Friday, August 03, 2012

The School System and a Diversity of Subcultures

Not long after my sister and I had our seventh birthday our family had a garage sale, loaded what was left into what seemed a very big moving truck, and piled into the station wagon with the dog for a long trip from one coast to the other. We were moving.

My father had been raised on a farm in Indiana and told my mother he had little or no interest in farming, but after some years away from it had gotten involved in managing a community garden project and now wanted to reconnect with the land. Maybe raise some sheep.

He got a job on the West Coast, where my mother was from, and we moved to a small farm on an island in Puget Sound. That's where we lived for 5-6 years until for a variety of reasons my parents' marriage dissolved.

Growing up in a small town / rural setting had a lot to offer a kid. We had plenty of chores to do around the house and property - picking vegetables, gathering eggs, minding the sheep, stacking firewood. Mom and Dad both worked hard while we complained about doing our share but had little of the back-breaking, all-day work that might have characterized life on a larger farm. There was plenty of time to play in the barn and build forts in the woods and name all the chickens. Our place had been landscaped so that something was in bloom every day of the year, and I loved to fill vases throughout the house with camellias, forsythia, roses - almost as much as I loved going out to the garden to graze on green beans, strawberries, and tomatoes of every description.

The School System

There must have been some homeschoolers on the island, but I wasn't aware of them; otherwise all the kids on the island went to the same elementary schools and middle school, and most would go to the same high school unless they took a ferry to mainland.

Although island life attracted folks others might consider kind of weird, in other ways the diversity was limited. In the schools, there were rich kids and poor kids but few black kids or Asian kids, and there was really only one clique of "popular" ones. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't Lord of the Flies or anything, but there was a pretty strong sense of social organization. I grew up having crushes on the same boys and wanting to be liked by the same girls as everyone else in my class.

Only later did I realize that while this is a common experience it is not a universal one. Both the D.C. suburb where I'd begun my education and the urban Seattle schools I would experience next were characterized by much more diversity and tolerance. I was taken by surprise in my eighth grade year at an inner city junior high to find how provincial I really was - how much I assumed people would at least try to march to the beat of the same drummer. Why didn't more people make fun of the kid in my math class named Geronimo, or the boy from choir who minced down the hallway like a girl and liked to paint his fingernails?

While I continued to look down on those who tried to be as weird as possible for no reason in particular, I was intrigued by the culture where, in spite of some bullying and racial conflict (of which I was sometimes a victim), it seemed as if people really were largely free to be themselves. Rather than pressured to fit into a restrictive mold.

Another move brought me to a school system and culture once again fashioned to form and favor just a certain kind of kid. There was less friction, and more money, and everybody was a lot more the same. I did well academically, but it was pretty lonely. In such a context I believed the lie of the enemy that there must be something wrong with me if I wasn't just like everybody else. Once again, even though the school was much bigger than the schools on the island, everyone in my class had crushes on the same boys and wanted to be liked by the same girls and there was really only one clique of popular kids.

I wonder if that's part of why I chose a college where diversity, once again, was "cool." Though I'm not sure I realized, going into it, that college would be so different, socially/culturally, than high school had been. It was a pleasant surprise.

Multiculturalism v. Blending in

Where is this rambling memoir going? I'm just wondering, now that I'm in my 40s, about the relationship between the culture(s) of a community - and particularly of a school system - and its effect on kids. How they feel about themselves. What kind of conclusions they reach about their own identity. How they look at other people. I don't think I'll ever have the chance to do this, but having tasted both I think I'd rather raise my kids in an environment that values diversity over homogeneity and "success." Living in an urban or international setting, at least for a number of years, would provide that. Is it something we can "make happen" without moving into a big city or going overseas?

Of course there are all kinds of other factors that go into where we decide to live and what we think will be best for our kids, including how we try to educate them. The three schools I attended that had a "free to be you and me" culture only got it through a great deal of social engineering. In the first case, the whole town had been designed - as Wikipedia describes it - to eliminate racial, religious, and class segregation (more here). The student bodies of the schools I attended in eighth and ninth grades were the result of Seattle's policy of forcibly busing kids long distances to create more integrated schools (more on that here).  

The world has changed so much since I was in school. Doing the kind of work I do, I keep running into people from medium-sized and small towns now hosting large populations of first-generation immigrants, refugees, and international students. In some cases this has brought conflict and violence, but I can't help but think the net result of growing diversity is good for all of us, that it will help us learn lessons about respecting other people's values and ways of life that we might not learn any other way - simultaneously, perhaps learning to accept our own eccentricities without idolizing them, becoming comfortable in our own skin, whatever its color.


Dean Smith said...

Wow! That brings back the memories. It's interesting to see the experience through your mind now after all these years. I think about my own growing up years in Indiana and how non-culturally diverse that was. Everyone about the same income, all white, mostly protestant. You had more cross cultural exposure than I did.

Duane said...

Thank you Marti. There is a lot of insight here and much to learn. Puts into words what I think about diversity and our children and how to help them.

Marti said...

Dad - that makes me wonder what Columbia was like for you, or even what Purdue might have been like. I'm grateful for the cross-cultural experiences I got here and there growing up as well as for those I sought out when I was old enough to do so on my own.

Duane - Maybe appreciating cultural diversity is the kind of thing we might initially oppose but learn to develop a taste for when our life choices or convictions - or perhaps those of our parents - give us enough exposure to change us? It's unfortunate, though, that many of us only learn about race and culture when we experience abuse or discrimination because of them. I seem to remember your kids having some negative experiences because of their race when you lived overseas before, and I remember a family that was partially Chinese-American feeling they had to pull their kids out of an Arab context at one point because of ongoing harassment. I doubt any of us experience "cultural diversity" without witnessing or getting stuck in some painful clashes. Once, living among Muslims in Sofarawayistan, I had somebody throw rocks at me and in debriefing it later we realized they probably thought I was Russian. Race, unlike some other aspects of culture, is something you're born with and cannot really change or disguise.