Featured as a guest post on Scary Mommy.
By a few miracles and mostly luck, my husband and I were fortunate enough to plant our roots in a small town on the central coast of California. If you know SLO, then you know it’s truly magical. The cost of living is outrageous; but it’s safe, friendly, and unbelievably beautiful. I try to remind myself every day just how lucky I am to raise my children here.
But with every small town, comes the drama, the elitism, and the better-than attitudes. Everything from neighborhoods, to grocery stores, to school districts. Some of the comments I have heard over the years would make any big city dweller cringe. I do my best not to make generalizations, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that our town lives in a pretty unrealistic, privileged bubble.
Everything in life is relative and if you were to take a look outside our fairytale community, you would discover that even the sketchiest of neighborhoods is nothing compared to the ghetto of the city; a trip to our worst community park might parallel Disneyland for most others; and our lowest ranking public school out-scores the rest of the public schools in the state. It’s all about perspective, and unfortunately, many of us are lacking it.
Our community is particularly blessed in that we don’t have to pay for our children to get a high quality education in a safe environment, because we have a VERY good public school system. It’s not like that in many places. And yet, still, when I’ve told people where my son attends elementary school, you would not believe the reactions I’ve received. Pity, shock, even disgust.
It used to bother me. The snooty looks and judgmental comments. But I’ve come to understand that these people simply don’t know any better. So instead of getting upset, I simply chalk it up to ignorance, and move on with my day. Because I have more important things to do than explain why I choose to send my child to “the low income school” in town. BUT if I did have the emotional energy, and you happened to catch me on the right day, this is what I would tell you…
Yes, I did all the research before enrolling my son at his school. My mom is a retired elementary school teacher and I’m no stranger to test scores, retention rates, and school rankings.
Yes, I realize that the PTA, family participation, and school resources in the other schools are likely much better.
Yes, I know that we have an open school district and I could easily send my son to any school in town.
Yes, Yes, Yes. These are all things that I knew, and still chose to send my son to this school.
I am also very aware of the realities of my choice. I am not going to sit here and try to tell you that sending my son to a low income school is not going to impact his education. Things like language barriers, attendance rates, and lack of resources can and most likely DO interfere with his education. But that’s just it. There’s so much more to be gained from a classroom than what you might consider a “traditional” learning experience.
The way I see it, my children have most of their young lives to develop their literacy and math skills, but the life lessons my son is learning in his current environment are invaluable. Lessons on diversity, empathy, and acceptance. These are not things that you can acquire from a textbook, and definitely not things that you can learn from a classroom where everyone looks the same and comes from the same neighborhood. Are there reasons why we could leave? Absolutely. But the reasons to stay far outweigh them:
The diversity. They talk about it, honor it, and celebrate it. Not only does my son have the privilege of participating in school-wide events that focus on various cultures and their traditions; he can also learn first hand from his peers. All the while embracing and being proud of his own Irish/Korean/Norwegian heritage.
The teachers. These dedicated, passionate educators who invest their knowledge and hearts into these little humans. Sure, they could choose to teach at a handful of other schools, where the children are always in attendance, the PTA donations are plentiful, and there is no shortage of parent volunteers. But they choose to stay. They take on the daily challenge of educating a very diverse group of children, many of whom come from less that ideal living situations, and speak English as their second language. The teachers value every single one of these little people, regardless of their circumstances.
But mostly, it’s the real-life experiences. In a society that constantly tries to shove square pegs into round holes, I want my son to know that it’s okay to be different, and those differences are worth celebrating. I want him to understand that this is a great big world, full of all kinds of people that have different ethnicities, religions, and financial situations. I want him to develop a diverse world view, so that he’s not wearing rose colored glasses for the rest of his life. This, to me, is as good a reason as any to stay.
Because as much as we like to shelter our children from the harsh realities of life, I’m realizing that it’s exposure to these real-life experiences that provide the opportunity for growth in character. Navigating these experiences, though difficult, will lay a foundation of compassion and inclusion, which will take our children so much further in life than if we chose to try to protect them.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy. The unfair realities of life often don’t have any rhyme or reason to them. They are hard for me to explain to my son, and even harder for him to understand. These are difficult conversations that tug on our heart strings and make us feel uncomfortable. But they are conversations that need to be had.
There’s no manual to help you explain to your child why some families are struggling to get their basic needs met. Like when we pick up my son’s friend for a playdate and afterward he asks me why he lives in a hotel instead of a house. Or when a teammate is sent to soccer practice with a red solo cup for water, instead of the $30 hydro flask my son brings. Or when a handful of his classmates have to miss school because they are traveling to Mexico after the earthquakes. These situations are heartbreaking. And as a mother, my first instinct is to try to protect my small children from them. But this is reality. A reality that many families face. And if I encourage my children to be exposed to it now, my hope is that they will have the capacity to be more compassionate, understanding, and non-judgmental when they encounter these harsh realities later in life.
Do I hope my three children are good students, intelligent, and successful? Yes, of course. Doesn’t every parent? But if I had to choose, I would rather they be kind, tolerant, and grounded. And in my experience, these are difficult things to learn when you’re only exposed to white privilege.
So here’s the deal. You may think my child is getting the short end of the stick. That he is getting a less-than educational experience. And that it will negatively impact him later in life. But I just don’t see it that way. It’s the exact opposite, in fact. I could argue that sending my kids to a privileged school is actually the lesser of the two options. But I’m not going to do that. I won’t judge you and your choices, and you don’t need to pity me or mine.
We are all making decisions based on our world views, our experiences, and our unique situations. Let’s just call it a truce and both support one another in our efforts to raise good little people who don’t judge others by the color of their skin, the language they speak, and their school lunch (or lack thereof).
Because at the end of the day, I have zero regrets. I am proud of my son’s school. I am proud of the teachers. The staff. The students. And the families that make up our little, diverse community. I am honored and humbled that my family and I get to be a part of something so special. And so real.