Last week, my husband and I visited with some inner-city seventh grade students in St. Louis, Mo. We were invited into their classroom by their teacher — our eldest daughter, Anna — who is working in St. Louis through the Teach For America program. Although I often appreciated how my kids opened us up to new worlds while we were raising them, I never anticipated the ways in which they would continue to stretch our horizons even after they left the nest.
When I first sat down to write this column, I planned to write a travelogue about St. Louis. In addition to its great food, great beer, free museums and attractive brick architecture, I wanted to talk about the city’s fabulous Soulard Farmer’s Market, active since 1779, the 153-year-old Missouri Botanical Gardens and our trip to the top of the 630-foot Gateway Arch, with its Museum of Westward Expansion underneath.
As much as I enjoyed St. Louis’s public attractions, however, my visit to a public city school left the most lasting impression.
Relatively speaking, we don’t talk a whole lot about race in Maine, and when we do it is largely academic, given our lack of racial diversity. It’s hard to feel that I have any place even broaching the subject as a white woman in our country’s whitest state. But this week, in the wake of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the second inauguration of our country’s first black president and my experience in an inner-city classroom, I decided to talk a little bit about race.
I forget how homogeneous Maine is until I travel out of it. In Anna’s school, we met one of her fellow teachers, a black woman and native Missourian who had once visited a friend in Eastport, Maine. With a twinkle in her eye, she recounted her surprise on arriving in Maine.
“I thought, my goodness, everyone is so pale around here! I couldn’t even find anybody with a tan.”
In contrast, my daughter’s is the only white face in any of her classes. Color, however, is only one aspect of the divide between Anna and her students. It is their differences in life experience, opportunity, education and even language that she has to navigate – and I’m referring almost entirely to native English speakers. In order to teach and connect with the young people in her classes, she has to recognize their cultural differences while simultaneously educating them, ideally, to become successful citizens of one unified nation. Our country grows more and more diverse every year, and our efforts to establish and maintain equality of opportunity and education are failing.
When Anna drove us around St. Louis, she pointed out numerous examples of the sharp delineations between upscale neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods. Consistently, the same boundaries divide white and black communities. The pattern is repeated all too often in U.S. cities.
Too many white Americans mistakenly believe our racial inequities to be disappearing. It is especially easy to imagine that economic and educational inequalities between races are not a big problem when we live in a place where we cannot see them. But those inequalities persist, and our country’s future depends upon the successful education of every one of our young citizens.
On the website of the National Education Association, there is an article written by Gary Orfield titled “Race and Schools: The Need for Action.”
“In a nation with 44 percent non-White students and extreme inequality in educational attainment, it’s time we address these issues as seriously as we did during the Civil Rights era,” Orfield writes.
After Anna introduced us to her students and told them where we were from, their faces lit up. “Oh, Maine! That’s at the top of the map!” they said, pointing to the upper right corner of the air in front of them. Their enthusiasm about our corner of the world gives me pause. Seeing as how we share citizenship in one great nation, I think it’s time I showed more enthusiasm about theirs.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.