Magda Helmuth was very tall for a woman. Looming. She wore short, pin straight hair and had giant hands. She had a thick German accent and smelled like cabbage. Her preschool room was neither inviting nor comfortable. She was the antithesis of what a preschool teacher should be. But my parents didn’t think so. They thought she was amazing and inspiring, and so I was sent to the Purple Dragon a few mornings a week for preschool. I remember sitting in a circle and trying artichokes as a group. First of all, who brings artichokes to a group of four-year-olds and expects any good to come of it? And, why was it acceptable for Mrs. Helmuth to berate me in front of the class when I gagged on the tasteless leaf in my mouth? Perhaps it was because it was 1978 and that’s just how things were done. Perhaps because I needed an experience like that to shape where I would go, in teaching, in my parenting, and in my relations with others. I knew even then that I didn’t want to ever, ever make someone feel the way she had made four-year-old me feel.
Here is where the irony comes in: I now teach in the very same classroom where that experience occurred. While there is now a wall splitting what once was a giant room into two, and the tables and chairs might seem a bit smaller to me, I still remember that experience when I walk into my classroom at the beginning of each new school year. That classroom might look very similar in composition to the one I attended 30 plus years ago – predominantly white and upper middle class – but the experience I intend to give the students is vastly different than the one I had.
I went on to attend schools in the Kansas City, Missouri district. What were once known as “cluster schools” (Hartman, Hale Cook and Marlborough elementary) became “magnet schools”, and these fed into several local high schools. I attended Lincoln College Preparatory Academy. My experience in the KCMO district was a good one, and my parents were active in the schools and in district politics as they chose to stay in the city rather than cross state lines in the “white flight” of the early 1980s. I don’t feel like they sacrificed my education or my educational experience for their idea that public schools can and should work. I also think it was brave and bold of them, and a handful of other parents that really stood by the system. I wish there were more parents from our Brookside/Plaza neighborhoods (myself included, honestly) who would be brave enough to do the same today.
As a student at Lincoln, I had friends who haled from all parts of the KC metro area: Independence, Blue Springs, downtown, the West Bottoms, you name it. The only sense of community was the community inside the school. I couldn’t invite my friend Amanda to come over after school because it meant that she’d have to ride my school bus and then one of our parents would have to trek across town during rush hour to pick up or drop off. I simply didn’t get a chance to know my peers the way that my friends who attended other, neighborhood schools did. I often wonder how that might have changed my path. I always felt a bit disconnected from school because the kids who did live near me were not the ones I would have chosen to associate with outside of school. Plus, most of those kids knew way too much about me, from the girls who once formed the “I hate Kate” club on the playground during third grade recess, to the kids who knew my mom was having an affair with our minister. I didn’t want my dirty laundry aired like that, and so my social community became the friends I made at dance class.
I see such connections (and frustrations) between my experience in school all those years ago and where I currently stand in my teaching and in my life. I am back living in the same south Brookside/Waldo neighborhood in which I grew up, and I believe that our sense of community is still very broken. People will be quick to tell you how our neighborhood is full of local businesses and family owned establishments: we are proud of these things and it’s one of the main reasons I wanted to come back to the area. But what happened to the indispensible tie between the community and the schools in a neighborhood? In many ways those ties don’t exist in this area of Kansas City. We might fool ourselves into thinking that they do, but the schools with the best “community” feel that way because they are church based, and the church is the core of “community” there. The public school options are plentiful, yet, in my opinion have done less to welcome the people of this community than to alienate those of us who are interested in attending them.
When I brought this up to friends in conversation, I heard people throwing blame around. Parents want to blame the school system as a whole; teachers want to blame the parents, students want to blame teachers…on and on. When will we find a middle ground or some way to get past the blame game and begin to try something new? My opinion on the system and my sense of community has been really put to the test in the past few months as we have struggled to figure out my daughter’s path to kindergarten. I can honestly say that I understand how my parents must have felt when their friends, the parents of my friends, pulled their children from public schools to move to the suburbs.
My thoughts keep returning to the proverb “it takes a village to raise a child” and I wonder, where is my village? We have backed our villagers into corners, alienating them and have left them to fend for themselves in the most important task of raising children. I often wonder how different my journey as a parent and as a teacher would look if we had the kind of community in our schools as I feel in my own small group of friends. I don’t know what the answers are to these questions, but I must believe that I should be a part of the solution.
I consider the definition of my current “location” as physical, geographical and personal. There are days when I find myself quite literally walking with my children down the same sidewalks I walked as a child, and yet I know the experience I am giving them is at once vaguely similar and entirely different than my own. I am reminded of my own history each day I step foot into my preschool classroom. I am reminded that I must do things differently than they were done for me. I am reminded of all the ways I would like to make the journey different for a new group of children. I feel in many ways like my location is geographically quite exactly where I started many years ago, and yet miles and miles away from where I intend to go.