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The On Being Project

Stop Asking And Answering Other People’s Questions

Many of us are busy and anxious. We are social animals: We listen for the culturally normative thing to do among our friends and, most often, follow it. This is what Aristotle, and later a lot of Internet evangelists, called the “wisdom of the crowd” and what Hannah Arendt might have called the “banality of evil.”

My husband John and I pretty quickly understood that there were two schools we were supposed to want our children to go to: Peralta or Chabot. We understood that the question we were supposed to be asking was, “How do we get our kids into Peralta or Chabot?”

We came to understand that we should register our interest in going to one of these schools with the local school district before the deadline, and then, when we don’t get in — which we likely won’t at first because everyone wants to get into those two schools — we should bring donuts every day to the district office and beg them to appeal the decision so that our daughter gets in. (Which will then ensure that her little sister gets in when she is old enough to enroll.) There are other time- and resource-intensive strategies that we’ve picked up on over the years, various forms of groveling and maneuvering, in order to get your kid into these two schools (or a small handful of others) — none of which are formally listed anywhere that I can find.

It is in this way that parenting becomes a process of piecing together the unwritten rules about how to advance your own child through a broken system, rather than considering the system as a whole. It becomes a game of telephone where you are passing along the questions you are supposed to be asking and the answers you are supposed to be pursuing — a strategic scramble rather than a moral investigation.

You end up pursuing the answers to questions that weren’t even yours to begin with. Our real question was not, “How do we get our kids into Peralta or Chabot?” but, “Where do we want to send our kids to school?” And also, “How does that choice align or depart from our values?”

So perhaps the first thing parents of a certain economic class, largely white, must do is stop asking and answering other people’s questions.

I have adopted a sort of parasitic approach to parenting. I befriend maximizers (people who tend to weigh every single option before making a decision) and then I watch what they do: What kind of car seats do they purchase? At what age do they first take their kids to the dentist? What kinds of rules do they have for screen time? I watch, and I copy. It leaves me slightly uninformed on a range of parenting topics, but saves a lot of time and heartache.

But there are certain decisions, I’m realizing, that should make my heart ache, if not break.

Monica Sanchez was new to the D.C.-area. She has two sons, the eldest of which was headed into kindergarten. When other parents (mostly white, she is Latina) started asking where she was planning on enrolling him, she indicated that they were hoping to go to the neighborhood public school. “Really?” they uniformly responded, with facial expressions that Sanchez describes as “puzzled.”

“We jumped into high gear and started looking for the private parochial schools we could afford, even though it’s been years since we’ve been to mass,” Sanchez explains. But they didn’t like the schools. They didn’t seem like the right fit for their kid or their family.

So they decided they needed to move. But after wandering through a few open houses, looking at all the staged furniture, contemplating all the zeroes, they grew weary. They’d just moved from Nebraska. They liked their house. “We realized that we hadn’t even given our neighborhood public school a chance,” Sanchez explains. “All we had done was look at its ratings online and given people’s comments about it a lot of weight. So we decided to visit the school, talk to teachers and the principal.”

They “fell in love,” as Sanchez puts it. By second grade, their son qualified to go to another school known for its advancement placement classes (one with a much higher GreatSchools.org rating), but they opted not to go. So did the eight other families whose kids had been given the option. Sanchez remembers: “The principal explained how the kids that are ahead help those who are not. If some do better, everyone does better.”

The puzzled faces of their parent friends and the numerical rating of a site that they knew little about had almost convinced Monica Sanchez and her husband to ask other people’s questions. It’s so easy to do, especially when you are stressed about money and starved for time. Especially when, as is the case for Sanchez, you are new to the area and trying to navigate an educational landscape you know little about.

In some ways, Sanchez and her husband ran into a fortuitous wall. They didn’t like the private school they could afford. They didn’t have the money or motivation to move. They were turned back toward their original instincts by limitations.

Many privileged parents don’t experience the moral recalibration that comes from limitations. People like my husband and I have the time and resources necessary to ingratiate ourselves to the right people (my skin crawls just writing that sentence, but that’s the truth). Theoretically, we can bring the donuts, befriend the admissions officers, build up the cultural capital necessary to make sure our kids get the best options in an unequal system.

The incentives for us to do so abound. You check that box off of your parenting to do list. Your kid goes to school with your friends’ kids, so it’s socially rewarding. You feel like you made the big, important decision when it mattered, so now you don’t have to worry about the education your kid is getting on a daily basis. They are at a “good” school. They will learn “good” things. Sure, you will eventually come up with other things to feel anxious about: Did she get the “good” teacher in the “good” school? Is she doing the “right” extracurricular activities? The nature of the process has a way of making us all feel — however preposterous — like the underdog. It feels great to have triumphed within the broken system. It’s a relief.

There is little relief, at least in the short term, for asking less strategic questions and more philosophical ones — not, How do I get my kid into the good school?” but, “How do I want my kid to think about her own life in relation to the common good?” Not, “Which schools have the best rating on GreatSchools.org?” but, “Which learning communities might enliven, embolden, and humble my kid all at the same time?” The incentives are fuzzy and long-term for asking these kinds of questions. You might even feel very alone while doing it.

Casey Davis, from Bend, Oregon, agonized over where to send her son to school. She is a self-described idealist, an urban enthusiast, someone who quotes walkability scores and socio-economic data easily. Her family lives in a cohousing community, so their commitment to the common good is already ritualized in their daily lives. She was inclined to send her kid, Taran, to the neighborhood school, even though she’d heard it struggled mightily to accommodate the many emotional challenges that the students showed up with. There was so much economic instability. So much domestic violence. So much drug and alcohol addiction. She toured it — and a few other magnet schools whose student population came in with less trauma. She agonized more.

She had a breakthrough when a friend asked her a simple question: “Casey, what is your work, and what is Taran’s work in this situation?”

“At that moment, it became clear to me that my work was to use my gifts and creativity to make sure the kids in my neighborhood school felt supported,” Davis explains. “Taran’s work was to fall in love with learning and having a great time doing it. Had I sent him to the neighborhood school, I would be creating one more kid in the system not getting his needs met. The guilt I felt started to lift. Ideas and opportunities started to appear.”

Davis now volunteers weekly in both the neighborhood public school, where her son does not go, and the magnet school where he is enrolled and thriving. She now believes that the agonizing was morally productive. “I wonder if it is less about the decision that I made being right or wrong, good or bad,” she explains. “I wonder if it is the awareness that spawned within me that this is a hard conversation that our community must keep open if we want to create a world that works for all children. Regardless of where my child goes to school, I will work to ensure that all kids in my community are getting their needs met and having an equal opportunity to thrive regardless of the cards they were dealt. I know that my family cannot be healthy if another family is suffering.”

If I love my country enough, and I think I do, then I have to be heartbroken over our well-documented failure to educate all children well. I have to ask what my role in that failure actually is. And if I love my daughters, and I know I do, then I want them to witness me grappling with fundamental questions — questions concerned with their well-being, of course, but not to the exclusion of the well-being of the nation. “When education is viewed as a private investment yielding private returns, there is no reason why anyone other than an ‘investor’ should pay for it,” writes Robert Reich in his new book, The Common Good. “But when understood as a public good underlying our democracy, all of us have a responsibility to ensure that it is of high quality, and available to all.”

I don’t want to parent like I pick stocks. For too long, I think white kids like I was have been taught that equality is simply a matter of getting all the best stuff for people of color, or poor people, too, rather than reckoning with the notion that equality may actually require white, rich kids to have less. Even more, that having less might feel far better, less toxic, less distracting, less like there is a story underneath the story that no one is telling you. And it makes you feel kind of crazy and undeserving of all that has been given to you because, guess what, you kind of are undeserving — in the sense that no one in a just world would justify some kids having so much more than other kids. Except we do. Because we’re lost. And moving too fast.

I’m not a religious person — something I’ve realized makes this whole inquiry feel much harder. I was sitting across from Anne, a white woman in her late 30s, in the Peet’s Coffee near my house, discussing her decision to send her daughter to kindergarten at Sankofa, a school with a 1 out of 10 rating on GreatSchools.org where just 5 percent of the kids are white. As my heart and mind raced in a million different moral and strategic directions, she sat sipping her tea, seeming calm and resolute. “You seem really clear about this,” I finally said. “Are you, by any chance, a religious person?”

“I’m a Bahá’í,” she answered. “The fundamental underlying principle is unity of mankind. So many of the problems we see in the world are symptoms of the fact that mankind hasn’t accepted that we are one and that we need to act in all of our decisions based on that assumption.”

Later in our conversation, she returned to her faith: “Another fundamental principle of Bahá’ís is that our purpose in this world is to develop our spiritual qualities. I would love for my kids to get a good academic education and for them to be able to use everything they learn in service to mankind, but the most important thing is that it is used in service to mankind.”

“To truly be of service,” she went on, “you have to understand what is going on in the world, you have to know how to relate to all sorts of different people. That’s as much a part of their education as the training of the mind.”

In this way, Anne’s religion helps her ask a far more profound question — “What is education for?” — than I was asking — “What school should I send my kid to?” She’s interested in equality, not from a political place, but from a spiritual one. Her children, in other words, will be less spiritually developed if they learn in a context where they are taught that they are better than, i.e. separate from, any other kid. There’s a way in which it makes a seemingly unsolvable question feel pretty practical, actually.

My neighbor Tom, whose three boys are out of school entirely, also talked about his decision to send them to the neighborhood school from a religious perspective — in his case, Christianity. Emerson Elementary, where we will likely send our daughters, is, like Sankofa, a 1 out of 10 according to GreatSchools.org, and has a 12 percent white student population. Tom thinks of schools as places for incarnational opportunity. He explains, “In order for God to interact with us in a meaningful way he became a child, in a particular place, in a particular time. To a poor family. He didn’t have a lot of wealth or power. It wasn’t like God had sent down some leaflets from Heaven. He came down, and he was there. So that incarnational thing is real. You have to be there.”

Tom is not just a Christian, or a parent, but an educator with many decades of service to public schools. He goes on: “I’m not sure anything in the end happens without the personal incarnational aspect in terms of deep change within us or the possibility of deep change for other people. Living in Oakland and working where we’ve worked has changed us as much as we’ve brought change.”

So Tom’s question — though he didn’t articulate it directly — is, “How can you get incarnational?” Another question far more profound than my own that I’m jealous of, in a strange way. It’s poetic, for starters. If not solvable, it is at least anchoring.

I feel anything but anchored. I feel beat up by the cultural storm. When I talk to Tom about the discomfort I feel with the question that got me traveling this path in the first place — “What is best for my kid?” — he raises his voice for the first time in the hour we’ve been sitting at his sunlit kitchen table: “What is the best? How much crap have you already swallowed by even asking this question?”

A lot. I think economically privileged parents — a lot of us white, a lot of us without strong religious guidance — swallow a lot of crap. We feel so overwhelmed with the pace of life that we don’t pause and wonder what it is we’re digesting on a daily basis: the subtle and spurious messages about what is at stake, the endless focus on achievement in a narrowly defined way, the usual and longstanding lies of whiteness (that there is never enough opportunity or money, that we are never personally responsible for our nation’s past or present violence, that we are essentially neutral characters in a tragic drama).

In the presence of increasing inequality and vast confusion about our role in it, the unsolvable questions can seem luxurious when, really, they are the most basic and the most necessary.

Stay tuned for the next essay, in which I explore the actual considerations for sending your privileged kid to a failing school. It will be a collective exercise (thanks to nearly 100 of you who wrote such substantive, beautiful emails, keep ‘em coming!) in, to put it poetically, resist crap.

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