The back to school daze is upon us, so I thought it particularly timely that Michelle Obama would be out talking about education in black communities. It's a sticky wicket with a lot at stake, to be sure. The White House wants to throw money at the problem, but you can throw all the loot you want and if the community doesn't care, it's money down the drain. The diminishing quality of education in da 'hood makes successful people leave and stay gone. People like me.
While it's true that I went to school in the tony suburb of Shaker Heights half of my life, I grew up in mainly black, mainly poor East Cleveland, Ohio and ended up being based there, using my mother's Shaker address and commuting via public transit to Shaker from my grandmother's house. Truth to tell, I hated Shaker Heights and everything it stood for and had dreams of one day returning to East Cleveland to help make it the strong, vital community I grew up in. When I got older, I knew that could never happen.
When I got kids of my own and began to see how various local school districts measured up to state and federal criteria, it became increasingly clear that there was no going back. The lack of a tax base, the flight of middle-class, home-owning blacks, the impact of drugs and Reaganomics and a general sense of apathy manifests itself in East Cleveland's low scores compared to Shaker's, and this is the way it is in many black communities on the edge: people are too busy trying to eat to worry about the quality of their public schools, so eff 'em. There are no men in these communities to speak of, so da 'hood turns into an island of single moms and grandmothers working a minimum of three jobs, and the schools begin to function less like schools and more like day care and warehouse facilities for the next generation of strippers and burger techs. Everyone's got a Cadillac, but no one has a high school diploma. This isn't because of the so-called culture of anti-intellectualism in the black community, which is complete nonsense. It's about instant gratification: poor people trying to microwave their American Dream. Keeping their heads above water, making a wave when they can. Education is fine and dandy, but you can't eat it, many say.
I would like to go back to East Cleveland — it's the place I learned my first, most important lessons. More so than Shaker, it is the place I feel the closest to. But I am a father and would like for my kids to have the best chance at living their American Dream. And good education is the only way to get it. I'm not a classist, but I want to live around people who share my values. I don't think it's a lot to ask.
So, the challenge is twofold: How do we get successful people to stay in da 'hood and fight for better education. And in a reality where a bird in the hand is better than a diploma in the bush with no guarantees, how do you make education matter to poor people?
Single Father, Author, Screenwriter, Award-Winning Journalist, NPR Moderator, Lecturer and College Professor. Habitual Line-Stepper