It had been almost fifty years since I had been in an Episcopal church: not since boarding school days. This time the church was in mid-town Manhattan where my grandson, Harry, was in a pageant for Christmas. The church was where his Aunt Erika is the minister, she the sister on his mother, Johanna’s side. Harry had already told everyone the day before that knights in shining armor would also be there to help the “shepherds in their fields” if they needed it. It was lovely to watch him, intent, twirling his tiger mask around in his hands as the celebration began, waiting for his entrance up the steps and into the tableau.
For me, my years at St. Margaret’s came back in that velvet and wood room, with its recesses and windows of color, its places to read scripture, its spaces for song. I felt myself again, at sixteen, uneasy in the highly structured life I led, culminating in church services on Sunday. Monday through Saturday we had chapel each morning and prayers each night.
My reaction this time, decades later, was to space out, the way I had in the early sixties, words and response automatic, hymns familiar. I had it all by heart. Soon I watched Harry, restless in his fuzzy costume, his face sweet under his camel cloak ( he had discarded the tiger mask) and then listened to the choir and watched too, how Maury, my Jewish husband, not a religious man, enjoyed every minute, every carol. He reminded me when we left after an hour and half, that he loved ritual, song, and in particular the songs of Christmas.
I am not sure what it is in me that fights structure. I like some ritual, the way my classroom opened to the first minutes with my students, music on my small box on the windowsill, the quiet time with journals, the poem aloud at the end of each class. I just tighten when I am in overpowering church ceremonies, an odd anxiety coming on, a restless impatience to get out. This Christmas, I finally relaxed into it , let the familiar words to the songs carry me along. After all, now I was not distracted by plans for escaping school grounds, for disrupting the restricted life I led. That was long past. My body seemed to tell me that I could let those years go.
My parents believed that St Margaret’s School was the best. My mother had gone there and so I, oldest child and daughter, would go there too. Yet my father was never quite sure about “St. Mags” as he called it. He was amused at the rules, at the fact that even he, father and tuition provider,was not allowed to carry my suitcase up to my dorm room for me after break because men were not allowed beyond the first floor. He did believe I would get a superior classroom experience, and a discipline in living in such an environment centered around academics, lights out, chapel and prayers and church. I realized the benevolent impulse behind this belief, much later in my life. I understood that he had also found me outspoken as I grew into pre-teen years and convinced himself that this prep school was what I needed for a future filled with opportunities and choices. So I went. And so I learned to read literature, to arrange flowers in a vase, French conversation and smelly science experiments.
I thought of his impulse to give to me, despite some doubts, the best education he could as I read about parents who have moved to downtown Minneapolis, the North Loop and want the best for their children: they are concerned about where these kids will go to school. They do not believe there is one that exists now that will work for them. Being a grandmother of Harry, soon to enter school, I know that I want the same for him, a place of safety, challenge, peace. In all probability he will be in school in Brooklyn and there will be all kinds of children in his school. His parents will struggle to find a place for him, and I will struggle right along with them. Because when it comes to your kids, you do what is best, you do all you can, to get him or her into the finest classrooms. In our case and in Harry’s case too, one of the things that mattered and matters now is the chance to be with students of not only different skin colors, who come from cultures not familiar to him, but also from different economic situations.
What troubles me, is that the parents featured in the Downtown Journal story might not consider the importance of a diverse school, given the segregation in this city. They are looking for a building. Across the freeway, a few miles from where they live, is the north side of Minneapolis where numerous schools were shut down years ago. There are schools that are still going along, educating students each day. These schools struggle with high rates of poverty. The resources are spent, not as often as upper middle class parents would like, on music, art, theater, but rather on test preparation, breakfast and lunch and even in some cases in school food shelves.
They are here, in this city, and they have some remarkable teachers. What keeps us from bring these little ones together? What keeps us from providing buses for north side kids to come to schools where these primarily white children will be attending once they are set up? What keeps the privileged white kids from becoming part of the vibrant community that is on the north side of our city?
If Harry were here, would I want him to attend Lucy Laney in two years? I would like to say yes, because I have heard that Lucy Laney is a good place. But that is the question, isn’t it? When it comes to our own families, our own babies, we get to choose the best, no matter our political beliefs, our life’s work for equity. Bill Ayers, an old friend, a writer and educator, said he realized as much when I saw him a few months ago in Chicago. He said his grandkids were in a privileged school in the city and he understood how people might react to that. He had told his son and daughter that they had to choose what was the best education they could find for their children, his grandchildren. He said whatever they chose he would keep fighting for equity for all kids, resources for all kids, integration of schools in all parts of the city.
We agreed on the sad fact that so many people do not acknowledge or even believe that the parents of the poorest kids also want the best for their babies. What is so sad in this city is that we can’t come together from our separate worlds, our separate neighborhoods and create schools that work for us all.
Here is my hope then, given that teenage young woman who sat in her Episcopal school week after week for three years, that no matter where our students go to school, they will come out with the important questions, they will challenge inequity of resources and they will be rebellious, restless and full of indignation. If we are lucky they will question and argue and challenge the very system in which they are a student at the time they are there, no matter the neighborhood where they live. If we cannot manage true integration here, can we at least keep alive the desire for it?
And if all else fails, perhaps we can tap into some of Harry’s knights in shining armor for help.