Sunday, February 9, 2014

Faith in Public School

I am not keeping up with this blog half as well as I thought I would. When I became a teacher, an old high school (boy)friend with whom I still keep in touch told me something along the lines of this: "Your entire life is going to change. It's not a bad thing, but it's a big thing. Teaching can be socially isolating. Self-awareness and self-care is important so you don't burn out." He should know. He's been an English teacher and hockey coach at a New England prep school for 15 years. But prep schools... well, they're very different from public schools, aren't they?

Are they?

It depends on the prep school and it depends on the public school. Some public school districts have more money than some privately funded schools, and those districts often excel in academics and athletics. But what makes a school "good"? How do you even qualify "good"? What makes one educational experience so different from another? If you pay for parochial or private education, is it better? If so, why? If  not, why not?

I have a lot of questions. I have a lot of hope and a lot of doubt. Welcome to my head.

My own education was a mash-up of public and parochial misadventures. I was a public school kid until the start of sixth grade, when my mother jettisoned me to the local Catholic middle school where my grandmother was an English teacher. After three socially awkward years there, I was accepted to a small, all-girls Catholic academy in a nearby town--not to be confused with the all-girls Catholic high school in the area. Oh no. The school I went to highly prized its status as an academy--not a high school--something for which I had equal parts pride and disdain.

My parochial education was decent. It could have been better; it could have been a lot worse. I learned a lot in English classes, and I cried a lot through three years of Latin. I made some exceptional lifelong friendships, and I have treasured memories from my time there. Yet the high school I attended was a painfully sheltered environment, and some of us knew it. So me and my closest girlfriend found the antidote in spending a lot of our free time hanging out with our public school friends. With them, we cut our baby teeth in the world while making some big, yet fun mistakes. With them, we learned what it meant to have friends who loved and accepted us for exactly who we were, not what town we came from, how much money we had or what prep school boys we were dating. And we did date prep school boys--my old (boy)friend, mentioned above, was a starting hockey player from Fairfield Prep. He was also a less sheltered New Haven kid with a checked family background, though, and therefore he had more practical sense than some of his prep school peers. This could be why our friendship has endured 24 years. But was my public school friends with whom I was usually most comfortable being myself.


I didn't always fit in with them, either. They all went to school together and understood each other's stories about teachers and classmates forever unknown to me. Many of them were from more affluent backgrounds than any of my private school friends. They were able to wear whatever they wanted to school, while I was stuck in a scratchy wool uniform. Their schools had cool teachers, big art programs, crazy fights. Their schools had kids of different races, while my school had, like, one black kid. Through public school, they had opportunities at Yale and other universities that I could only dream of, as all opportunities for me were self-contained within the "academy"--except for one. Striking out on my own, I sought out and was accepted to the Yale Daily News Summer Journalism Program, a summer writing program that had a huge impact on me and the choices I later made in life. But my school never encouraged my interest in that program. My mother did.

After high school, college was nothing I had hoped it would be. Having grown up in a family of Georgetown, Smith, Fordham and even Yale alums, I was disappointed at my options upon high school graduation. Being a then-only child of average grades and mediocre athleticism in a middle class family, I qualified for very little aid or scholarships. My parents had never saved enough money for me to go to school, as most of it had been spent on parochial school. Despite being accepted to even my "reach" schools, I enrolled at the local state college campus and commuted to school on and off for seven years, before finally earning my BA in English. My public school friends, however, were accepted to--and attended--colleges such as the New School, Emerson, Rutgers and NYU. My more financially secure and more academically supported parochial classmates attended BU, BC, Tulane, Duke and a host of good Catholic colleges. But for me, seven years of Catholic school did not guarantee a brighter future.

Maybe it wasn't supposed to. Maybe it was just a opportunity for me to connect with friends in a Catholic environment, and for that experience I am grateful. (Ironically, many of my fellow alumni are public school teachers.) But faith is a very personal thing, and I don't think it's something you can ensure your child will graduate with just because you paid tuition to a Catholic school. When I made the decision several years ago to pull my kids out of Catholic school after just two years and enroll them in our neighborhood public school, I did so with mixed emotions. Their experience at Catholic school had been good. But it wasn't enough, and I resented paying more than $5k per kid, per year for an experience that fell short of what my children needed. The school simply did not offer the opportunities available to them at public school. And as for faith...well, I never felt I needed to rely on school to teach that. We taught it at home. We reinforced it by going to mass. We did what we could to give the boys a solid foundation. Something for them to maybe someday reject, if that is their choice. But also something for them to return to.

I wanted my children to experience education side by side with children of all religions, because the world isn't Catholic. I wanted my children to experience education side by side with children of all races, because their Catholic school was only somewhat integrated. Still, their public school is not nearly as integrated as some of the other schools in the city, due to the fact that it is a neighborhood school and our neighborhood is overwhelmingly white. But it is more racially, religiously, ethnically, and socio-economically diverse than their Catholic school was, and that will reinforce some of Jesus' teachings more than parochial school can--if you want to look at it that way.

We are hardly bible thumpers, but faith is important to us. My boys are altar servers, and a couple of weeks ago they were sitting on the altar while our pastor gave a Catholic Schools Week homily. It had nothing to do with the gospel. It started with a fear-mongering claim that public schools have banned the Pledge of Allegiance (they haven't, and I almost stood up and corrected him), and it centered on drumming up business for our parish's school, on increasing enrollment, on touting a school that is centered on "faith". It seemed he held up Catholic schools as being superior to the alternative (read: public school). As our pastor went on to extol the virtues of our parish's school--and it is true that there are many--I looked around the church; the majority of the families there that day have children in public school. My sons on the altar are public school students. In fact, most of the other dozen or so altar servers in our parish attend public school. Our CCD program is large, and I taught first grade catechism there for three years.

I squirmed in my pew, watching my boys listen to Father's words. I hoped his words didn't make them feel bad, but the reality is that they were probably thinking about baseball and Minecraft. Still, for a moment I felt chastised for not sending my children to Catholic school. My mind raced, recalling recent conversations I'd had with public school parents regarding concerns about sending their children to our city high schools when they are done with our neighborhood school. Some were considering abandoning public school for Catholic high schools. Some might move out of town rather than send their kids to New Haven high schools. Between Father's chastising and the apprehension some parents feel toward our city high schools, I felt defensive and annoyed.

Then Father said something about a faith-centered education, and I smiled.

For Father, a faith-centered school is one centered in the teachings of Jesus. I get that. But faith is also much more in public school. Every kid who walks through the door to my English classroom has faith that he or she will have a better life when they grow up because of the education they are receiving at our school. Every student has faith that they will be supported and cared for by the teachers they encounter every day. Every parent has faith that teachers, like me, will do our jobs as best as we can even though it is "only" public school and they aren't paying customers. Every teacher has faith that maybe, just maybe, we are reaching those hard-to-reach kids. Maybe, just maybe, we are making a difference in the lives of some students. And if we're lucky, maybe they're learning from us, too. Every kid who struggles has faith that he or she will still come out as successful as the honor students. Every parent who stays in our city and opts to send their kids to public high school has faith that they are helping to sustain and improve our community by doing so. Every parent who sends their kids to our school has faith that their child won't get lost in the shuffle--something that can happen at any school in any town. Every teacher who can make one-third or more pay in a different district, but who chooses to stay in the city, has faith that their work is valued by the students and parents of their school. Every student who struggles as an English language learner has faith that they will be able to communicate more effectively in English when they graduate, so that they can have the same opportunities available to them as their American peers. The parents of students who spent years in refugee camps in the middle east or Africa on their way to the U.S. have faith that it was all worth it if it means their children can get a free education here and have a better life after graduation. Every student who has lost a friend or relative to gun violence has faith that they can make their neighborhood a better place if they work hard enough, even if it seems hopeless. Every Muslim kid who leaves class a few times a day to pray and every Christian kid who says that some of his friends "need more Jesus" have faith that their words will be heard by Someone. Every other kid who extends a hug or a high-five to another student in the hallway, regardless of race, creed, or favorite basketball team, has faith that their friends have their back.

My old (boy)friend is leaving his cozy New England prep school after the end of this year to teach at an elite boarding school in Jordan. Jordan. When I mentioned this career move to my husband, he said sarcastically, "Wow, that's really working to make a difference." I wish my friend the best of luck, although I'm sure there isn't much in the way of hockey there.

I don't know if I'm making a difference in my little city school, but I have faith that I am. And that is something money can't buy.

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