Education, Race, and Class: An Open Letter to Prince Edward County, VA

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Some physical places suffer from spiritual wounds, the invisible but indelible scars of the past shaping the present in ways both conscious and unconscious, acknowledged and unacknowledged. I live in such a place, one of the five towns that was involved in Brown v. Board of Education: Prince Edward County, Virginia. I have lived here for six years, and in that time I have had two children in the school system: they have both had positive experiences with engaged and engaging teachers. They have also, at times, been bored—the work too easy, the tests too constant, the focus too much on rote memorization. That is a problem with our education system throughout this country—ask any teacher. Another problem with our education system is that a majority of the kids in school are living in poverty, much of it the result of institutionalized, and often unconscious, racism. Much of it the result of our history. Put these things together in a town like mine, a small town with two universities and a significant black population that lives in poverty and remembers, in soul and body, the five years the schools were shut down to exclude black children, and what do you get? You get a day like I had last week: a spiritually significant day in a town struggling to heal its psychic wounds.

I began the day by going to breakfast with my husband and some friends, parents of a teenage daughter and a son the same age as my daughter (12). These parents, like my husband and myself, are white, middle-class university professors. Our kids have always excelled in school, get bored easily, and need to be stretching their wings—they need to come up against questions they haven’t answered before, to think constructively and creatively in the classroom, to bounce ideas off each other and us and their teachers. They need to know why something is true, not just that it is true. This, I believe, should be the focus of all education, regardless of the grade level—and this kind of education is stymied by a system that requires kids to memorize things and spit them out. Ultimately, it isn’t just education that is stymied in this way—it is the mind. We all know this, my friends and my husband and I, and we all want to provide our children with the foundation they need to take off flying when they leave our homes. We spoke at length, as we have before, of the educational issues at the local high school—some parents of teenage children feel that their kids are not being challenged. Stories of kids reading their own books in class because they finish their work quickly and have nothing else to do, or of kids on their cell phones for most of a class period, are common. This is not what we want for our children—we don’t want them to slouch in their chairs for four years, waiting for high school to end, and then get to college and be shocked at what they are expected to know but don’t. When we advocate for changes that would challenge our kids, we are acting on their behalf: we want the best for our kids. Of course we do.

Ah, but why are our kids—the ones who excel easily in school, and who don’t struggle with discipline or learning problems—left to their own devices? Because teachers are stretched thin, trying to help children who desperately need help. The kids who don’t have parents sitting around a coffee table at 9 am on a Wednesday because it’s spring break at the university—the ones who have parents who are working two jobs that pay minimum wage, neither of which quite cuts it. Do these parents want what’s best for their children too? Do they advocate for and worry about their children? Do they want them to get a good education, to be taught and challenged and to take off flying when they leave the nest? Of course they do.

But they don’t have the resources to provide all that their children need. And sometimes, despite their best efforts, that means their children struggle—not just in school, but in life. Those poverty figures are important: in 2010, Prince Edward County had a median household income of $36,191. The poverty here is a widely acknowledged fact, and although we do have both a free clinic and a food bank, many of our residents—including families with schoolchildren—struggle to meet their basic needs. Not all black kids in this school district are poor, of course, and not all white kids are middle-class. Not all the kids who struggle in school are poor and black—many excel in school despite both personal and societal obstacles. But we must acknowledge that racism has played a very big role in shaping the demographics of our town, and in the lives of all who live here.

We live together in this wounded place, and our problems are inextricably intertwined. There is no solving one without the other: to challenge all our children and give them what they need, we must heal our past.   We must move forward together.

After breakfast, I went to get a haircut. I’d made an appointment at the salon with a friend of mine—a friend who is gifted in creating beauty of the soul as well as the body, a healer who has helped me on my spiritual journey. This friend and I have gotten to know each other over the past nine months, sharing the details of our lives. She is black, and she grew up here—she went to school at Prince Edward, and has done some work in the school system with kids who needed help. She is also a mother, and became one at 15—she is 35 and has a 20-year-old daughter who she raised with the help of her grandparents while she finished school and worked at McDonald’s. Though we have many differences, my friend and I also have many similarities: we love to read, we both have a way with words, and we are deeply spiritual people. We can be blunt, and we like to laugh. We also share the same thing I share will all my friends who are mothers: we love our kids with all we’ve got. I love this woman for who she is, and I respect her for all she has done.

When I was first getting to know my friend, I learned that her daughter was in her first year of college, but was struggling—she’d had an illness, and she was too focused on a boy and not enough on her studies. My friend wanted her daughter to buckle down, focus on school—she’d worked very hard to provide a foundation for her girl, with few resources, and now she wanted her girl to fly. Of course she did.

When I saw my friend yesterday, I learned that her daughter has dropped out of school and is pregnant. My friend is angry at her daughter, disappointed—she wanted her to live a different life. And she wants to live her own life, to do the things she didn’t do when she was younger because she was working so hard to be both parents to her little girl. She wants her daughter to graduate from college. I want that for her daughter too—and I want her grandchild to thrive in school and then go to college and thrive there. I also want my friend to be happy and fulfilled while she is helping her family, to have all the abundance she deserves. Of course I do.

We live together in this wounded place, and our problems are inextricably intertwined. There is no solving one without the other: to challenge all our children and give them what they need, we must heal our past.   We must move forward together.

So what are we going to do about it?

How do we heal our past, and challenge our children—all of them? We have already taken some vital steps: Longwood University has issued an apology and created a Moton Legacy scholarship program to provide financial assistance to students who demonstrate a commitment to equality in education. Longwood is also partnering with the Moton Museum, which honors the story of Barbara Johns and her role in Brown v. Board of Education, to further the museum’s goals of civil rights education. These steps are laying the groundwork for our community to come together and heal its past, but we must do more if we are to create a present and a future in which our community’s school meets the needs of all its children.

I used to think that what we needed was a leader, one person who could galvanize us all around our needs. But as this letter was forming, I realized that we don’t need one leader—we need many. And we already have them:

  • Citizen Leaders: Longwood, as a university, upholds the concept of creating “citizen leaders”—alumni who will go out and be the change they wish to see. This concept, and the classes that foster it, require the university and its faculty and students to build bridges between academic ideals and their practical applications. It is this ideal that underscores the Moton Legacy scholarship program, along with many other connections between town and university.
  • Professors: Two Longwood professors, Dr. Lettner-Rust and Professor Mergen, worked with students to create a booklet and photographs telling the stories of people who were unable to receive an education during Massive Resistance. This booklet is available in many locations around town: it is a powerful record of our history, and created invaluable connections between students and community members. In addition, professors from both Longwood and Hampden Sydney play a role in shaping the discussions and programs at the Moton Museum.
  • Historians and Civil Rights Advocates: The Moton Museum provides many opportunities for us to honor our past, discuss present issues, and create a harmonious future. Among the many programs at the community are weekly  lunches to foster discussion of our past and how it is connected to our present.
  • Authors: Writers help us understand who we are, where we’ve been, and where we need to go. Regional authors Teri Kanefield (who wrote The Girl from the Tar Paper School, a children’s book about Barbara Johns) and Kristen Green (whose upcoming book Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County tells the story of Massive Resistance in Prince Edward) are helping readers everywhere to learn about our stories—and in doing so, they are helping us understand ourselves and shape our vision for the future.
  • People of Faith: Our churches play a vital role in our community, and in our healing. In the wake of Ferguson, Sharon Baptist church staged a demonstration for equal protection under the law that brought many of our citizens together in peaceful solidarity. Our churches can continue to play this role: bridges are always built on the solid foundation of faith.
  • Parents and Teachers and Administrators: We have a lot of good stuff going on in this town, and in Prince Edward County schools, already. All our kids have advocates—they just need us to blend our voices and move forward, together. As we look to address our problems, it is critical that we recognize that we have many hands, and many voices, already working to help our children thrive.

In this spiritually wounded town, education is the issue: it is why Longwood was founded and it is still the course of study for many of our graduates.   We have all the elements for healing here, but we aren’t yet bringing them together as fully as we need to, connecting the dots between university and town, between professors and students and teachers and parents from all backgrounds.

As President Reveley acknowledged in his apology, Longwood contributed to the wrongs committed around civil rights 50 years ago. The university is now positioned to be at the nexus of healing. I believe the people who are doing this work will continue to come together—I also believe the most vital bridge to cross is represented by my day last week. It is a bridge made of class and race and history, and the only way to cross it is by speaking honestly of pain and difference, and acknowledging the barriers that privilege creates as we work to meet the needs of our children.

To cross that bridge, we need a forum for meetings that include the School Board, the school administration, administrators from Longwood and Moton, along with parents, educators, and future educators. Our meetings need to take place within a historical understanding of class, race, and privilege, as well as the constraints and challenges that No Child Left Behind legislation places on our educators. Within these meetings, we need to apply our hearts, heads, and hands—black and white, young and old, middle-class and working-class—to some very difficult questions and truths:

  • Listening to Community Members: In the question-and-answer period following a talk by race expert Tim Wise, Justin Reid (Associate Director of the Moton Museum) mentioned that many older black people in our town actually think things were better in our past than they are now. Why do they think this? What do they think needs to happen that isn’t happening? What must we do, as a community, to earn their trust and respect as we move forward?
  • Acknowledging Continued Privilege: When white, middle-class parents advocate for our children to be challenged, we are speaking within a societal framework in which it has been long and well established that most needs of white middle-class children will be met, one way or another. For too long—and not so long ago—the needs of white children were met at the expense of black children. That fact needs to be acknowledged—it is as important to this conversation as an apology, because it is the truth. And we must ensure it never happens again. Not just in the obvious, dramatic ways—for example, “white flight” from the school system—but in more subtle ways. What are those subtle ways? That’s where the conversation has to dig deep, with the needs of every single kid in the school front and center.
  • Addressing Systemic Problems: The Prince Edward County School Board is working to address low SOL scores, and has been for many years. Currently, the school district is considering mandatory summer school for those who need to improve their scores. This possible policy—and any others meant to address low test scores—must be discussed within the context of our history, and the poverty in the region. Is this really the solution that our children who are struggling need?
  • Listening to Teachers: What do teachers need to be able to meet the needs of all our schoolchildren? More colleagues? More money? Different programs? Freedom from the constraints of mandatory testing?
  • Endowment for the Schools: The Prince Edward County school system has an endowment, money meant to provide grants to teachers—how can this money, as well as money raised by our PTA, be spent, as well as maintained and grown, to help improve our schools? What could our local businesses and institutions do to increase this endowment?
  • Considering Reparations: In a recent article for The Atlantic, Ta-Nahisi Coates made the case for reparations. Would reparations make sense here, and if so, how would we apply them? What would be the obstacles, and how could we move forward practically? For example, could reparations take the form of scholarships for local black students?

These questions are just a beginning. But they are a vital beginning: one that could heal the wounds of the past and lay the groundwork for a healthy future.

We live together in this wounded place, and our problems are inextricably intertwined. There is no solving one without the other: to challenge all our children and give them what they need, we must heal our past.   We must move forward together.

Of course we must.

 

 

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