An Open Letter to America's Public School System
When the demographics shift, and the minority becomes majority, students of color will make you no less beautiful. When you see and accept their beauty, I hope that you give them as much as you gave me: critical eyes to see the world, a voice to speak my truths, and an insatiable appetite for knowledge.
For years, as an educator, I defended you. When politicians threatened school closures, I protested. When budgets were cut, I bought school supplies with my own money and without complaint. And when class sizes increased, I welcomed the prospect of working with more students.
But there were faults of yours I couldn't defend. The ones you continue to perpetuate. When, instead of seeing the value in students of color, you suspend and expel them at disproportionate rates. You push them out of the classroom and pump them through the school-to-prison pipeline.
And the students that remain encounter a school that is confining in itself. How can you see them beyond the mass surveillance? How can you welcome them with metal detectors at your doors? How can you make them feel safe when they fear the police patrolling the campus?
There are those who say you can't. They challenge your disciplinary practices and offer strategies to reroute the pipeline. But, in the words of professor Damien Sojoyner, "Strategies to address the school-to-prison pipeline that focus on shifting behaviors serve to legitimate the idea that disciplining student behavior is necessary, as long as the mechanisms do not push students out of school or entail arrests."
Does this satisfy you, replacing one system of control with another, just as long as discipline isn't outsourced to prisons? Do you ever wonder if student behavior is even the problem to begin with? Do you ever question the subjective nature of your rules, ones that demand compliance to authority instead of expressions of democracy?
When "verbal disrespect" becomes cause for suspension, who gets to determine the line between disrespect and the first amendment? Why should "disrespect" be penalized according to the respectability politics of those in power?
Who defines your dress codes? And why should students be sent home for violating them when throughout history breaking dress codes has been a declaration of freedom (see Gandhi visiting British royalty in a loincloth or Luisa Capetillo wearing pants to challenge patriarchy in the 1900s)?
Why should students be detained for ignoring the bell or the whistle? Why should they learn according to such rigid schedules and deadlines when there are so many cultural perspectives related to time—whether linear or cyclical, whether viewing time as money or living in the moment?
What roles do students play in your decisionmaking processes that allow them to "fight" in nonviolent ways?
They are not troubled, just troublemakers summoning the same spirits that built our nation. Let their defiance be heard and allow them to influence your policies and change your practices. Give them empowerment instead of discipline, liberation instead of socialization. Help them envision dynamic futures, where the schoolhouse and the jailhouse don't share the same ethos of control and confinement.
Darnell Fine teaches at an independent school in London. A former teacher in U.S. schools, he facilitates education and creative writing seminars, as well as social-justice workshops. He's also a certified teacher support specialist and a trained critical consultancy coach.