The current debate over the future of public education affects the entire country, and this paper’s intent is to add to the discussion. My experiences as a public school student from Milwaukee compels me to write a personal narrative that might help others to understand what big city public schools are all about. I may cite other sources to back up what I say, but I am really the subject of this paper. I share a common bond with every Milwaukee Public Schools student, and they are also represented in this paper. Our stories are never told when policies are made or votes are cast. We are the “Third Friday” numbers, counted once a year to determine funding. We are the dropout statistics. We are the ones that the system failed. Most of all, however, we are all people, just like everyone who went to suburban, religious, private, or home schools. All children in all schools deserve the best education, and I hope that my story might help to improve the education in city schools.
John Baho is one of a very small number of high school friends that I still see a few times each year. He and I were discussing New Urbanism, which he had learned about during a lecture by Mayor John O. Norquist. Baho had seen the mayor’s semi-famous slide show, in which the audience gets to see why the city is good and the suburbs are bad. Essentially, the mayor promotes the beauty of cities, such as sidewalks, narrow and straight streets, historic building facades, trees, and public spaces. One main concept is that cities were normally built on a human scale, so that people could walk to where they needed to go. Suburbs, however, have been built since the advent (or as a result) of the automobile, so human scale does not exist. Curved streets and cul de sacs tend to lead around in circles, and the public spaces are nearly nonexistent, not to mention sidewalks. Wide suburban streets lead to wider parking lots in large strip malls. To top everything else off, every suburb looks alike, since the same planning principles and chain businesses exist as in every other suburb. I myself had seen Norquist’s presentation, since the mayor was one of my urban planning professors for a semester. Baho told me that he liked the mayor’s ideas.
I agreed with Baho that Norquist had some good ideas about revitalizing cities, but I let my friend know that I did not favor some of the mayor’s views on education. Milwaukee’s mayor is one of the “new mayors,” who “speak the language of modern public management: reinvention, innovation, privatization, competition, strategic planning, and productivity.” Based on these ideas, the mayor has promoted a “school voucher” program that is similar to school choice, where the schools compete for students and their vouchers. The mayor would also include parochial schools in this program, since “There are worse things for my kid than religion.”
A voucher program is not the “magic bullet” answer to the problems in education, and it even contradicts most of the planning principals that I have learned in the School of Urban Planning at UW- Milwaukee. My own experiences that I had as a Milwaukee Public Schools student, also contradict a school voucher system. My education as a planner and as a person have led me to the old-fashioned concept of neighborhood schools. I myself am a product of a version of school choice referred to as the magnet school. I am also a victim of busing and forced integration, mainly because children are constantly used to represent integration while their parents practice segregation. Many people were too busy playing a numbers game to consider the problems that non-neighborhood schools might create while they pretended to fix racism.
I was born at St. Michael’s Hospital in Milwaukee way back in 1975. Not much happened in my life for the next four years before I started kindergarten. My family moved to a “better” neighborhood. I probably learned how to crawl, talk, use a toilet, watch TV, and eat solid foods; maybe not in that order. I also likely learned how to identify people, such as mommy and daddy, and my mean sister Amy. I could see that mommy was a woman (she had long hair like all women). Daddy was a man who had short hair and wore pants all the time. Amy was a brat who teased me. We were all white, which wouldn’t be much of a surprise based on genes and all that, but just so you know, we were (and still are) all white.
My pediatrician was a black lady named Dr. Howell. To me, however, she was just Dr. Howell. I was sick so often when I was little that I probably visited Dr. Howell as often as I saw my own Grandma Jaeger, except for I saw Grandma Jaeger when I felt good. Both of them were nice to me, though, so I didn’t see much difference. Dr. Howell usually made me feel better, and Grandma Jaeger usually bought me something, including that BB Gun when I was about ten, which didn’t go over too well with my mom.
When I was four, I had to go to school for the first time. I was very cool, and I didn’t cry or worry. I was only going a couple blocks away to the French Immersion School-- 82nd Street School. I bet my mom maybe even felt that I went along with too small of a fight, but I had stuff to discover. I’m not sure if I really discovered much about race relations during my two years of kindergarten, but I definitely met all kinds of kids with all kinds of backgrounds. Mostly, though, I saw everyone as either a boy or a girl. I remember kissing Amy Walker while we were sitting in a big circle during five-year-old kindergarten. She was white. Madame Sheridan yelled at us and all that, and I was so scared that I didn’t kiss another girl until Amanda in third grade. She was white. Both girls left the very next year after I kissed them, which said very little for my kissing prowess.
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There was one girl that I had a problem with in kindergarten, and her name was Aphrodite. She was anything but the Goddess of Love, and she pretty much kicked my ass for no good reason one day. She was black. Most of the girls were nice to me, though, and my first grade teacher made me see the school psychiatrist because I hung around with the girls too much. She felt that I needed more guys as friends. I don’t know what the school was trying to prevent or encourage, but I do know that just telling someone to make certain friends is probably a bad idea.
I sometimes wonder who my friends should have been, or who I should have been to them. I wonder if they remember me. I wonder who they were and who they’ve become.