Jonathan Kozol once wrote semi-admiringly about free schools as a concept. Free schools don’t mean public schools; there was a movement to do these kinds of schools where students do all the decision-making. It’s kind of like unschooling, but in a school format. It’s brilliant, but it presupposes a view of childhood that most people find unnerving: that kids can think for themselves and make good decisions.
In my experience, in fact, they can, once they get past the idea that they can, in fact, do nothing and have ice cream all day. Eventually, when they get used to a life with no rules, they do like learning and eating real food, too. Autistic kids thrive with choice since they seem to have this innate knowledge of what it is they need…society just likes to get in the way and interrupt this little voice that tells them what to do. Anyway, sure, kids ought to be able to choose what they do and when they do it. It’s a good thing to have children and teens vote on what happens next, and have them direct their own learning.
I’m sure, deep down, Kozol also would agree in theory with Catholic education because of the good it can do, especially in urban areas. It gets some kids out, and helps them move to the middle class. When you think of individual children, homeschooling, choice schools and Catholic education and other options are always a wonderful thing. He is not remotely a fan of it in practice, though (or possibly not even in theory; sometimes it’s hard to read his work for me because of this).
But he said something about free schools that has stuck with me for years.
He compared them to the commandant’s children playing in the sandbox near Auschwitz.
If you don’t know the story about this, let me unpack it quickly. A commandant had his family living near Auschwitz in a beautiful house. Every day, he’d go through the gate to work, and the kids actually saw concentration camp prisoners, just over the gate as the children played in the yard, in the sandbox and at the pool. It was a lovely home.
And just over the fence, real human beings were suffering, and Daddy was in charge of it all.
In theory, all schools ought to be like Catholic schools, in terms of helping us all get to the middle class. And, even better, they should be like those elite boarding schools so we can all learn how to get into the upper class.
That’s not going to happen, though, is it?
I regularly have to confront what happens to the other kids, and Kozol wasn’t wrong in comparing public education to Auschwitz. Urban education can be very painful to really look at, which is why I struggled to last inside it. I kept looking at the individual children, but not the system. The system is broken, sure, but it can be fixed. If it gets fixed, while I know it will happen slowly, it can happen, and, over time, schools can be really safe places for Autistic kids, Disabled children in general, children of color, and poor people, as well.
And when kids are safe, they can learn.
(Yes, I know some of you can make your classrooms safe places, but it’s impossible to guarantee the other spaces the kids go into are as safe as your room. That was why I couldn’t stay in public schoolteaching (beyond the social obligations, which are kind of ridiculous, don’t you think?); I couldn’t guarantee the kids were safe everywhere.)
I’ve always made it my motto that, once I know the kids are safe, and in good hands (my kid is homeschooled, my kids at my school will go to another Catholic school, hopefully), I can go back for the others, the ones in public schools, who need my help.
I just haven’t been able to figure out how I can get over to a district office, where the changes actually occur, though slowly.
The parish secretary’s brother is the number two guy in our public school district. We’re neither urban nor suburban, really. Our city is large for our state, but not huge-large. Not like St. Louis or somesuch, but we are a large city with large city problems, but small enough to pretend we don’t.
This is the kind of place where making a difference is possible.
And recently the superintendent got changed and this new guy keeps using words I understand: words like “whole child” and he wants to look beyond test scores.
This alarms me because those are words we use in Catholic education. How is it possible for a public school to do what we do?
But I have a connection in the district now, and I am good with taking massive, divergent types of data and pushing them together and creating a plan to help. I understand Neurodivergent children, and am used to fighting for bilingual children and poor children and students of color. I am learning more and more about Disability in general.
Maybe God is calling me to public education now.
Maybe it’s time to go back for the others.
I can’t teach again; it’s too close to the front lines, and I can’t handle not helping children and teens, which sometimes is what teachers have to do to be able to go into work every day. Principalships are out right now, I think, because I’m feeling tentative in that area. My tiny budget is nothing compared to what they juggle. I need to learn more about the district before I do that again. I’d also have to look too many children or teens in the face. I can’t do that now, not while I’m working to help them in the slow way you have to go in big districts.
But my friend’s idea about being a wheel in the machine could also be served at central office, where many teachers and former teachers go to make the district better. It is a large employer, with fantastic benefits and good pay.
And I could use what I know to help children and teens, removed enough from the immediate effects I could, in fact, be making a difference and not get discouraged when that change comes slowly since I don’t have to face learners every day. I can be part of the change.
I can come back for the others.
Maybe it’s time, since the kids will all be just fine, to go back to help the rest.