought they have about the population they are working with. Every single action or inaction matters when it comes to lives of children. Creating schools with many locked doors, police and or security presence, plus a focus on detentions and suspensions does not leave room for possibilities to grow and flourish. It creates an environment of fear, resentment, apathy, anger, rage and a host of other emotions that boil over in their homes, in classrooms and most often in the streets.
The comparison is obvious when it comes to schools with more money, therefore more influence and there’s more at stake. The more power you have is the better things can go in the short and long term. Suspensions and detentions are enforced sometimes but not at the same rates in the less affluent schools. The conversations being had in the more affluent schools about police presence is generally a non issue because there often is none. The conversations about college start at a much younger age, job prospects seem more palpable and attainable because the networks are vast and ready for these group of youth. Often times their parents are influencers in the world of finance, marketing, medicine and other fields where the sky is the limit. There are conversations about avenues that can be taken with numerous options and sometimes the opportunity for an internship presents itself early in the game. The push and the drive for success is extremely important to the more affluent parents but it is not always a necessity and because that’s pretty much true, the pressure to make it is there but it’s not necessarily a deal breaker. This creates room for growth, possibility, a looking forward to a future and when being successful is a guarantee the need to be just being a kid becomes the focus.
Money and power doesn’t buy happiness but it makes your life a hell of a lot easier. The police being around doesn’t mean you’ll be arrested but it makes your life a lot harder. Living in an upper middle class and affluent community doesn’t guarantee success but it does make it that much easier. Living paycheck to paycheck and in a community riddled with drugs and gang violence doesn’t mean you’ll become a statistic but it does make it harder. Thoughts give rise to action and if the thoughts are about survival, figuring out your next meal, dealing with issues at home or worrying about making it the next day is all that’s consuming your mind, school seems like just another thing to worry about. However if everything you need to survive is there and there’s no threat to your existence other than self imposed actions, then it becomes a lot easier to focus on school, the future and a successful life. There is no equity in a lot of arenas in this country but I think at the core we have to look at education. The opportunity for networking and meeting someone who can transform your life is significantly diminished if they don’t know that option even exists. The kids who already are at an economic disadvantage realizes that the gap widens as they grow older because their gaze on life becomes super real. I think the playing field needs to be level but I know that is an idealistic frame of mind. I just want my kids, to have the same access as kids who are more wealthy than they are. I want the same opportunities to be present and only when that happens will the gap begin to narrow.
I will do my part to narrow that gap. It’s my life work to love people and to support people and within that mission equity in education lives. I live to give my kids the opportunities that I had because I ended up at a school 2 miles away. I want to give my kids the opportunity to travel, intern and take life into their own hands. I want them to be audacious, bold, daring and advocates for themselves and their communities. However, I also want people to not fear them because of who they think they are. I don’t want people calling the cops on my kids because their racial bias isn’t in check. I want people 2 miles away to see my kids just like they see their kids and offer them kindness, compassion and opportunities the same way they do their kids. I want my kids to be seen as kids, not as thugs, menaces or a potential threat…but as fucking children just like their children. I want equity.