In 2004, when my kids ranged from second to eighth grade, I had the opportunity to spend the day on the tour bus of my presidential candidate of choice. It was exciting to ride in a crowd who shared my vision. When we’d get off at a speech stop and receive the love of the crowd, it was deeply touching. However, my moment of epiphany stemmed from a very private encounter.
The candidate himself, Dennis Kucinich, was on the bus. He talked to each person individually, asking what he or she was going to do to make our country, or just a little corner of it, better. No one expected his question, and a lot of people had the deer-in-a-headlight look. I knew exactly what I’d say.
My children had the good fortune of attending a school with excellent faculty and a dedicated principal. However, I had disquieting experiences. Many middle class expectations did not hold true for some residents of my neighborhood, many in precarious financial situations.
Bring in a shoebox for a diorama? What if you get shoes from the Salvation Army? Cupcakes for a class party can be quite the reach, never mind a costume for a school play. No matter how much you want to stay home with a sick child, if you’re a single parent in the service industry, a day off without pay can mean not enough money for expenses or no job to go back to.
This doesn’t mention families with fewer amenities. Try keeping kids adequately clothed, fed and up on schoolwork if home means a shelter, a single motel room or a car. I had heard this was true for many children in Maine schools.
I was sure one of the problems was lack of representation at the municipal level. Those who made decisions and policies are drawn predominantly from a community’s more affluent people, leaving whole segments of the pupil population unspoken for and invisible.
When Kucinich looked me in the eye and asked what I was going to do, I said, “Run for school board.” After losing two elections, I achieved my goal.
Don’t get me wrong. In my nearly eight years in office, I have served all students in Veazie. Kids and education are second only to my family in what motivates me and gives life meaning. They’re why I’ve slogged through 10-hour negotiations and four meetings per week, attended every conference and workshop I can, plus network and read as voraciously as I seek out chocolate. That’s why I plan to get a masters and Ph.D. in education.
I want to bring a perspective to the table that would otherwise be missing in a fairly affluent community. One night there was discussion about the desirability of adding a pre-K program. A comment was made questioning its necessity: Low-income parents did not care; they don’t attend meetings. I enumerated the stumbling blocks that prevent good and caring parents from going to night meetings: lack of transportation or babysitting, inflexible job hours, disability or the chronic fatigue of a crisis-ridden existence.
This is a perspective that is needed when money is scarce and people are understandably scared. When passed-down cuts from federal and state levels put towns and cities in the unenviable position of deciding between cutting services, raising taxes or cobbling together a mixture of the two, great care had to be taken to not remove the programs and services needed by the most vulnerable children and families.
This is a perspective that is needed in an economy dominated by a widening gap between the haves and have nots. When increasing numbers of families slide from security to precariousness all the time, we need our schools to be part of the solution, not perpetrators of the problem.
This is a perspective that is needed when, ironically, measures that purport to lessen the gap between haves and have nots in education actually widen it. The digital divide is a lot more profound than some families having more electronic stuff. Programs like No Child Left Behind leave ever more children further in the dust. To separate reality from rhetoric, we need to truly understand the challenges faced by all families.
Jenny Mahar’s May 12 OpEd “In praise of public schools” conveys a spirit of optimism that we must have in these challenging times. She ends her piece with these lines that simply send shivers down my spine, “Educating children is not for the faint of heart. Setting out to educate them all is an act of breathtaking courage.” Don’t you love that?
Including the voices of the less affluent at all levels of school, planning up to and including governing boards, especially as they are increasingly demonized by those who equate wealth with virtue and need with laziness, will require nothing less than breathtaking courage. We owe our schools and children nothing less.
Julia Emily Hathaway is a veteran Veazie school board member. This summer she’ll be cramming math with the goal of improved GRE scores in the hope of entering the University of Maine as a masters candidate in education.