When I am acquainted with strangers, they are not surprised to learn that I navigated America’s school system. They see a professional: nails manicured, clothes ironed, leather bag, matching shoes. They hear an intellect: Kant, neuroplasticity, theories of social psychology. What they do not sense, no eyes can see or hands can feel. From a young age, I fought on the frontlines of a guilt-entrenched, educational war and witnessed many of its casualties. A war where “Black” was separated from “White”. And I too was almost buried under the rubble of a system that far too often marginalizes people of color.
I attended a public school high school in a very affluent area in the state of Florida, not by chance. My family spent years crossing state lines seeking decent schools and affordable housing and did research to ensure we had access to both, no matter where we lived. GreatSchools.net guided us right onto the boarder for a neighborhood zoned for one of the most successful schools in the state.
Many of the students who lived in my neighborhood were of similar circumstance: minorities, single parent households; the “underclass.” We boarded the bus together each morning at the same time as another poor neighborhood just across the street, zoned for another district. Our bus went to one of the most exclusive school, theirs one of the most avoided.
As a part of our curriculum, we were required to take creative electives: television production, drama, sculpting, humanities. Students were encouraged to participate in extracurricular sports– soccer, swimming, lacrosse, volleyball, tennis– which we also had the choice for substituting with physical education. There were dozens of honors and AP classes to choose from, putting us on the path to be college students.
In order to receive a free ride to a state university (a scholarship called “Bright Futures) it was mandatory to complete at least 100 hours of community service before graduation and maintain over a 3.5 GPA. During my sophomore year, by the strong recommendation of my guidance counselor, I began tutoring at an after school program in the neighboring district to get hours.
The first day I arrived, I was ushered past an auditorium, filled with loud voices and small brown faces, into a makeshift trailer that was attached to the main building of the school by an overgrown, unpaved pathway. The principal, a tired looking black man in his forties, started his speech in a monotonous tone as if he were taking an order at a McDonald’s drive through window.
“Everyday, you will work with Daeshawn,” he told me, “You can tutor him with these workbooks and there are some crayons and pencils over there.”
“Ah, so where does….” I started to ask, but was immediately interrupted.
“Alright, well that’s it,” he said and turned to walk out.
I stepped cautiously around the classroom. The walls were bare, the carpet had stains and the air reeked of sewage. A door squeaked open and a thin boy, about 7 or 8 years old, walked over to a chair not too far away.
“I’m guessing you are Daeshawn,” I said in the most enthusiastic voice I could muster. He stared at me blankly and sat down.
“Well, I’m going to be your tutor,” I tried again, “Hey, what’s your favorite color, anyways?” No response. I picked up a workbook with letters and numbers dancing on the front cover, then walked over to sit next to him.
“You know what? I think I have some M&M’s,” I tried once more, pulling the small pack of candy I’d bought at the store, in case I ended up in a situation like this.
He looked at me, then the candy and put his head on the desk. I tried a couple more times. Then I went looking for a teacher to help. Not a single one in sight. Eventually I gave up. We spent an entire week together in silence; me counting down the minutes to go home, Daeshawn with his head down on a desk facing the opposite wall looking into space.
One day during lunch I sat down with my tennis teammates and told them about the awful experience.
“Can you believe they sent me there?” I lamented to them, “the kid is retarded or something, I swear.” They all laughed succinctly and looked at me pityingly.
“Well, there is this community service thing we do sometimes,” one of the girls started. The group gave her a disapproving glance as if she had revealed a secret reserved for some hidden club.
“I think that’s only for varsity, isn’t Tiffanie JV?” Another piped up.
“I’m sure they’ll let her if we ask,” she responded confidently.
After classes that day, I marched over to speak to the principal at the after school tutoring program.
“Listen, I’m sorry but this just isn’t working for me,” I said to him firmly.
“Tiffanie, I understand how difficult it is but we really need you here,” he responded. It did not quell my resolve.
“Daeshawn can’t learn anything. He doesn’t even talk or look at me,” I said plainly.
“Let me show you something,” he replied. We walked over to a nearby window overlooking a park.
“You see that lady over there?” He asked pointing at a woman, barely dressed, unbathed, pacing back and forth talking to herself, “that is his mom.”
I stood frozen, staring at the bone-thin, raggedy woman. My heart dropped into my stomach.
“Daeshawn needs your help.” He urged.
I marched over to the trailer, pencil and workbook in hand like weapons–I was ready for war. “Daeshawn is going to learn something today, if it kills me,” I thought. I did not want to see him become his mother.
“Okay, trace these cursive words,” I militantly barked at him. He knew I meant business. He lifted his head from the table and grabbed the pencil and book from my hands, plopping them down in front of himself. He fumbled with the pencil a few times. Then perfunctorily turned the pages of the book.
“Do this one,” I ordered. It was a sentence that read: Johnny likes sweet apples. He put the pencil into his right hand and flattened the book down with the other. His dark fingers looked confused and mangled wrapped around the light-brown #2 writing tool. He pressed the lead point hard into the paper and tried desperately to drag it across the straight part of the capital letter “J”. I watched over his shoulder as he struggled with a curled lip. I was annoyed.
“Take this seriously!” I yelled. He threw the pencil to the floor angrily and looked up at me, confused and disappointed. It was then I realized Daeshawn could not write. That was the last day I ever saw him. I never returned.
The following week, I took my tennis friend’s advice. I started community service at one of the most expensive and exclusive neighborhoods in Florida. They were having a clinic and my tennis team was giving back to their community by being ball girls. When I arrived, the girls were busy tying their blonde or brunette silky-straight hair into ponytails with ribbons and plastering their faces with sunblock in front of a huge, luxurious club house. Chefs had mobile stoves set up all around it and towards the back there was a bar next to the pool. Perfectly tanned clinic participants walked by in short tennis skirts or shorts and sports shirts, laughing haughtily amongst themselves.
“You want a ribbon?” Sarah, the varsity team captain offered. I took it and tied my long kinky braids with it.
We were each assigned three games of a match to ball girl that day. I was excited to be picked for the clay courts, since I’d never seen any before. After my three games, I retired to the clubhouse for lunch. I had 10 meal choices: I picked the lobster linguini alfredo. For dessert, the difficult choice; carrot cake, chocolate mousse, tiramisu an assortment of cookies and pastries or ice cream from an actual ice cream man? I ate it all. Mousse was seeping out of my pores by the end of my 5th hour of “community service”. Eventually, the team and my coach gathered together. We handed over our “service cards” and got them back with 12 hours stamped on it and a signature.
Our “giving back” continued for a couple weekends. At the neighborhood annual 5k, we handed out breakfast sandwiches and competed in the race (13 hours)– one of the girls from the team won first place. We distributed t-shirts at a racquetball tournament (10 hrs). We even got hours for coming in early to blow up balloons and tie colorful strings to them for our own end of season team party. By the end of my sophomore year in high school, I had already racked up 60 hours of community service. Finally, a community I was more than happy to service. I was actually excited to resume the next school year.
During that summer’s vacation, my mom received a letter that our neighborhood of rented apartments would be transformed into expensive “luxury condos”. We had the choice: buy or leave. Of course buying wasn’t an option for her, so she sat us down to break the news.
“I’m sorry guys, but you are going to have to go to a different school,” she said. My brother and I stared at her in disbelief.
We spent the summer searching for a new place to call home. My mother finally found an affordable apartment and decided to take us to go see it before signing the lease.
The ride there seemed like forever. Left. Right. Straight. Left. Right. Right. Then things started to look familiar. The school where I had abandoned Daeshawn popped up on to the right, eerily erected like a haunted haunted house: A block away, the high school. My mom made one last left on the street and we stopped in front of what was to be our new home. I sat silently staring out the window as tears streamed down my face; the guilt, anger and disappointment pouring out of me. The place I tried so hard to escape had quickly caught up to me.
That night, my mom scoured GreatSchools.net to get a better understanding of what I already knew: the neighborhood schools had “F” grades and were 85% black– the definition of “hyper-segregated”. There was no tennis team, music lessons, art history, advanced classes– no dreams of college. Hundreds of Deashawns buried under the rubble. We packed up and were back on the road in search of a new destination, a new dream. I never once could come to admit that my actions most likely helped to crush someone else’s. That I chose the comfort of White spaces over the struggle of Black ones. But who wouldn’t?
These two disparate educational realities stand in contrast to the American dream of equality and integration the Civil Right’s era supposedly helped us attain. America’s school system continues to provide a “Black” and “White” education. America’s school system remains separate and unequal. If it weren’t for my mother’s persistence and our constant moving, I too could have been sucked into that Black hole.