A couple of years ago the New York Daily News published a powerful editorial about the New York City public school system. The paper said the biggest thing the city's huge staff of school administrators needed was more middle-class parents to tell them what to do.
"They need squeaky-wheel parents demanding peak performance from both schools and kids," the editorial said. "Those parents--middle class, aspiring middle class and just plain academic minded--are the heart and soul of American education. In New York, too many of them have been voting with their feet."
Of course, here in Dallas we don't vote with our feet. It's too exhausting, and no A.C. We vote with our cars. Pedal to the metal, man. Put some real distance down.
I promised myself I never would write about my family's experiences with the Dallas school system while my kid was still there. So now he's out.
I had a couple of reasons for being shy. The main one was that our son would have objected. Strange thing, being the offspring of two journalists. You'd think the kid would be grateful, being used as an unpaid model in newspapers and magazines from the age of 2, having personal anecdotes about his extremely amusing foibles published here and there over the years. All we ever got was a sour look at dinner and a mumbled remark about how "You guys need to start getting your own material."
The other reason not to write about being white, middle-class and having a kid in the public school system is that you know in advance how obnoxiously self-serving it's going to sound--the Isaac-on-the-altar syndrome, a form of liberal macho. "You're too much of a wuss to sacrifice your kids for your ideals the way we did."
So, just for the record, if sheltering your kid in a private school is being a wuss, we were wusses and a half. This whole public-school thing was his idea. We scrimped to pay tuition at a private school for 10 years. He was the one who started wrinkling his nose in an unpleasant way (also at dinner) and saying, "Private school is for special-needs kids."
We made the mistake of not voting with our car. We continued to live in an inner-city neighborhood, near the Lakewood area. Lakewood is one of Dallas' anomalous inner-city neighborhoods, where a lot of white, middle-class to affluent people continue to live and send their kids to public school.
So our kid winds up with many friends in the neighborhood going to Woodrow Wilson High School. Plus, these Woodrow white kids have their own strange brand of macho, like, "We can handle the real world, and you private-school sissies can't." Kids, as we know, are all idiots. Anyway, Woodrow was his idea. Not ours.
Woodrow is 20 percent white--roughly three times the percentage for the overall district, which is 6.7 percent white. Woodrow is 66 percent Latino, including many kids who have emigrated from Mexico within the last three or four years. It's 11 percent African-American and the rest "other."
Woodrow is only 52 percent "economically disadvantaged," compared with a rate of 77.6 percent for the district. You wind up with what should be a very odd mix economically. Many of the black kids are from very poor parts of nearby South Dallas. The Latino kids are from families just beginning their climb up from 18th-century peasantry. And the white kids, especially from Lakewood, range from middle class up to pretty darned affluent.
So what's that all about? I can certainly tell you how it's perceived from school district headquarters at 3700 Ross Ave.
Woodrow has a choral group called "The Variations," which tends to be overwhelmingly white, in spite of efforts to recruit minorities. They're fantastic, if I may say so. My son was a member.
The school does have other extracurricular activities that are overwhelmingly minority, including a spectacular Ballet Folklorico that draws audiences from all over the city. The basketball team, as you might imagine, is predominantly African-American.
Nobody ever objects that Ballet Folklorico is "too Mexican" or the basketball team "too black." Oh, I know, I know. White people really are a different case, because they were the oppressors. I believe that. But c'mon. The Variations aren't oppressors! They're kids! And they sing a wicked Rodgers and Hammerstein.
A couple of years ago when The Variations performed at a districtwide function, presided over by Superintendent Mike Moses, word came back through a parents committee that 3700 Ross "was not happy."
I was on the parents committee. That's another story--how two liberal, compassionate parents became squeaky wheels. Maybe another day for that story. But for now, I remember sitting there when we got the news that Ross Avenue was not happy about The Variations being too white, thinking, "OK, let's see if we can divvy this out.
"Talking the South Dallas black kids into joining a show choir is tough because so many of them are afraid of getting killed after their friends see them in the first performance.
"The Mexican kids all have jobs. If they say they want to quit working so they can spend their evenings wearing satin robes and singing gringo songs, their parents are going to chloroform them and ship them back to Oaxaca."
OK, I'll tell you a little tiny bit about the squeaky-wheel thing, but this is not going to be a full confession. Woodrow is like any other school with limited resources. Certain activities are going to be totally taken over by the children of obnoxious, overbearing, ruthlessly self-seeking squeaky-wheel parents if you don't get in there yourself and be obnoxious, overbearing, ruthless, self-seeking and squeaky.
But see, you're doing it for your baby. Those other horrible people are doing it for, just, well, you know. Their babies.
One day you look in the mirror, and you think, "Oh, my God, I've become a monster." Then you give yourself a big thumbs up and get to work making sure your kid is included in the French trip.
I got the impression, in my few one-on-one conversations with Dr. Moses, that he was by no means warmly disposed toward the tiny minority of white middle-class parents who stubbornly remained in his school system. He spoke with disdain about white people whose attitude is that they have stayed in DISD when they could afford to go elsewhere, and therefore they think the school district owes them something.
Oh, I know, I know. White people are so embarrassing sometimes. But here's the thing. If we have to wait for all white people to be smart and politically cool, that's going to take way, way, way too long.
Meanwhile, I sometimes think that when white middle-class people are being obnoxious, other people should take out pens and pads and begin taking notes. There are some advantages to this obnoxious thing.
Jesse Diaz, the Latino activist, told me once that he and his cohort were aware that whites and even middle-class minorities were attempting to take over the PTAs in certain schools in order to win advantages for their own children.
Yup. That's how it's done.
There is always going to be something starkly unromantic about the middle class. Always worrying and grabbing. Never truly insouciant, like Ben Affleck. They have no Palm Springs élan, nor do they have the Steinbeckian glory of the poor and dispossessed.
But pushy middle-class people also happen to be the people who get the garbage picked up on time. You can't get the garbage picked up from Palm Springs.
Mike Moses may resent them for giving him a hot-foot once in a while, as in the recent battles over teacher transfers at Pershing Elementary School. But educrats don't produce good schools. The New York Daily News was exactly right. Our school headquarters at 3700 Ross, like the Tweed Courthouse in New York, has been full to brimming with professional educators for decades. What have they accomplished? The test scores in Dallas are dismal.
I have come to believe that there is an unspoken psychological and moral deal in Dallas. The public schools have been deeded by default to poor minorities.
When the business community wants to help, its mission is missionary and vocational. The professional educators like Moses are comfortable working on achievement at the low end because that's where they own all the expertise, as opposed to the high end, where it's all about parents ragging on them.
So there we have it. What on earth are these dumb white people doing sticking around? Are they like those Japanese soldiers who were still holding out on atolls in the Pacific 10 years after the end of World War II? Did somebody forget to give them a ride home?
Maybe it just reflects the city. The middle class in Dallas is not exactly thriving. According to the most recent available census data, households in Dallas earning between $35,000 and $100,000 make up less than half of the city's population. Perhaps more to the point, our middle-class families represent a smaller portion of the total than the middle-class families in Detroit--about 37 percent here to just less than 40 percent there. So is the deal not only that the middle class does not belong in the Dallas public school system but really doesn't belong in Dallas?
We better hope not. The one way to make sure that doesn't happen is to get them back into the schools.
Woodrow was great for our kid. He had wonderful teachers there and a very strong principal who ran a tight ship. He got a good education, got into a great university with good placement in his freshman courses.
And now we, his parents, are obnoxious. Obnoxious and proud. (This article appears while our son is out of town for the week.)
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