Education and Community

When our children are born, I think most of us feel compelled to hunker down with our partners, parents, and closest friends for a long spell of gazing at the baby. It’s like circling the wagons: creating a tight, safe circle in which our new one can stretch, yawn, and roll around to the delight of everyone who is very happily looking inward. It feels right to draw close and narrow the known world down to its very essentials: nourishment, sleep, intimacy.

But then they get bigger, and we start to look around. This happens whether you work outside the home, are a stay at home mother, or figure out something in between: as our children toddle into the world beyond that safe circle of home, we consider our neighborhoods, schools, and local culture with fresh eyes. How to be a family in this community? What will we share, and what will we partake of?

Nothing brought this into sharper relief for me than when our eldest child went to kindergarten. She was an enthusiastic learner and had always loved school; she couldn’t wait for real homework. We sent her to a small, urban public school with a high percentage of poor children from nearby public housing. Her teacher was caring and warm and hugged me when my eyes welled with tears on the first day. It all seemed perfect: a true public institution that was a bit ragged around the edges but welcoming of all children in an inspiring way.

By January, we were in a muddle. My daughter was liking school less and less. The day was long, the time outdoors nearly nonexistent, the classroom management techniques tedious, and she was positively deluged by dittos. Worksheets, endless worksheets! It broke our hearts to hear her ask to stay home on Monday mornings. So in the end, after months of deliberation, we applied for aid and were able to send her to private school.

She’s now in first grade. Her school is beautiful. I don’t know if I could design a better one. But I am still plagued by doubts about the choice: something about our participation in this self-selected, elite community feels wrong. Our neighbors aren’t there. The poor kids from public  housing aren’t there. The children with learning difficulties aren’t there. And while the academics are so, so, so much better, my kid still has hard days. She would still rather stay home some mornings. Even a fancy private school can’t protect you from the fact that growing up can be tough.

At this time in our lives, the choices we make about our children’s educations have a bigger impact on how we participate in community life than anything else. I read David Brooks’ column last week on how our culture is polarized into two separate “tribes” (educated upper and poor, uneducated lower) that  live lives completely divorced from one another. He advocates a National Service program that might draw our national tribes together, at least for a short time. I couldn’t help but reflect on our choice of school. We live in a town with many expensive private schools and many struggling public schools. It makes for lack of neighborhood cohesion and a disturbing stratification along tribal lines that begins at a tender age.

So often we pose these problems as family vs. community: would you choose your child’s happiness over supporting public schools? Is your kid more important than the public good? But maybe that’s a false kind of set up. Maybe we have to think about education – and happiness – in more communal terms. Maybe throwing our lot in with our neighbors–all of them–is a way of honoring our interdependence and teaching our children something about personhood that is hard to learn in a homogenous setting where everyone agrees with one another.

And it needn’t be a choice between public and private. I know many home schooled children experience the diversity and richness of their communities as part of their unique education. I am not sure what form it might take, but what I am longing for is a more inclusive vision of what is best for children. Maybe it is best for kids to learn and grow around people possessing all kinds of abilities and experiences and bodies and imaginations.

I would so like to hear your thoughts on this complicated question. How do your choices around education impact your family’s role in the broader community? What value does diversity hold for you when it comes to your children, and yourself? Please share!

And please stop by and visit my blog, Homemade Time. New conversation partners on the questions (big and small) that come with motherhood are so very, very welcome.


About Meagan Howell

Meagan Howell is a freelance writer and social worker who loves art, books, yoga, friends, music, being outside, and helping to build communities of all sorts. Meagan lives in Maryland with her husband and two children and writes about motherhood at Homemade Time.

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