When my wife was pregnant with our first child, we often had conversations about where we would send our kids to school. These conversations were almost always rooted in fear, with the ever-present threat of gun violence in schools weighing heavy in the back of my mind.
Even in moments when I can suspend my fear of school shootings and rationalize their relative rarity, my apprehension about the safety of schools persists. My experiences as both a teacher and a student have shown me how schools can make creative and brilliant kids feel stupid and make energetic and joyful kids feel like a problem.
Instead of proceeding with facts and figures, I would like to share three personal vignettes about my experiences as a student, educator and parent. Collectively, they illustrate some of the salient, unsettling and patterned reasons why my wife and I have started questioning whether to send our kids to school at all.
Am I Not Good at School, or Is School Not Good for Me?
When I was in fifth grade, I remember sitting in science class, waiting anxiously for the teacher to return a recent test. Contributing to my anxiety was the fact that I sat next to Mark, a notoriously smart kid in our class. Don’t ask me what grade I got, I thought to myself, desperate and embarrassed.
When the teacher placed the test face down on my desk, I deliberately avoided eye contact with her. Swiftly and discretely, I pulled back the top of my test, and written in bright red ink was exactly what I expected: 4/10 F.
Immediately, Mark, smirking in anticipation, asked me what grade I got. After a brief pause, I showed him my test. He put his hands over his mouth and laughed. Unable to process my shame and embarrassment, I responded in the only way my 11-year-old brain could think of: I pinched Mark on his forearm.
Four years later, carrying the memories of missing recess because I couldn’t complete my multiplication table chart fast enough, and being pulled out of classes to attend speech therapy for my lisp, I entered my first year of high school. By then, I had developed a passion for music. I played guitar in a punk rock band, scoured music magazines, wrote song lyrics and even booked and promoted local concerts. Still, I recall sitting in my remedial math class thinking: I’m stupid and I will never be good at school.
Every failing report card grade, every summer packet I was assigned to “catch up,” and every late night spent trying to understand confusing algebraic word problems chipped away at my confidence.
Rather than allowing students to learn concepts at their own pace, schools are pressured by high-stakes testing to teach very specific standards by very specific deadlines. Many students are harmed by this urgency—I was harmed by this urgency.
Whether my own kids are “good at school” or not, how do I make sure that the culture of academic pressure and urgency in school doesn’t negatively impact their self-worth?
I don’t know.
School Discipline vs. Children’s Freedom
One day, early in my education career, I was teaching a lesson on figurative language to my sixth grade English language arts class. Admittedly, my classroom was chaotic most of the time, but at this moment, the chaos felt a bit more controlled as we goofily made up examples of similes and metaphors. These infrequent times when students were engaged in my lessons always felt so precarious, like I was holding onto something slippery that could fall out of my hand at any second. In this instance, I felt confident and proud.
Moments later, I heard my classroom door open. One of the school administrators had come in for a brief, non-evaluative observation. My body tensed up, my heartbeat quickened and my existing confidence was immediately replaced with insecurity. This controlled chaos felt at odds with expectations of strict classroom management, and I had to shift gears quickly.
While I was in the middle of defining hyperboles, one of my students—a boisterous, goofy and independent kid—loudly blurted out an example. “That math problem took me a hundred years to solve!”
“Don’t interrupt the teacher,” the administrator replied sharply.
The room fell quiet. Stuck in the middle of this uncomfortable power dynamic, I awkwardly continued my lesson. A few moments later, the administrator spoke again, this time proudly calling attention to another student, thanking her for keeping her eyes on me, listening quietly and sitting up straight. It was as much of a compliment to this student as it was a reprimand to the other.
This experience—subtle, brief and seemingly inconsequential—has clung to my conscience for years, growing even more poignant and personal as I have become a parent.
My toddler, who is also boisterous, goofy and adamantly independent, reminds me of that student. After years of witnessing similar students being disciplined, silenced or shamed for being themselves, I worry for my toddler, and I feel so protective of him. This is not to say that my children, who are white, would have the same experience as students of color, particularly Black students who are disproportionately disciplined compared to white students. Still, our school system’s over-reliance on punishment and obedience makes me worry about the impact on my kids.
Would school eventually dim the unabashed and loud joy from my child? Would the exhaustion of adhering to arbitrary rules and consequences make him grow quieter? What psychological and spiritual damage would this cause? Do the moments of joy and community, like my students and I experienced before the administrator’s arrival, outweigh the moments of shame following public discipline?
I don’t know.
Confronting Unimaginable Violence
I’m sitting on my couch, holding my 2-day-old baby while my almost 2-year-old toddler runs around the house in a pee-heavy diaper making silly noises and giggling. It’s May 24, 2022. The baby, wrapped tight in a classic teal and pink striped hospital swaddle, is sleeping in my arms, her eyelids fluttering rapidly and her mouth forming accidental smiles.
My phone dings and I’m suddenly brought out of this joyful, trance-like state. I gingerly reach into my pocket, careful not to wake the baby, and wiggle my phone out. The news notification displayed across my screen reads:
My muscles tighten. My eyes, puffy from two days of joyful tears following my daughter’s birth, well up with new tears of sadness and fear.
Our baby is still sleeping peacefully and my toddler is still running and giggling while my wife watches him with delight.
I’m unable to reconcile these two realities between the birth of my baby and the unconscionable death of young children.
“Did you see the news?” I ask several hours later.
My wife looks at me with concern. “No, what?”
“There was a school shooting in Texas. An elementary school.”
“No… an elementary school?!” The adoration displayed on her face just seconds ago is replaced with horror and disgust.
I nod my head.
“No!” my wife yells, as her muffled shouting ushers in a stream of tears.
After the Uvalde school shooting, and feeling just a fraction of the unimaginable pain and sorrow felt by the victim’s families and community, I returned to a set of unwelcome, yet familiar questions: How can I reconcile sending my children to a place that has become a site of such horrific violence? How do I help my kids process and understand their repeated experiences of lockdown drills as young as 5 years old?
Still, I don’t know.
So, What Now?
Gun violence in schools is a reality. The harm caused by strict discipline and academic pressure is a reality.
But to be fair, schools aren’t all bad all the time.
As a student, I experienced beautiful friendships, affirming mentorship from teachers and meaningful extracurriculars.
As a teacher, I affirmed students’ identities, fostered community and taught students critical reading and writing skills.
Even though I had some meaningful school experiences, I question whether we need schools to provide young people with positive academic and social experiences. If not, what alternatives can exist?
The COVID-19 pandemic forced families to do school differently. In Detroit, where I live, many families and communities came together to develop outdoor, play-based, self-directed learning communities for children, such as the Big Bad Wolf House program. Many of these communities continued, even after in-person schooling resumed because they allowed for a more humanizing learning experience.
Maybe these emergent learning spaces that grew out of desperation but persisted because of their affirming, safe environments can show us what’s possible for schooling?
Maybe what we need right now is twofold: to continue supporting the ongoing organizing to make material conditions in schools safer and more humanizing while simultaneously joining those who are and those who have been enacting schooling alternatives to help imagine a new path forward.
Still, I wonder, where do my children fall within these options?
I don’t know, and my wife and I remain unsure.
All I do know at this point is that my kids, and all our kids, deserve better.