What did you learn in school?
A partial accounting
Top notes: Last week, I wrote about public education. It was my kids’ first day of school and there was a lot on my mind. I wrote that piece mostly as a Dad but snuck in a few memories from being a student myself. And then, since I kept thinking about those memories, I kept writing. This is what came out. It’s about me, but not really, I hope. It’s about being a son and a Dad and a member of a community. Thanks for reading, thanks for being here, and for those who’ve become subscribers or who are considering it, thanks for helping sustain this space.
Oh, and if you read this as a parent or care-giver and you’re looking for new avenues to raise kids with justice top of mind, I highly recommend Radici Studios. Enrollment is currently open (but closing soon) for a set of workshops called Co-Create To Liberate: Raising Thriving Inclusive Kids Through Art. They are well worth your time.
Clancy School was a revelation. You weren’t home alone anymore, in your brown house on the frontage road. You weren’t the small brother lost in a huge crowd of much larger brothers. You were a member of something. You were a kindergarten Merry Mouse. All you Merry Mice took what seemed like a decade to unzip your snowsuits in the morning, but together you could accomplish remarkable things; you could learn about letters and scissors and Hawaii (there was an entire unit on Hawaii! The place least like Clancy, Montana any Merry Mouse could imagine!) and get scared together when the very loud bell rang in the very old gym. You all got chicken pox at once— an early, important lesson, likely to be ignored down the line. You learned from your mom to be disappointed that the Letter People— the cartoon character letters from whom you learned the alphabet— were all boys. You didn’t process that you and the rest of the Merry Mice, the multiple Codys and the Brandys and the Tiffanys, were all White. You didn’t process that some of your parents had jobs at desks and offices down the road in Helena and some of your parents had jobs outside and some of your parents worked on land owned by other people’s parents and some of your parents didn’t work at all.
Some of those lessons would have been important to learn. You knew pieces of the lessons, but not all of them. You knew that some people in small towns in Montana were Crow and Blackfeet and Salish and that you and the people in your town were not, but you wouldn’t learn yet that there was a difference between Clancy and Lodge Grass and Heart Butte and Arlee, that home and theft and discovery all have different meanings depending on who is doing the talking. You didn’t learn that Clancy came to be because of a war. You didn’t learn that the war never ended.
What you did learn, though, was that whatever school was, it was something you did together. You moved away from Clancy in second grade, which was strange. People didn’t really move in or out of Clancy School. You moved in the middle of The Phantom Tollbooth. You had all been reading it together, you one-time Merry Mice. On your last day, your class gave you your own copy so that you could read along with them as your family drove to Maryland. They all signed it, all those Codys and Tiffanys and Brandy’s, with their bubble letters and overly-large cursive loops.
In Columbia, you caught the bus behind your cul-de-sac to Thunder Hill Elementary School. Your street was named after a line in an Oliver Wendell Holmes poem. All the streets around you were. That’s how you learned that you now lived in a Planned Community— a place where everything is in its right place, where there isn’t a public city government but where every neighborhood has a very nice swimming pool. It would take you a while to learn that the second word in the phrase Planned Community meant something different here than you had been taught.
The streets to school were winding and forested and the ride was long enough that if you had ever gotten lost, you would never be able to find your way home. By the time your bus got to Thunder Hill, all the streets were named for Andrew Wyeth paintings.
At Thunder Hill, you learned that diversity was a good thing. That’s what people loved about this place, with its Great Man street names. It was intentionally diverse. It wasn’t all Brandys and Codys and Tiffanys. Your classmates were Black and White and Korean and Pakistani and Chinese. Back in Clancy, there was only Christmas. There were more holidays now. That was a good thing to learn.
You also learned that the most important distinguisher of all was between the successful and the non-successful. You had classmates who were esteemed violinists and prodigious lacrosse midfielders. You knew this because their parents took them to lessons and practices all the time. There was a music teacher at Thunder Hill who loved the sopranos. You got to be a soprano only if you were the best, only if yours was one of the most beautiful voices. Every once in a while, a kid would ask if that was fair of her, because not everybody could have a soprano singing voice. She said that even if you were an alto, you could work hard to be a better alto. You’d just never be a soprano.
You learned that of all the ways to be successful the most important one of all was to be smart. Being Gifted and Talented was the floor. The real aim was to be accepted into THE Center For Talented Youth at THE Johns Hopkins University. You didn’t know what happened at the Center For Talented Youth, but you knew that you were supposed to want to be there, that you didn’t want to be an untalented youth with a more open weekend schedule.
White kids went to CTY, at least a lot of them did. You learned that there was a right way of being White, and that being from Clancy, Montana wasn’t the right way to be White, which meant that you had more time on your hands. These were the years of stomach aches. You wanted to be the right kind of White so badly because you wanted people to think you were smart too. You petitioned to take the gifted and talented test over and over again. Eventually, you wore them down.
Before you took the test, you were in a class with more of the Black kids. You learned that the goal was to get out of those classes. You also learned that you weren’t supposed to say that. You learned that you nobody asked why the Black kids were in those classes, or why they couldn’t petition to take those tests. Or at least most people didn’t.
You learned that you loved Ms. Swerdlin’s fifth grade class because she hated those tests. She was the only one who said they shouldn’t exist. She was the only one who stole the Gifted and Talented curriculum and taught it to everybody. She was the only one that seemed to remember anything about all of you besides whether or not you were on the right track. You loved her so much. Your stomach aches ended sometime around then.
The thing that you learned at Dunloggin Middle School was that middle school is awful for everybody, but in the moment it feels like it’s only awful for you. You learned what it was like to get shoved into the creek behind the school and to get a strong right hook to the face on the school bus. You learned that it’s really tough on your parents when you keep coming home with those stories— that even when, by the end of eighth grade a couple of the popular kids discovered punk rock and took a shine to you because you could make them Fugazi and Hüsker Dü mixtapes, your parents wouldn’t stop worrying. You wouldn’t understand that until decades later when you’d spend an entire afternoon distractedly waiting for your own kids to come home from school and report that there were No Bullies Today.
The fact that you didn’t know that those years stunk for everybody would eventually be much more of a curse than any snapped towels in the locker room. It would take decades before you would have a sense of what it meant not just to be White, but to be a White Boy and then eventually a White Man. It would take decades to learn that there was a unique danger in all of the moments where you believed yourself to be uniquely aggrieved. You didn’t know about Chekov’s Victimhood yet— that if you load a White Boy up with a sense that the world owes him a special debt in Act One, you’d better watch out because at some point, at many points, he’s going to decide that he’s the only human being who's ever been wronged. At some point, at many points, he’ll forget that he doesn’t actually know what it feels like to have his body under siege, to feel like he’s been erased.
You didn’t learn that you can have a few really bad years and that, like all of us, you’re allowed sympathy and love, but there’s still a bigger story at play and you aren’t always in the middle of it.
Anyway, middle school really did get better by the end, and in some ways it wasn’t even that bad. You played a lot of flashlight tag with the kids on your cul-de-sac. And the first month at Wilde Lake High School was actually pretty terrific. But then you moved again, back to Montana, to Missoula, to a house under the mountain and near the campus and next to the park with the big bandshell and just a few blocks from a bookstore and coffee shop and the biggest record store you’d ever seen. Back then, your family could afford a house in that neighborhood. And since Missoula was a city, at least by Montana standards, that meant that there were choices to be made.
Your parents sent you to a Catholic School— the first and last time they sent any of their six kids to a private school. They didn’t do it because they thought it was better or more rigorous or anything like that. They did it because it was smaller and that meant there would be fewer tough guys to take swings at you and fewer hidden corners for them to get away with it. Plus, it was cheap. Their deal with you was, if you liked it after the first year, you would get a job and pay for the biggest chunk of it.
You ended up liking that deal.
You liked the restaurant dish pits and prep kitchens that the deal ensured would play a large part in your high school experience. You had a few teachers there too— musicians and writers and parents working two other jobs and guys named Randy who were secretly the best cooks in the world and meth heads and alcoholics polishing off bottles of Gato Negro in the walk-in and born agains and liars and a whole lot of people who were patient with your clumsiness with a kitchen knife.
You would later learn that you would have been just fine in the bigger public school, but you didn’t mind the smaller Catholic one. It’s hard to say you learned much about Catholicism. One day, in Mass, you went up to take the Eucharist and then realized mid-way up the aisle that you weren't supposed to do that. You took the sacrament anyway and— in a manner that you thought was surreptitious but probably wasn’t at all— you slid the Body of Christ into your pocket where it would turn into crumbs. Maybe you should have paid better attention in Theology class.
You didn’t stick around that school because you believed it was better than any other school. In some ways, it was worse— a shabbier building, fewer classes, lower faculty salaries. There were some great teachers though. And some nice kids. And you loved the debate team. Mostly, though, you stuck around because, while you didn’t have the words for it yet, you wanted the challenge and promise of sticking around a place, you wanted to commit to a group of people. You hadn’t had that since Clancy School.
You were back in Montana, which meant that your high school was mostly White, though not totally White. There were a few Salish kids, and there were some White guys who treated the Salish kids like crap. Those same White guys— guys with pick-up trucks and chew bottles who knew how to hunt and handle their liquor around a bonfire— would treat a lot of kids like crap: girls, Queer kids, kids they suspected of being Queer. Some of the cruelest guys would eventually come out of the closet themselves. Even more of them would grow up to be pretty nice eventually. At the time, all of them were figuring it out.
But that’s not the lesson you took at the time. Those guys were jerks, you decided, which was how you decided that by crafting an identity that looked different-enough-from-their-whole-deal, you got to be a good guy. So that’s what you did. They hunted, so you were a vegetarian. They drank, so you didn’t. They wore Nikes, so you did a class project on how Phil Knight was a criminal because of sweatshop labor. They used words for women or for gay kids or for Salish kids that you didn’t use. You went to Indigo Girls concerts and pow wows that they wouldn’t come anywhere near.
You were learning a lot of kindness in those moves. The thing was, you didn’t yet know that kindness and empathy could just be a thing you just did for its own sake. You didn’t yet know that they didn't prove anything about who you were and who others weren’t. You didn’t yet know that kindness as a badge of exceptionalism isn’t quite kindness after all.
But you also learned that there was more than one way to be a White Guy. And that’s good. Some day, many years later, you’d learn that one way to be a different kind of White Guy is to imagine that all of you, together, could figure out a new path. You’d start learning that when you got letters from a couple of the guys with the trucks and the guns, now middle-aged, now Dads too, now full of some of the same hopes and questions and discoveries and regrets as you. The letters would say they were sorry, that they shouldn’t have been so cruel to everybody. Your reply back would say that you were sorry too, that you shouldn’t have been so full of yourself. You all thought you had something to prove.
Once you started noticing the lessons, you couldn’t stop. You discovered more and more of them, or you remembered more and more of them.
One year, in high school, there was an award ceremony. You won a lot of awards. It was important for you to win a lot of awards. You can take the converted-striver out of suburban Maryland but…well, you know how it goes.
Your mom was in the audience. A couple of times, when you got your award, you made a little show of it— an exaggerated walk or silly dance on the way up to shake the principal’s hand. You had learned the benefits of preemptive goofiness by that point. Make ‘em laugh first before they can decide what the joke’s gonna be. It’s an old trick.
It wasn’t your mom’s trick though. You sat back down next to her and she told you, politely but clearly, to knock it off, to stop trying to take up more and more space. This was the same mom that noticed those All-Male Letter People back at Clancy School. This was also the same mom who, back in Maryland, must have seen the lessons that school was teaching you about Blackness and so started taking you to an AME church with her boss, one of Howard County’s most legendary civil rights leaders. She had you sing in the choir. She asked her boss to tell you about her memories of Thurgood Marshall. She had you listen to stories that weren’t yours, but were yours to learn from all the same.
You learned a lot in school. Not all the lessons were the right ones, but the useful ones were always there, waiting for you. You would find them on your own time. You would have some help along the way.
This week’s song: Thanks Fugazi. It still blows my mind that, in the spring of 8th grade, the cool kids got into you and I just happened to have a head start because I had cool older brothers with college radio shows. Man that helped a lot. Oh, and the song’s “Bad Mouth.” Pretty great live version. Brendan Candy really goes wild on the farmer’s bell around 1:50.
This week’s subscriber’s only discussion:
Yesterday, I asked folks to share completely inconsequential pet peeves and honestly reading and responding has been some of the most fun I’ve had all week. Extremely funny stuff. Extremely random stuff. Extremely good people.
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