Words by Ibrahim Abdul-Matin
In the heart of the Black Lives Matter movements I was asked to give a talk at a progressive public high school on the lower east side. The students there were responsible for the largest walkout and demonstration of any of the schools in New York City and were experiencing a letdown in that spirit and passion. A small group organized an all-day series of speeches and workshops to revive the spirit and to sustain their activism.
I was the keynote speaker of the event. Throughout the process I communicated with one of the student leaders who was an incredibly professional young woman. She greeted me, told me about the student body and prepped me so that I was fully able to speak to their needs and concerns. My role was to inspire her fellow students to keep the energy of the Black Lives Matter movement alive in their school environment even if it seemed to wane outside.
“I would hope that my sons end up like you!” I told her. “Where did you go to elementary and middle school?”
This Father’s Day coincides with the end of my first son’s first year of school. Where I chose to send him was the most complicated, political, emotional, and important parenting decision I ever made and will probably ever make. As Datwon Thomas, Editor-in-Chief at VIBE aptly noted, “This type of parenting decision changes the course of a youngster’s life. They spend the majority of their days at school.”
As a father, I wanted to know exactly who and what my kids would be around for thousands of hours of their young lives.
Personally, my involvement in this decision was crucial. I am raising three boys in a world obsessed with toxic masculinity. I needed to know that their school would reinforce the respect and compassion they are taught at home. My boys are also black and Muslim and I’ll be damned if the self-love and strong sense of identity I work tirelessly to instill in them is taken away because of segregation, academic tracking, ignorance, and revisionist history.
Early on, Datwon Thomas and his wife made the decision to send their daughters to a private, catholic school where he said, “The religious curriculum focused them.” Now because they live in an area of the city where the schools are quite good, they are transitioning to a public school, raising new concerns. “Will the curriculum challenge them?” he wonders.
Additionally, his daughters always had a dress code and now they will worry about what to wear and “how fly they will be.” Datwon said, “I know their moral fiber is good but will they make the right kind of decisions about the people they surround themselves with?”
The Complexity of Choices
I wanted nothing more than to send my boys to our neighborhood school, walking distance from our home. But as I learned more about our zoned schools, the conversations were not about building up and supporting kids, but rather about gentrification, standardized testing, charters, teacher contracts, law enforcement in schools, and the convoluted process of getting in to a “good” school not in our zone. It was overwhelming.
Private school is not much better for three black boys from a working class household. The race and class disparities rampant in today’s world are ever present in private schools where a very small number of black and brown kids are surrounded by white kids and where a very small number of working class kids are surrounded by classmates with immense wealth. Furthermore, in my interactions with several private schools, I did not find a genuine commitment to critical thinking about capitalism and inequality. In a world where the rich are getting (much) richer and the poor are getting (much) poorer, are the schools we send our children to propagating inequality or helping them think about genuinely creating a more equitable world?
Kevin Guzman runs a preschool in Washington Heights with his wife Melissa. They cater to a very diverse mix of professional and politically progressive parents at all ends of the economic spectrum. Each year they offer advice to their parents.
“Are the schools you are applying to adhering to your family’s world view? Do they strive to instill values that are similar to those you hold? What type of learner is your child? What type of environment would they thrive in?”
“Choosing a school,” Kevin warned, “based solely on a perception of status or prestige is an easy way to end feeling trapped or unhappy.”
In addition to thinking about Kevin’s questions, when I was visiting schools I thought viscerally, “could I leave my baby boys here?”
A Choice For All?
When I visited my sons’ current school, I immediately felt at ease. On paper, the school is private. In practice, it’s neither private nor public. It uses sliding scale tuition which guarantees economic diversity and eliminates the categories of “financial aid” and “full tuition.” The admissions team is committed to building a racially diverse community and the teachers use a curriculum that centers the histories, struggles, and successes of oppressed people globally. Teachers are not bogged down with the pressures that come with standardized testing. Parents operate in tandem with faculty and staff, recruiting students, shaping curriculum, and planning events. Similar to the sliding scale tuition, parents give their time according to the time they have to give. Miraculously, no one is valued more or less than the other.
And, as it turned out, that impressive young woman happened to be an alumni of this school.
My son’s first year felt like a dream. His classmates are representative of the NYC population – majority black and brown, middle and working class. They come from all parts of the city. They sang songs about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. They took turns bringing home the class rabbit and ducklings. The parents are authors, doctors, train conductors, lawyers, teachers, and dancers, and all of us understand that the success of any one kid is dependent on the success of every other kid. In other words, there is no competition between parents and kids – it’s a village in the truest sense where we are constantly uplifting, disciplining, feeding, and playing with all the children as if they were our own. The dads are just as involved as the moms; in fact, we even have dads nights to build with one another.
As the school year progressed, I found myself thinking how this model of sliding scale tuition, commitment to a racially representative student body, fostering of “the village” among parents, and “the world is our classroom” curriculum could be replicated. If private schools aren’t working and public schools aren’t working, perhaps what we need is education transformation as opposed to reformation and something new that is not funded by property taxes or scholarships and that is not obsessed with performance and punishment.
I, along with countless others, continue to struggle with how all schools can be integrated and inclusive, academic and creative, safe without metal detectors, and disciplined without punishment.
My father’s day wish for all you dads out there is that you are fully engaged in the process of choosing your child’s school and that you find one that makes you as happy as I am today. Here’s to a future where all our kids can be part of a school, as Datwon said, that “matches what they are dreaming and becoming.”