Someone called me "privileged" the other day, and I took it as a backhanded insult. How dare you! Lucky? Sure. Grateful? Most days. But privileged? Those were the kids who didn't have to answer phones in the main office every summer to pay for thick copies of The Odyssey and The Iliad. Those were the kids who didn't get called out of Mr. Feinstein's math class and into the guidance counselor's office because, "Despite your A's, your mother owes us 800 bucks."
But after watching Waiting for Superman, David Guggenheim's documentary about the fissures in and possible fixes to this country's public education system, I understood more clearly what it means to be privileged. More than a shock, it was something closer to a slap in the face.
In Waiting for Superman, Guggenheim tells the story of "the statistics" through the plight of five kids looking to beat them. Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy and Emily are kindergartners and eighth-graders from disparate backgrounds: urban, suburban, black, white and Latino, from Silicon Valley to Harlem.
Each child's parents, feeling trapped by finances and location, turn to a lottery to rescue their kids from the schools that are failing them for a host of both unjustifiable and legitimate reasons that in the end don't matter. If your first-grader's teacher doesn't have time for a parent-teacher conference, then are you just supposed to stop asking?
The documentary exposes the lie that says that those silly Facebook groups — "I Went to Private School, Strumpet" and "I Went to Public School, Bitch" — are just for fun. Some of the country's best and brightest are products of a solid public education, the film makes clear. But what about the kids who need more class time, more one-on-one time — just more? For those students, the benefit of a private-like education is a privilege that should be a right.
"I don't care if we have to get up at 5:00 a.m. every morning," explains Maria, Francisco's mom, in the film, after she learns about the Harlem Success Academy, a public (i.e., free) charter school about 45 minutes by train from their home in the Bronx, N.Y. Francisco's teacher says that he's behind in reading, but Maria works with him every night and has even found him a free, one-on-one tutor at a local college.
Clearly he needs more out of his school — attention, time, etc. So she enters him in the lottery at Harlem Success. Francisco is one of 792 students applying for the remaining 40 spots in the second-grade class. He has a 5 percent chance of getting in. "I won't give up on my kids," says Maria, a social worker and the first in her family to graduate from college. "There's just so many different parents out there that want so much for the children."
Maria might have been talking about parents like Nakia, a single mother who pays $500 a month to send her only daughter, Bianca, to the parochial school across the street because she knows that the local elementary school simply isn't good enough. But when her hours at work get cut back, Nakia falls behind on tuition. Scholarships have dried up, and the school refuses to let Bianca graduate from kindergarten with the rest of her friends.
So instead of walking across the stage and posing for pictures, the 6-year-old is stuck looking out of her bedroom window at all the little girls and boys getting ready for the ceremony just on the other side of the street. "It's cruel," says Nakia, wiping tears from her eyes.
Gulping down the lump in my own throat, her tears reminded me of all the ones I must have avoided growing up. From eighth to 12th grades, I attended an expensive private school in downtown Los Angeles, and for years my mother, like Nakia's and Francisco's, fought hard for her magic.
Because a true professional never reveals her secrets, lunch money, new backpacks, bus passes, cheerleading uniforms and school trips simply appeared without my knowing how. I knew full well that we weren't anything remotely close to rich (I arrived at class via the MTA, not a Mercedes), but somehow I still got to do everything all the other rich kids did, including being a smart-ass, with the grades to prove it.
Once, when I was a freshman in high school, I lost the $200 my mother gave me to pay off something important. Instead of getting mad, she got me a job, and from then on I realized that my charmed 8:00 a.m.-to-4:00 p.m. life wasn't free. Small class sizes, computer labs, books I still own today, a nurse with Advil at the ready and teachers who were visibly outraged by mediocrity all came at a price. I was privileged, but only because I had a parent, who, like the ones featured in Waiting for Superman, considered it her right to exploit every opportunity.
When my mother turned 50, we threw a party for her at the Compton Baptist church the Andrews family has attended since 1960. I knew I was supposed to make a speech, but I figured that winging it would work just as well as reading off a napkin. With the mic in my hand, tears gathering and a mind swimming with every amazing thing this woman had done for me over the last two decades, my first sentence was clear: "Thank you for being so dedicated to my education."