When children learn the wrong lessons in the classroom

September 11, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

Annapolis is like urban centers all over the country. Middle-class families who love the amenities of the city live cheek by jowl with families too poor to escape the mean parts of city life.

At our neighborhood school, children whose parents are both doctors or lawyers learn beside children whose dads are gone. Kids who take sailing lessons play with kids who don't have a family car.

My children go to that school instead of the many private schools that seem to spring up around upper-income city dwellers. I am often asked why. It is a question I often ask myself.

Neither my husband nor I is a product of private schools, so I guess there is an inherent belief that public schools can turn out productive adults. And public schools have vast resources. Even small class size is not a lure to private schools. Because so many Annapolis children are needy, federal funds keep student-teacher ratios at about 20-to-1 in Annapolis elementary schools.

An important part of our decision is financial. It would cost from $8,000 to $16,000 a year to send our two children to private schools. Even if we could manage to pay that kind of tuition, I am unconvinced that my children's education would be $16,000 better. They have had remarkable teachers and successful school years.

And my aging hippie social agenda played a part in our decision, too. Public school is the real world, and I never wanted to convey to my children the message that they were not part of that world, that they had no responsibility to it.

But I have been naive. The lessons of equality and equal opportunity, the lessons I wanted for them, are not the ones my children are learning at school.

Instead they have learned what poor means, that it is not some obscure condition that will prompt another child to eat your vegetables. They have learned that winter jackets, birthday parties, even school supplies and breakfast at home are luxuries for some children.

They have also learned that some kids never do homework, that some kids behave atrociously in class. They have learned not to take things they care about to school because they might disappear.

My daughter learned that not all families have a car or a telephone and thus her good friend could neither get to Jessie's birthday party nor call for a ride.

My son's best friend lost his home and his brothers when his mom was busted for drugs. Joe's first-grade buddy was shipped to a children's shelter with just the clothes on his back. It was a horrible drug lesson -- worse and probably more lasting than any McGruff could teach.

These are hard lessons learned too young. But the lesson that really scares me is this one: My kids have concluded that the kids who don't read well, don't behave or don't have winter jackets are black kids. Because of school busing and the configuration of our neighborhood, my children have come to the mistaken conclusion that black kids are poor and troubled students, and that white kids have money and are smart.

Two of the best students in Joe's class are black, but he can not help but notice first that the largest number of black kids are in the low math class and in trouble with the teachers.

If we lived somewhere else, my children might learn that poor and black are not synonymous, that white kids can be poor and troubled students too. But we don't. And in any case it is not the relationship between middle-class whites and poor whites that is central in our country right now. It is the relationship between whites and blacks, and my children are learning the wrong lessons about blacks.

I wish my friend Mike lived in our neighborhood. Mike's family life is just like our own: two kids, a dad who works, coaches kids and fusses over homework, a mom with a part-time job as a teacher, a mortgage, a church. There is a commitment to community service there, and a powerful belief in education.

Mike and his family are black. They could teach my children the right lesson: A child's race does not decide how he learns or how he behaves; a child's parents and their economic resources do.

I can't say we will keep our kids in public schools. When the metal detectors go up, we may be gone. My husband and I have talked of moving, but only briefly.

"I don't want to be one of the people that runs away," my husband says, and I know instinctively how costly that statement may be someday.

But it is one of the lessons that I want to make sure my children learn.

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