When I was the adolescent son of a family of modest means in a factory town in Michigan, I won a scholarship to study French by living for a summer with a French working class family. It had some to do with my being a damned good French student, some to do with my father's church connections and a whole lot to do with blind luck.
The eldest son of my French family had just finished high school. In my hometown, Pontiac, if you wanted to turn a girl's head you had to drive at least a Pontiac GTO with a rumbling glass-pack muffler. I had no car at all. Imagine the wonder and admiration I felt for this French kid who could ride through medieval streets on a bicycle with a single rose in his teeth and suck pretty girls out of shop doors, market tents and second-story bedroom windows to wave and call to him.
I remember thinking, "I could go back to Pontiac and try the rose-in-the-teeth bicycle thing, but I'd probably just wind up in the hospital missing some important teeth." And that would have been the reaction just from the girls.
Later in the summer when I knew enough French to talk to him, I asked him what he was going to do with his life. At first, he seemed not to get what I was asking. He said, "What's wrong with my life?"
I said, "Your career. What will it be?"
He said, "Oh, you mean work. I don't know. I will work."
"I don't know. Some factory or something. Why?"
I stopped asking questions, in part because I was too shocked to know what to say or ask. I came from a place that was at that time the world-center of factories. Everyone I knew was the son or daughter of parents who worked in factories. Their parents had come from all over the world (except maybe France) to work in American factories. I didn't know a single kid who would graduate from high school and nonchalantly accept a life of working in factories.
We all had that American trait -- I guess we could argue about whether it's a blessing or a curse -- of believing not only that we could rise above the station of our parents but that we had to do so in order to keep our parents off our backs. What my handsome and very cool French brother had accepted instead was a permanently limited social station. I just didn't get it.
Our American adult mentor in the language program was a Baptist minister and doctoral student of both theology and French history. I told him how upset I was that this really cool guy just shrugged and said his life didn't matter. The mentor laughed. "He didn't say that, Jim. He said his social class didn't matter to his happiness."
He explained: By steering poor kids early and hard into vocational training, French schools enshrined and enforced pre-Revolutionary concepts of class that survived from ancient culture. The French school system plucked up the old institution of aristocracy, roots and all, and transplanted it in the soil of a so-called meritocracy that would always be dominated by people of relative wealth. In this system, poor people accepted a lower social station early in life and then didn't worry about it.
My mentor said that was why my French brother could pedal around with that rose in his teeth all day: He didn't have American rat-in-the-belly social anxiety gnawing at his guts. I remember being very depressed about that. I thought, "Yeah, great, well, he's never going to get a GTO that way." As I said, I was an adolescent.
These memories come to mind now because I can't help thinking Texas took a big turn toward the French last week with the near unanimous passage of HB 5 in the Texas House of Representatives. HB 5 will create a system of early academic steering in which students and their families must choose a student's lifelong destiny at age 14.
With HB 5, assuming it becomes law, Texas is abandoning the American dream -- or curse -- of limitless ambition, opting instead for the more comfortable rose-in-the-teeth convention of permanent social class linked to birth. But in our case, the motivation for imposing a permanent socioeconomic ceiling is worse and dirtier than the French reason. They were operating out of assumptions of class so ancient and unquestioned as to be almost subliminal. Our reason is race.
State Representative Mark Strama, a 46-year-old Democrat from Austin, was one of only two House members who voted against HB 5. He has a piece about his vote on his blog in which he points out that HB 5 is aimed at eroding and degrading the system of accountability that has successfully prodded school districts to raise the achievement scores of black and Hispanic students. Strama provides hard data to show that black and Hispanic test scores started rising in the '90s when Texas first embraced a philosophy of rigorous accountability for schools.
Those scores have continued to rise at rates faster than the national rates. But Strama also provides anecdotal evidence from school officials who have told him that's exactly why they wanted to see HB 5 passed -- so they could escape the pressure to raise minority student achievement. Strama says he voted against HB 5 because he believes its purpose is to allow school districts to duck back beneath the radar on minority achievement.
We really don't have hard-walled social classes in this country the way the Europeans still do. Maybe it's because our own revolution took place on new soil, cut free from the massive cultural and psychological root system of a medieval past. But we do have race and ethnicity.
For example, let's consider the saga of the immigrant families from Mexico whose children now compose almost two-thirds of the student body in Dallas. They come here with a kind of bifurcated worldview in the first place.
On the one hand, they are products of a culture in which poor people are barely visible in the structure of social political power sharing and can literally get themselves killed by standing up and making demands. On the other hand, the families who make it to Dallas have whatever courage, desperation and rat-belly ambition it took to come seek their fortunes in a foreign and often hostile land.
It's easy to teach their kids that they're not allowed to rise above a certain level. Too many of them already get that at home. The trick is to teach them just the opposite -- that they must strive to break through every barrier and take their places not at the bottom, not at the middle but at the very top of American society. Because that is the American way.
It's not just a mistake and a waste of human potential to steer children toward lesser destinies. It's a sin and a betrayal of all that is truly American.
A parallel bill has already passed in the Senate. Now all we need is the signature of Governor Oops, and Texas will be truly French. No, wait, that's unfair to France. What Texas will be when this noxious bill becomes law is truly racist.