On education with intention
By Jayson Boyd
I grew up during the days of mandatory busing in Seattle. That meant taking the school bus over to Beacon Hill for elementary, going to my neighborhood school, Denny, for middle school, and traveling to Garfield for high school. I didn’t have much say for my elementary, or much of a care for my middle school, but I was thrilled to be chosen to attend Garfield.
One constant at all of my schools is that they were all racially diverse. There was intentionality to it. And, as you might imagine, there was intentionality to how the teachers spoke about race. Gone were the days of my parents’ generation’s so-called “colorblindness”. Pretending you don’t see the different skin colors of others might sound nice, but the reality is that we’re all treated differently according to our skin color, and not recognizing that amounts to an ignorance that is harmful to people of color. But for many white people, this feigned ignorance is bliss.
Mandatory busing in Seattle ended right after my high school days. By that time, very few people were in favor of it. It was expensive to bus kids all over the city, and talk about time consuming! I typically spent about two hours out of each school day on the bus, hours that could’ve been spent doing something more productive, like watching cartoons. I suppose I could’ve spent the time reading or doing homework, but, well, I didn’t, and I don’t remember anyone doing much of that on the bus.
But we need to be honest about why busing failed: the parents of white kids. Many of them pulled their children out of the Seattle public school system and enrolled them in private schools. Some parents simply moved outside the city limits. There were even some that complained so much that the schools began offering special programs that effectively separated many white kids from the general student body. And so most of the burden to make things work fell onto the backs of families of color, and by now we should all know how well these sorts of things work when white people have essentially checked themselves out.
I’m eternally grateful for having been a part of the valiant – but ultimately failed – experiment. I could cite numerous studies that have shown that racially diverse schools produce better humans, but, personally, I didn’t need to hear it from social scientists. Every single day we went to school we learned a skill that is truly invaluable: we learned how to talk to each other, no matter our skin color or socio-economic background. It sounds simple, like being “colorblind”, but the difference is that this actually works, leads to greater understanding and less hostility.
It’s encouraging to see so many people decide they want to better understand their neighbors. Books like Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race have been flying off bookshelves, and that’s great to see. Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th is trending on Netflix – I sure wish every American sees it.
But there’s a sense, for me, that there has been immeasurable lost opportunities. It’s as if you grew up with a parent that was fluent in another language, but they didn’t teach it to you while you were growing up, and now you’re left to teach yourself with some software program. If you had learned it over the course of your childhood, maybe you’d still need help to keep it sharp, but you’d certainly have a greater understanding of it as an adult. And just maybe that knowledge means taking that life-changing trip to France, Uzbekistan or Morocco.
I understand that there is no going back to busing. Our public schools are going increasingly more segregated, and there is currently no political drive to do anything of substance about it. We’ve made that decision, with intentionality. The very least we can do at this point is to educate ourselves, be brave enough to talk with each other, and we owe it to them to pass that knowledge and courage onto our children.