Author: Bekah McNeel

Pro-Boob Propaganda

 Though he died when I was only 18, Billy Wilder seemed to have a knack for imprinting things on my brain.

It was he who said that Audrey Hepburn “might single-handedly make bosoms a thing of the past.” 

He was also the one who directed Marilyn Monroe, in Some Like It Hot, to lament that, because of her boobs, “nothing ever hangs right.”

I know exactly why Billy Wilder’s boobisms stick in my brain: I’m wildly insecure about my breasts. By age 14, I wore the same bra size I would wear until I was nursing children, and basically felt like a walking D-cup with no other features. 

The Audrey assessment confirmed everything I had suspected. The hype around boobs was a sham. They were a thing of the past. 

When I heard the Marilyn line, I thought it was nice to have camaraderie, especially with someone who was, I think we can all agree, more attractive than me. “See! Even Marilyn Monroe gets it.” Boobs were nothing but trouble, and the reason all my shirts hung like circus tents.

A girl with less on her chest might have glossed over Billy Wilder’s anti-boob statement. When watching Some Like It Hot, my more streamlined friends might focus on the reaction of the male characters who heard Marilyn’s complaint. The movie makes it obvious that the men see no problem with the way her shirt hangs. 

Whatever you’ve got, it’s going to be the wrong thing. You can be Audrey or you can be Marilyn, but you can’t be happy.

A therapist told me recently that psychologists are starting to believe that it’s not possible for the majority of Americans to have a positive body image. That neutral is the best most of us can hope for. Hating our bodies is as American as the apple pie we ate after everyone went to bed and then purged into the toilet.

As a teen it felt like the only pro-boob propaganda out there existed in the trashy cartoon, plastic surgery, and porn worlds—neither where I was, nor where I wanted to be. Boobs could be objects, but they could not be assets; not for a woman like me.  I was more of an arts, culture, and academy kind of girl. Later, when I discovered feminism and leftist politics, I felt like my genetics had sold me out to the patriarchy.

Are there any other body parts that take over so much of your identity?

It wasn’t all in my head. People noticed. 

At a slumber party for my cheerleading squad, my far less developed friends begged me to let them see what kind of fruit would fill out my bra. Cantaloupe is the correct answer. 

Contrary to stereotype, cheerleading was boon to my body image. I am sturdy and strong, and so was able to throw the little pixie-like squad members into the air. I could finally see the purpose of my body being built the way that it was. Most of the time, I was hounded by the arbitrariness of my entire body, especially my breasts. I wanted to point to some evolutionary advantage of my big boobs, but there isn’t one. There isn’t really a purpose to them being this big at all, they just are. Like an appendix or vestigial tail.

In cheerleading, at least they were attached to a powerful, purposeful body. All the jumping and tumbling, however, was an endless source of angst for my mother. 

My mom didn’t know about the specialty market that exists for big-breasted athletes. Later in life I would spend $90 on a bra so tight that came with instructions on how to slowly acclimate your lungs over several days before actually wearing it to work out.

However, the neon pink $30 sports bras of high school were not up to the task of my ample bosom. Even when I layered two of them, there was significant bouncing as we cascaded onto the basketball court to get the crowd going at halftime. My mom’s solution was to buy me a full corset with three-inch-wide straps and about 30 eye-hook fasteners, and cups made of inflexible material that gave my breasts a distinctly Happy Days shape. 

One day before practice I went into our cheerleading squad’s dressing room to find my corset hanging on the wall, with two fully inflated balloons filling it out. My mischievous squad mates again claimed to be jealous, which I didn’t believe. They all bought their prom dresses in the trendy junior section, while I was trying to find a bridesmaid gown that didn’t make me look like someone’s spinster aunt.  

When dealing with insecure teenage girls— who all exist discontentedly along the Audrey-to-Marilyn spectrum— it’s impossible to tell when they knew how mean they were being. 

One friend, from church, also had big boobs, but she was six inches shorter than me, and wore size two jeans. Her boobs were more problematic, she insisted, because they were out of scale with her “tiny body.” I should be glad, she said, that mine were at least proportional. 

A giant body to go with my giant boobs. 

Trying on clothes once during my ultra marathon-running years, another friend said, sounding genuinely surprised, “Wow. You actually have a small waist.” Then she trailed off, as if to herself, but fully audible: “It’s just those boobs…”

Most of the time my breasts made me feel either matronly or raunchy. When I tried to put on a tighter shirt that made me feel less like the evil headmistress of a nineteenth century school for unwed mothers, I would get called out by youth group leaders and Christian school teachers for immodesty. 

Ironically though, as much as my parents, pastor, and Christian school teacher were griping about the loose morals and gay agendas of Hollywood, they found themselves in agreement on women’s responsibility to be thin. 

When I was in middle school, my pastor’s daughter—a stunning, lanky college student—led a girls’ summer Bible study about being the kind of woman that pleases God. I remember nothing except that there was an entire lesson devoted to keeping a trim figure and dressing in a flattering, feminine way. 

My jiggly D-cups, in contrast to all the training bras and countable ribs around me, were anything but trim. When I dressed in a feminine way, my mom told me to go upstairs and change.

Pleasing God, the workbook made clear, was synonymous with pleasing one’s future husband. So having a body that boys liked was really important, like Ten Commandments important. But we were also responsible for their purity—those youthful penises weren’t going to keep themselves flaccid.

Which made the Audrey Hepburn ideal very, very desirable for girls who were trying to be the right kind of desirable. Audrey was a fashion icon. Marilyn was a sex icon. Men go gaga over both women, but stills from Breakfast At Tiffany’s seem less likely to be taped to the underside of a 15-year-old boy’s bunk bed. 

That’s how boobs, and the women who have them, are framed in American culture—masturbation fodder. Or as the evangelicals call it: temptation.  We can openly admire eyes, shoulders, legs, and arms, even lips, in an aesthetic, non-sexual way. But breasts are private parts, like the sex organs. Except they’re not. They are visible all the time, at least in silhouette. Imagine if men had to wear thin, stretchy pants all the time… and were always fully erect. Not so private. 

My own disdain for my breasts, and the weird religious messaging surrounding them, somehow twisted around in my brain until I believed that they—as the primary feature of my general appearance—were the reason boys didn’t like me. 

For all the jokes about boobs, and boys who “tripped” in front of me in the hall, I figured, what they really wanted must have been a gamine fashion icon who could wear a Givenchy coat with nary a wrinkle. Boobs were just too brazen, too obvious, too much. A thing of the past.

I was bemoaning my breasts to one of the two culprits who gave them to me: my maternal grandmother, Jo Nell. 

Jo Nell, cigarette in hand, gave a reassuring chuckle and said, with all of the certainty of a gorgeous woman born in 1930, “One day those boobs are going to make somebody real happy.” 

I left her house thinking, wistfully, if not glumly, “Maybe one day I’ll find a guy who likes big boobs.”

(Cue hilarious faces from Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis.)

Boys not liking me occupied a lot of my coming of age mental space. I have a high IQ and a lot of energy, and probably could have applied that to making the world significantly better.  Curing cancer, that sort of thing. Instead, I spent it on relentless self-improvement, or what I thought was improvement. What I was really doing was trying to figure out the science of attraction, solving, of course, for the liability of my oversized breasts.

To help boys overlook my glaring bra size, I reasoned, I would have to cultivate a winning personality.  I was constantly taking notes about how to not be the kind of girl that irritated men. This led to the least feminist season of my life, sandwiched between my evangelical Christian upbringing and my first grad school course in Gender Studies.

Trying to be “not like the other girls,” ironically, was supposed to make me more appealing, romantically. The heroines in most books and movies I liked were plucky tomboy types who stand out from the demure crowds in an appealing way. Laura Ingalls. Jo March. Calamity Jane. And until Elsa of Arendelle changed the paradigm for a new generation, the disinterested heroine always got her man. 

In one useless way, it worked. By the end of college, I had heard the following: 

“Why can’t every girl be like you?” 

“You’ve got me really spoiled thinking all girls are like this.”

“You should, like, teach a class on how girls should act around guys.”

“I wish you could convince my fiancé to read more ‘serious’ literature. Like you.”

None of the boys who said those things wanted to date me. All compliments were given solidly inside the friend-zone by boys who had no idea that I had a massive crush on them. I had kept that fact hidden because girls who like boys, according to the movies, are not the girls boys like. This is a strange mixture of the unattainable babe archetype and the evangelical culture of male pursuit. Again, Hollywood and Evangelicalism have more in common than they like to think when it comes to flattening women (pun intended) into two-dimensional objects.

Be austere Audrey hidden behind your iconic overcoat until he decides it’s time for you to be breathless Marilyn in a negligee. 

You’re too much until you’re not enough. 

It’s all bologna.  

In a world where men had all the power I was trying to impress them into liking me, which, it turns out, is not a recipe for true love, even in patriarchal evangeliland. If serious-literature-lover had left his fiancé and run away with me because I was reading Camus in college, I would be stuck in a lifetime of pretentious drivel. Camus’s and the boy’s. 

Being a woman is a war zone, so grab your friends and hop in the foxhole. Audrey and Marilyn are icons, but they were also real people, and they probably could have used some more girlfriends. Sisterhood isn’t perfect, but it’s necessary. Girls have hurt me, I have hurt other girls, but we’ve done so less when we aren’t letting the boys decide.

Healthy people like people who like them back. People like people who do irritating things. They don’t love the irritating things, but they love the person doing them. People like clean lines and curves, esoteric and funny, brainy and brassy. There are no unlovable people. You are not unlovable, so you might as well be you. 

It’s so tempting to make this all about loving yourself, accepting your body. But I don’t have that shit worked out. I don’t always love me, but I have figured out how to be me. 

When I met Lewis, I did not chill out, I did not try to be the “cool girl.” I texted with too many exclamation marks, I invited him to things after he’d made it painfully obvious he wasn’t as into this as I was. I introduced him to my parents the first time I had the opportunity.  I saw what I wanted, and I went for it. Which is pretty damn plucky.

Turns out he’s also that boob-loving unicorn I never thought I’d meet. What are the odds?

To no one’s surprise, least of all my therapist, marriage would not be the end of my body issues. Making someone else happy, which my husband is,  is not the same as making yourself happy.  The boobs survived two children without, as so many mothers complain, flattening to pancakes. Oh they ballooned while I was nursing, sure, but then they went right back to their melon-sized fullness, albeit hanging a little lower on the tree. 

The rest of me is softer and more jiggly as well. And now I have two kids to offer their opinions about all of this.

On the way to a Christmas party one year, my five-year-old daughter said, “Mom has a round belly like Santa.” 

“No she doesn’t,” said my three-year-old son, ever in defense of his beloved mother, “Those are just her breasts.” 

Favorite Things Written and Read in 2020

Okay, since no one else is going to say it, I guess it falls to me: 2020 has been a rough year. Unprecedentedly rough. Crisis rough. Surreally rough. Rough like no other. Roughest. year. ever. Roughness is so 2020. Because 2020, amiright?

Phew. Don’t we all feel better now that someone has FINALLY just said it?

It’s heady to be in journalism right now, because we are writing the first draft of history, which is intimidating and motivating and cool. Not just the pandemic but allllll the history going down right now. Trump. Black Lives Matter. Kamala Harris. Some of my colleagues, I believe, were built for this kind of gravity.

I go on a lot of walks.

In May I started working more or less full time for The 74 Million, reporting on the pandemic in San Antonio schools. I’m on a team! Just like I wanted! It’s amazing! It is a position created by a pandemic that cost a lot of people their job and I don’t know how to feel about that so I’m just going to try to do really good work and not think about how the pandemic ending would mean my gig ending!

Your lives are more important to me! I swear!

The gig has some very specific vocabulary, that I’m sure we’re all equally tired of: remote learning, in-person learning, COVID-19 protocols, learning loss, enrollment decline. I’ll never forget the moment when contact tracing went from getting flagged as jargon to being common vernacular, along with asymptomatic and asynchronous. I’m torn between never wanting to type those words again and being gleeful at getting away with it. Like when your family visits Hoover Dam so you say the word “dam” as much as you can before it’s outlawed again.

However you feel, fools can’t keep their masks on, so you’ve doomed yourself to another year of it, kids. Time for some asynchronous protocols for asymptomatic learning loss among in-person learners amid the pandemic.

Even though most of us had to write those words more than we wanted, some folks made some very delicious work out of it. Or just did delicious work about other stuff still going on in the world that still needs lots of attention. Cue the lists!

Favorite journalism by others:

This Texas Monthly oral history blew my mind and made me proud. It also explained why, as eerie as things were in those first pandemic weeks, in San Antonio they were not as dystopian and weird as in other places, grocery-wise.

Alec MacGillis’s Dollar Store investigation had me on the edge of my park bench for 20 minutes, then had me bothered for months. Definitely ruined my trip to the Family Dollar in rural West Texas when I realized that I had no other option and then realized that no one in that town had another option. MacGillis also wrote one of the most painful looks inside remote learning debacle.

Maria Godoy on the lingering effects of housing discrimination in Dallas. It emphasized something we saw graphically illustrated in the Somos Neighbors project in San Antonio earlier this year, which I was lucky enough to work on.

Alia Wong wrote about tools to help emerging multilingual learners during COVID-19 in Tulsa, a city which became dear to my heart this year while I was reporting on their refugee welcome efforts.

Favorite Stories I Worked On:

The renaming of Pacific Bay Christian School was something I wanted to write about for over a year before I got to do it. This story was so, so cathartic, for many reasons. I loved working with Sarah Garland at the Hechinger Report as point editor and with The Undefeated. Both were incredibly generous.

The reporting for The Gardeners of Eden (its print title) for Christianity Today was dreamy. I was in orchards and community organizing meetings, driving up and down the California coastline meeting humble, committed people who deeply care about the communities they serve. I want this story to make people think about their food differently, and the complex, at time exploitative and strained system that delivers it. It did that for me. We joined a farm delivery co-op.

Reporting on the pandemic in San Antonio schools (while living it) has been a trip. I’m particularly proudest of this piece, which involved public information requests, data analysis, and interviews with bold people who got real with me. All the best things.

Favorite Books I Read this Year, regardless of the year they were written:

Kiley Reid’s Such A Fun Age was amazing, and sent me into the tailspin identity crisis of ohmygodI’mthevillain. Given that it was sent to me as part of the Ally Box subscription from Fulton Street Books…I think that means it hit the mark.

Mothers of Massive Resistance, by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae provides more explanatory ammo for debates with doubters of systemic racism than any one person could ever remember without notes. So take notes. Because if you can’t gain ground in those conversations, you just embolden the doubters.

I began to have some concerns about my brain this year, so I read NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman. It was very reassuring, after it stopped being terrifying, and it was entirely engrossing.

My husband gave me Allie Brosh’s Solutions and Other Problems for our 10th Anniversary. We were planning to travel to Zambia for the occasion, but a comic book about life with mental illness written by a winsome lady who looks nothing like the monster she depicts herself to be (I won’t hold that against her) was a more than adequate consolation prize.

Calypso, by David Sedaris, gutted me. I like to think I’m willing to bleed on the page, or smile with my makeup off, but when I think about writing the stories of my life that are a distant parallel to the stories he’s telling (we ALL have them)…I feel palpable fear. The fact that we are warmed by these in any way, and drawn to him even, is a testament to how good of a storyteller he really is. Which cued a different kind of panic for me than the panic Kiley Reid called up.

Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. Because I needed something to read on a rainy day, grabbed In the Woods from a shelf of my husband’s paperbacks, and then read the rest of the series, because once I’m really in, I am all in, without the ability to moderate. I then watched the miniseries, and am now, apparently against my will, doing the same thing with The Pillars of the Earth.

Looking back on the list of my favorite books of the year, I see a theme. The theme is “my own crap amid all the crappiness.” I think I was reading books to make myself feel less alone, and more equipped. I hope that some of my writing did that for you.

Small Girl Mows Small Lawn

A local six-year-old stunned many last week by doing what, she said, “no six-year-old has ever done before, probably.”

She mowed half the lawn.

San Antonio resident Moira McNeel said she’d taken on the task, “Just to see if I could do it. Not for fun.”

Her father confirmed that the endeavor was, in fact, not a lark, but a serious undertaking.

“She took it upon herself to volunteer. She saw a need and she stepped right in and did what needed to be done,” the father said, “I’m very proud of her.”

By “need” her father means that he appreciated the help, though he maintains the work he was doing up to that point was perfectly adequate in quality. “I didn’t take her desire to come help as a sign of criticism,” he said, he was happy she wanted to give mowing a try, and even happier she asked so nicely.

Fortunately, the only mower the family has ever owned, a Scott’s manual push-reel, posed little threat to her safety.

McNeel mowed for approximately five minutes, pausing only to direct her father to take photos for this article, and to alert the media, who was on the porch but, to her frustration, not watching the lawn-mowing.

All told, McNeel said, “I did a full swoop.”

The McNeels’ only patch of actual grass measures exactly 15 feet in diameter, so a little went a long way. McNeel was able to cut in straight rows with minimal missed blades between the passes. When she had mowed “enough,” she said, “I was tired.”

McNeel’s father offered no further details on the current status of the job, and would only comment on the enthusiasm with which the child took up the task.

“I have never in my history of mowing lawns seen a little girl mow a lawn so well,” McNeel’s father said, “Or with such zest.”

Disclosure: Moira McNeel is a primary source of joy for the author of this article. Her father is also a financial contributor to the Hall Monitor blog and, according to Texas state law, owns half of it.

The Integration Diaries: The most radical thing a parent can say.

Sometimes the kids are alright. Sometimes they aren’t.

My husband and my son co-working during COVID-19.

When they announced that schools would be closed beyond spring break this year, I have to confess the grim thoughts that ran through my head. I pictured a return to those grueling infant years, with my hair in a non-sexy-messy bun, stress eating cookies and crying every afternoon as my kids whined and tantrumed on the floor next to me. 

It took a full two weeks for me to come back to myself and remember: we’re fine. We, the McNeel family, are fine. Our kids are fine. 

The middle of a pandemic is a difficult time to admit that we are actually doing fine, because the general anxiety of the moment is palpable. We are absorbing it with our senses, and you’d almost have to be a sociopath not to feel some degree of angst about our current moment. Because people really are dying. The economy really is struggling. Isolation is a mental health hazard. 

But for us, the healthy McNeels in our 2,400 square foot house, internet access, safe sidewalks, and stable income…that anxiety should be sympathetic. It should be directed at needs outside ourselves. It’s the same anxiety that should be driving all of our decisions. 

You should totally experience anxiety.

Anxiety is the body’s way of telling you that something is misaligned or disconnected. Something is not right. And when we look at the world around us—at things COVID-19 did not create, but has both exaggerated and laid bare—it should be obvious that something is wrong. We feel the reality that some kids are not okay. Their schools are not able and their government is not willing to support them in the ways they need to be supported. Their parents are swimming upstream against a system designed to exclude them. They do not have access to generations of accrued capital, and they do not see themselves proportionately represented among those who shape the world they live in. 

We, white parents, see that world, and we feel anxiety. We should! Something is not right. We are cut off from a right way of being together. 

But when we feel that anxiety, we have to quickly take the next step. We have to place ourselves. Is it MY kids who are over-disciplined by teachers? Is it MY kids who will have to hustle every day to gain entry to the middle class and even then may be sidelined? Do the systems—economic, education, and justice—of this country pose a threat to MY kids? Or do they work to their advantage? Will my kids get chance after chance to get it right, to “fail forward”? 

If we (white, middle class parents) feel like our kids are threatened by the systems in our country, then we aren’t paying attention. We are mapping our anxiety onto someone else’s reality. 

The Great Lie

We’ve been conditioned to believe that our kids are not going to be okay. From the moment we become pregnant, someone is trying to sell us something to keep them alive…to make them sleep/eat better (so they develop correctly)…to get smarter. We become consumers of improvement for our kids, and the best way to sell us stuff is to convince us that our kids are not going to be alright. 

We take that foolish mentality with us when we start consuming opportunity. The best schools, the best lessons, the best coaches; all because we believe that they are starting from scratch with ruin nipping at their heels. If we were to look over our shoulder we would see that it’s not a precipice, but wholeness in our rearview mirror. We left equity and solidarity behind us and now we are running a lonely race that will never end, chased by a boogey man of our own making.

Hear me right: I’m not saying that white people don’t fall off economic ledges, or into addiction, or that being white and middle class means no one has to work hard. Only that we have to start disentangling hard work and hoarding. Those are different things. One runs on the belief that our kids are alright and up to the challenge. The other runs on the fear that they won’t be and they aren’t.

And that hoarding option is so ubiquitous, so persistent that we cannot imagine not doing it. It defines parenting in 2020. I don’t know anyone who would say that it’s healthy to give kids everything they want, but what about everything we want for them?  Are we willing to admit that there are advantages and opportunities that they don’t need?

In this climate, the most radical thing that white middle class parents can say is: my kids are alright. 

The Great Irony

The great irony, of course, is that believing that they are not okay has in some ways made them not okay, but not in the way that you think. The mental wellness of middle class kids is, according to experts, not good. Suicides, bullying, self-harm, depression…all can be linked to parental pressure to compete academically, socially, and economically. They are never enough to make us less afraid. Their performance is never enough to ease our anxiety over their future. In reality, our kids need us to be there for them, not to hoard for them. 

Our family’s pivotal moment came this fall, within the first few weeks of school at our integrated elementary school. 

After a happy first week, my daughter’s teacher stopped me at pick up to report that my daughter was acting up. She wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t sit still. 

I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. So I took it out on my daughter. I immediately saw her future drizzling away, bleeding into the school to prison pipeline, never to be recommended for advanced courses, never to get into a competitive marine biology program, dooming her to bounce between unstable jobs while other kids, those who listened better in class, explored the Mariana Trench. 

Never mind that I knew this was irrational. At the first sign of trouble, I mapped my anxiety onto real inequities. Inequities that do not actually disadvantage us. 

Her little face, which had bounced up to me with a grin, fell, as I gave her a blistering reprimand in front of everyone. 

Within two weeks, my sunny, exuberant daughter was “on red” day after day. Her clip on the behavior chart was perpetually falling, and her face when I came to pick her up was disconsolate, knowing she was in for an afternoon of icy discipline from mom.

Meanwhile, armed with my expert opinions and research, I went into full “that mom” mode. I tried to get the behavior chart—which clearly wasn’t changing my daughter’s behavior—replaced with something more “restorative.” I wrote letters to the teacher trying to explain my daughter. I began to consider more drastic measures to ensure that my daughter was as successful on paper as she was in my dreams for her.

At home, we were miserable. Every day we grew more alienated as she “jeopardized her future.” 

Finally I woke up. 

The Great Opportunity

It was true, the behavior chart did not motivate her nearly as much as the pleasure she takes in entertaining her classmates. But when it comes to the actual determining factors of a child’s future success…she’s alright. The biggest threat to her well-being was the shrill panic monster I was becoming. 

I decided to let school be school. She and her teacher would work it out. I knew the teacher was kind and engaged, and wanting to see each kid thrive. As long as home was supportive and structured, my kid would adjust to kindergarten. 

When I stopped making a big deal, my daughter revealed that she actually had a very productive mindset when it came to the behavior chart. One day she hopped in the car and told me, sounding victorious, “Mom, I got on red today, but guess what! By the end of the day, I had pulled it up to orange.” 

We high-fived. 

Another day she told me, “Guess what Mom. Today I stayed on green all day, even though (classmate) told a poop joke. I did not laugh, even though I really wanted to, so I stayed on green.” 

I congratulated her. 

By the end of the year, she was getting onto blue and purple (the reward colors). She had grown, because I’d backed off and started supporting her growth instead of panicking about her future. 

Hear me right again: I’m not saying we turn our kids over to the system never to check back in. I’m not saying that we don’t advocate or protect them when someone is harming them. But we need to know the difference between harm and challenge. 

We have to stop treating every challenge, every “B”, every missed opportunity like it’s a death sentence. Sure, that “B” might mean they don’t get into the college of their dreams, and thus will not be set on an easy path to the career of their dreams. But dreams and success are not the same thing. Having everything we want, winning all the things…that’s not even really good for us. But if we constantly think that the opposite of best is death, we’re going to destroy our kids and everyone else’s in the process. 

There’s real inequity in the world. Anxiety is merited, because injustice destroys the Shalom we desperately need. There are kids who are not alright, and we cannot be alright with that. But in order to see that clearly, we also have to be able to see when our kids are doing just fine. 

How I talk to my white kid about racism.

I can’t tell you the perfect way to do it. Just that it needs to be done.

I don’t remember the first time we talked to our kids about difference, but it was probably pretty early. Because our life is full of people from different countries, who speak different languages, have different skin colors, different abilities, and different sexual orientations, these things come up naturally. 

Talking to them about race and racism however, is different. It takes some doing. Especially for white parents.

Because our kids are at little to no risk of racist profiling or violence, and because we are woefully underprepared for these conversations ourselves, most of us would rather just…not. We hope our kids will just grow up believing everyone is the same and treating everyone well. Check and check.

Unfortunately, our education, justice, and economic systems were designed so that by not actively working against the racism within them, we are reinforcing it. If we and our kids just do the “natural thing” we will perpetuate the effects we associate with the vitriolic racism we thought we were done with—if the events of the past four years have somehow not convinced you that even that blatant form of animosity is still alive and well.

In short: Just because you don’t feel racist, doesn’t mean you aren’t investing in a system created with racist intent and effects.

Here’s the danger for white kids growing up unaware of racism. 

  • Our kids will buy into the narrative that race doesn’t matter, and believe that everyone is treated according to their personal behavior and abilities. Thus, when they see their black and brown classmates being disciplined more severely or placed in fewer advanced classes, they will draw the “natural” conclusion. 
  • They will be less inclined to walk in solidarity with their black and brown peers who call out injustice. 
  • They will be careless about ways their actions perpetuate injustice, and should they have black and brown friends, may place them in immediate danger. 
  • At some point they will figure out race, and it’s possible that the wrong person will explain it to them. Get to your kids before the Nazis do. 

My husband and I believe the appropriate age to share this is determined neurologically—we need them to understand the difference between what people say and what is real (the concept of lying or being wrong). We also need them to understand that their perspective is not the only one. This started happening for our daughter around age four.

Another reason white parents hesitate to explain this stuff to their young kids is that kids will talk about it. And it can be so very awkward.

After our trip to Montgomery, my four-year-old saw two young men, one black and one white, walking together toward a local coffee shop. She said, in an audible voice, “Look mom, if this were the olden days that guy would be the other guy’s slave.” 

She’s currently memorizing MLK’s dream speech, but because she’s listening to a recording, she wants to recite it in his voice. You can imagine how this sounds. At some point, I have no doubt we’re going to have to explain why she can’t use blackface for a “Rosa Spark” costume for a book report or something like that. 

This is a rocky, bumbling path, friends. But it’s not optional, and there’s a lot of grace for the journey.

So, no, I don’t believe talking to white kids about race is optional. You have to do it. However, I’m not an expert who can tell you how (these folks are!), or the best way to do it. But I can share how we are doing it, and how it’s all going. 

1) We prioritize peace over pleasantness. 

We just went to Disney World. On the 100th exit-through-the-giftshop, the kids were exhausted and overstimulated, and tired of hearing “no” and they finally just lost it. 

There were tears, there was negotiating, there was growling. 

At one point I told my daughter that if she still wanted the Nemo squirt toys in three days I would order them online. 

She, in a fit of rage-induced honesty yelled, “I won’t even WANT them in three days!” 

Children know anger. It’s up to their adults to show them that there is a better use for that anger than hoarding trinkets and protecting their rights and privileges. 

Children know sadness. They see pets and grandparents die, if not closer kin. They scrape their knees and get sick. They soon discover “bad guys.” 

The realities of our racialized world are not pleasant. They are gut wrenching and uncomfortable. For the white family there are two ways forward: insulate or make peace. We can— and mostly do—bury ourselves in worlds where we don’t see the pain brought by racism. We shrink into smaller and smaller realms of pretty parks and private schools, and concern ourselves with the flourishing of that precious real estate. 

When we hear “pursue peace” we apply it to our HOA squabbles.

To take the other path, the path of racial peacemaking, we first have to acknowledge what is broken…and why. We have to listen when we are accused. We have to sit in our discomfort. We have to mourn. We have to ask, “what does peace require of me?”

We can offer peace to our children by explaining how brokenness works, and how goodness can triumph. 

Yes there are kidnappers, so mommy is here to help you know which strangers are helpers and which are not. 

Yes, cars are dangerous, so we stay on the sidewalk. 

Yes, people hate, so we love extra hard. Love marches in the long march. Love shares power. Love doesn’t hoard advantages. Love calls her lawmakers on issues that don’t benefit her directly. Love speaks up for the oppressed. Love steps aside so they can speak for themselves. Love makes powerful people uncomfortable. Love is in the fight.

You may know a popular Bible reading that sounds something like that.

2) We prioritize history over white history

The thing about history is that, if we are honest, the facts will do the heavy lifting. Here are some great books to get started. Also these.

My husband constantly remarks on how easy it is to talk to kids about racism if you aren’t trying to hide anything. If you just tell them what happened, they pick up on the “why” pretty quick.

The problem, of course, is that we are not often honest about history. We curate it to tell a story of triumph, cutting out the parts where the heroes were the villains. We reframe the battles justice has yet to win. 

We started with what our daughter could observe: Obama was president when she was born. She had teachers and friends have brown skin. She met her state and local representatives, both Latino. She sees movies with people of color, she has dolls that have brown and non-white skin. 

In her world, people of color had always been leaders and friends. We wanted to start with a concept of strength and dignity before we taught her how it has been violated.

We let Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative introduce the concepts of slavery, oppression and segregation. She was four, so I guided her exposure to words and images carefully on a visit to Montgomery. The Memorial to Peace and Justice was perfect for that, but she didn’t get to take in most of the Legacy Museum, because I didn’t want the more graphic images to overtake the concepts. She did, however, see the holograms of kids in pens calling out for their parents after being separated at auction. She remembers it to this day.

It was all appropriately bothersome, and she had questions. 

I only offered answers from history. 

We took her to Freedom Riders Museum as well so that she could see resistance, and how she, as a white person could be part of it. She was very comforted at the idea that people were fighting back.

Eventually she started using history to interpret current events. When she saw me reading a story about the family separations later in the summer of 2018, she asked about it. I told her kids were being taken from their parents as they tried to come to the US. 

“They have brown skin, don’t they?” she guessed, her voice weary.

“They do. Why did you guess that?” 

“That’s who it was last time.” 

3) We prioritize righteousness over innocence.

When our kids, with their budding sense of justice, ask why the Trail of Tears, why the Middle Passage, why Jim Crow, most white parents don’t want to connect those “atrocities” to current mindsets of conquest and dehumanization. 

We continue that mindset of conquest when we hoard educational opportunities and tell our children they are available to everyone who works hard enough. 

We perpetuate dehumanization when we talk about laziness, broken homes, and addiction as the justification for the inequities they see with their own eyes. As though our own families were not infected with the same human ailments.

The desire to pass down a narrative of our noble ancestors and the less-than-ness of those they conquered might be the most secure lock on the gates of white supremacy. But history has to come home.

If we want to own the innovation, bravery, and altruism of our national and personal forefathers, we have to own their brutality, elitism, and malicious intent. We inherited all of it in our education system, our justice system, and our economic system, so we need to understand it. We inherited it corporately (and some of us inherited it directly), but we perpetuate it individually. 

One evening, just before MLK Day 2020, I found my daughter looking grim.

“Mom, I have bad news,” she said, “Martin Luther King, Jr. died.” 

“Oh honey,” I sympathized, “I heard. I’m so sorry, I know you loved him.” 

“But do you know how?”

“He was shot.” 

“No,” she said, sitting upright and looking fierce, “A white person shot him. On purpose.” 

She was calling out my use of the passive voice to explain away the loss of her hero. A way to minimize our connection to acts of violence. I accepted her correction, and we talked further about those people of color carrying on “the dream.” We talked about how her school was carrying on the dream. How she would respond to injustice when she saw it. 

When we marched in our local MLK Day March, my daughter heard someone chanting, “The dream lives on.” 

She looked at me with big excitement “Do you hear them mom?!? The dream lives on! I’m going to be part of that!” 

Because she’s okay being connected to the problem, she’s ready to be connected to the solution. 

White folks have to get to the point of realizing that in the racialized world, we’re the ones who did the racializing. “Why does everything have to be about race?” Because we made it so! We are not innocent, friends. We are the heirs of the robber barons and the guardians of their systems. Our ancestors made it impossible for us to choose innocence. We can only pursue righteousness by repairing and relinquishing, and that is not a passive calling for us or for our children.

A decade of being bravely underwhelming.

In late December 2009, ten years ago, I did something strange. I started a new journal expressly dedicated to chronicling a love story—my love story. In my 18 years of journaling before then, I had always been cautious about how much weight I ascribed my various romances. That’s easy when you have a written record of all the non-starters that came before. I knew how much shame I felt when reading “he’s the one!” in bubbly 2001 letters, when mere pages later he’d disappear.

What’s even more strange about my decision to start an entire journal dedicated to my love story is that it had not even really begun. I’d met a guy. We’d hung out twice. But when I started the journal we were one week into what would turn out to be a four week silence between first meeting and first date. No flirty messages. No emails or phone calls.  There was no evidence to suggest that this non-relationship was going anywhere.

Nevertheless, in a fit of romance, I did it. I started a brand new journal with the explicit and stated purpose of writing about my love story with one Lewis Maverick McNeel…who had yet to call. 

In that first journal entry, I wrote about the moment I now know, and then suspected, I had fallen in love.

We were at the grocery store, and I was buying break-n-bake cookies…for one of those fancy holiday cookie swaps where everyone goes all out. I was working in college ministry, making $16,000 per year (all of which I was fundraising), and jumping from crisis to crisis with the people around me, students, friends, and family. I just didn’t have the resources or energy to make elaborate cookies. 

But that was the life I was in. I was unsure of the value I brought to the world. Convinced that I had to earn my keep by being agreeable, unimpeachable, and useful. Knocking myself out to sell myself short, professionally. Auctioning off my time and energy to the people I thought would keep me safe, emotionally. Running on affirmation and little else, spiritually.

Break-n-bake cookies do not bring affirmation.

I lamented my predicament to Lewis at the checkout and he said, “I’ve been underwhelming people for years now.” 

I fell in love on the spot. And then he disappeared for a month.

Four months after he reappeared, he asked me to marry him. And for the first time in my life I really didn’t care if anyone thought that was a little irresponsible or too fast. I was certain. I bought a wedding magazine, looked at the recommended planning timeline, and realized that most people spent longer planning their weddings than we would spend going from “hello” to “I do.” 

That was the easiest brave thing I’ve ever done.

The next brave thing happened in 2012. That’s when I left the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). 

Despite my bold dreams of a life in ministry, there was no future for me in it. Looking back, I realize that I had traded usefulness and approval for calling. For 28 years that denomination had been my home, but it had also kept me childlike and dependent—because women in that world will always serve at the pleasure of the men, the “specially gifted” who are ordained by God. I had never been taught or allowed to think outside those rigid guardrails, so I just maintained them. A strong, smart woman joyfully submitting, proving that the system worked.  

I believe I would have wasted my life as a Martha sweeping the stoop of the boys club had it not been for those break-n-bake cookies and that fast engagement. I was not defined by my fancy cookies or my prudence. I was loved beyond my usefulness. 

When I left that church it was like coming up out of the ocean and being able to see without the salt burning my eyes. 

In this new world, I could be a terrifying anything. I could be what I was supposed to be. It turned out that was a journalist and a mother. 

My fingers trembled a little as I submitted an essay to The Rivard Report in June 2012—after all, I was nothing but a failed ministry paraprofessional at that point. I had no idea if they would laugh at my small life, my small thoughts. Would they dismiss me like my writing had been dismissed and diminished for the past four years? 

I was able to push “send” only because I said, “Maybe they will be underwhelmed. It won’t be the end of me.” 

I had just quit my job and left the church community I’d been in for almost a decade and the denomination I’d been baptized into. I’d married a man I’d known for less than a year. I had dedicated a journal to a guy who hadn’t called me. I’d taken break-n-bake cookies to a cookie swap. If some editor on the other end of an email laughed at my small mind, what was that to me? 

Of course, that’s not what happened. Robert Rivard and Monika Maeckle may have been underwhelmed at some parts of the essay—I don’t remember what that first draft looked like—but they also called me. They gave me a shot. 

In 2013 things were looking strong on the career front, and the thought of starting a family sounded like setting off a bomb in the middle of it. Having a baby would change how the world saw me. I was so close to being taken seriously, I felt, to no longer being underwhelming. If I had a baby, the climb would become steeper. My capacity to perform would be split between worlds, and I needed every bit of it, because I was already balancing two jobs.

I would also have to fight for my writing to be professional and motherhood to be relational. Parenthood is not a career. It is a relationship. Caring for children’s needs, however, can be a career, and one at which many parents excel even as they are unpaid and undervalued by society. It’s noble and incredibly necessary—and not the career I wanted. But we have a hard time separating parenthood (mostly motherhood) the relationship from childcare the career, and I knew that doing so would test the limits of my professional and relational confidence. 

But Lewis— that man who had given me the courage to underwhelm and befuddle and flout expectations—wanted to be a father. He wanted the parenthood relationship. And he promised that if he could be 100 percent architect and 100 percent father then I could be 100 percent journalist and 100 percent mother. He didn’t care that there were precious few examples of this in our world, very little evidence it could be done.

I had lived 28 years looking to others to tell me what to do. Only two years listening to Holy Spirit inside me. The Holy Spirit reminded me how this whole adventure had started. “I’ve been underwhelming people for years.” 

I was free to underwhelm. Free to do it differently, even if different was disappointing to many. 

Having Moira was the only brave thing I did in 2013-14. We have had to fight for balance every single day of her life, but we have found it. It is not the vision of motherhood or professional life I had imagined. And with it have come incredible doubts. Such doubts, in fact, that I was not sure that a second child would be a wise decision for me. As a mom, I felt underwhelming, and not in a free and easy way, but in a fearful, inadequate way. 

But one day, at our new church, a couple prayed for me. A couple with five lovely, successful adult children, prayed that I would have confidence that I was not the perfect mom, but the right mom, for my daughter, and whoever might come along next.

And so having Asa was the brave thing I did in 2015-16. 

With a second kid on the way in 2016, I quit my side hustle and leaned hard into journalism. In 2017 I walked away from a sure thing—The Rivard Report—to try something idealistic and new—Folo Media. One month into 2018 I had to walk away from Folo on principle. I did not have nearly the portfolio or reputation I needed to be a successful freelancer, but that was the option. The day I left Folo, I thought back to 2012, when I’d left my ministry career. Maybe this was it. The end of my journalism career. 

But I had given birth to two children while working two jobs. I’d submitted an untrained essay to a fledgling publication just one month after leaving an entire life behind. I had married a man I’d known less than a year. I had dedicated a journal to a guy who hadn’t called me. I had taken break-n-bake cookies to a cookie swap. 

I had been underwhelming people for years.

Freelance journalism, any journalism at all really, is like tying your ego to the tracks. It is rejection and tough feedback. It’s also thrilling and fulfilling. But it does feel like I have to do little brave things on the regular now. Pitches, fighting for stories, calling sources without a big institution behind me. I publish things on my blog. On other people’s blogs. I write things that less than 100 people read and things that tens of thousands of people read. Both feel incredibly vulnerable.

I regularly hover over the “send” button and tremble a little, and then tell myself, “Maybe they will be underwhelmed. It won’t be the end of me.” 

Which San Antonio ISD schools suspend and expel the most students?

Last month, San Antonio ISD adopted a new code of conduct and student bill of rights. The new policy moves the district toward a more restorative approach to discipline, and encourages teachers and administrators to consider the emotional and social health of the child when conflict arises.

The idea is to reduce the number of suspensions, expulsions, and assignments to alternative schools. All of these actions remove students from the instruction they need, and make it more likely that they will withdraw from the institution of school and end up disengaged or in bigger trouble.

On some campuses, the new policy is business as usual. On others, it is likely going to require a radical culture shift.

A public information request revealed just how disparate the district’s campuses are when it comes to discipline. While we know that the district tends to reflect national norms when it comes to racial and special education disparities in discipline, there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to which campuses make the most use of exclusionary discipline methods (suspension, expulsion, alternative school).

Meanwhile others have completely done away with such things…or at least made it three months into the school year without them.

The following (messy and imperfect) graphs demonstrate that there is little demonstrable correlation between the most over-disciplined student populations and the discipline rates at specific schools. However, it should be noted that among the top 15 (top quartile) discipline-heavy schools, seven and eight campuses had higher percentages of black and SPED students respectively than the district as a whole. Among the 15 least heavily-disciplined schools, only St. Phillips Early College had a higher percentage of black students than the district. Four schools had lower percentages of students classified as SPED.

Income does not seem to influence the data much either, though the schools with the largest white populations, are among the less heavily disciplined. Zip codes 78207, 78220, 78212, and 78210 show up throughout the list.

You will notice, however, the outlier dot on both graphs, which is where things get interesting.

In the first three months of the 2019-2020 school year, Davis Middle School handed down 390 suspensions, and placed 14 students in the district’s alternative school. Around one-third of the school’s 600 have missed school for disciplinary reasons so far this year.

That is the highest rate of exclusionary discipline in the district, followed by Rogers Middle School and Highlands High School, which each reported 11 percent of students receiving suspensions or alternative school placement.

Together, those three make up 30 percent of SAISD’s 2,678 exclusionary discipline actions in the first three months of this school year. Adults would likely describe these as three “tough campuses” but are they really “tougher” than, say, Lanier, Margil, JT Brackenridge, and Washington? Why? It appears the disparities lie in something not captured by the stuff we measure, which means it does not seem to be something inherent in the children.

In the coming months, I plan to explore this data further, getting into the details and complexities of the new code of conduct in light of this starting point data. Restorative practices are not without their discontents, but right now, it’s difficult to argue that kids in SAISD are getting an equal shot at it. If this is something that the district is serious about, then it will take sustained effort and community participation to make it a reality on every campus.

San Antonio’s First Dual Language Montessori School is Coming to the West Side

A community redesign revealed that parents and students who said good-bye to Rodriguez Elementary want something big in its place.

Marisa Alvarado (center) shares her thoughts on the Rodriguez closure ahead of a meeting about the school’s redesign.

The West Side is getting a new school. Or rather, a rebooted school. In the fall of 2020, Rodriguez Elementary will re-open its doors as a dual language Montessori school. San Antonio ISD announced the new model at a public meeting on Tuesday night where around a dozen community members gathered to hear the news.

The new school will be the first of its kind in the city. It will be the second choice campus in the Lanier High School area, after Irving Dual Language Academy. The district does have another traditional Montessori school, Steele Montessori Academy on the Southeast Side. Only one other public Montessori school in the state, Eduardo Mata Elementary in Dallas ISD, has a dual language program.  When Rodriguez re-opens in August 2020, it will begin with the “Primary” community (ages 3-6), and grow each year with its initial class. 

Rodriguez closed its doors at the end of the 2018-2019 school year, a state-mandated action in response to five years of failing to meet state standards. The redesign team aimed to get right all that went wrong in the closure process. 

Closing schools just sucks. Marisa Alvarado would know, she’s been through it twice. The Alvarado family moved to Rodriguez when under-enrolled Carvajal Elementary became an Early Childhood Center in 2009.

A small group of parents met with SAISD Director of Strategic School Support Dana Ray at Alvarado’s home near Rodriguez.  They were there to discuss the redesign of Rodriguez, but first they shared their lingering frustration over the closure.

From day one at Rodriguez, she said, she felt the school was “lame.” It showed signs of neglect—outdated technology, worn out furniture, and a principal who was “nice,” she said, but mostly only a voice on the loudspeaker. No one seemed to care whether parents were involved, she said, “As a parent, I like people reaching out.”

Parents offer feedback at a meeting in Marisa Alvarado’s home

She saw an improvement when the district brought in a new principal who had the verve to push for turnaround. Ms. Brady had the energy, Alvarado said, but not enough time. Turnarounds, done properly, are often slow. By the time she pulled Rodriguez’s scores out of “improvement required” status (Rodriguez earned a “D” last year), the decision had been made. To prevent further action from the state, SAISD had already signaled to the Texas Education Agency that it would close Rodriguez.

When they announced the decision, Alvarado said, “I was livid.” She stopped waiting for the school to reach out to her, and started voicing her concern. She wasn’t selected to be a parent ambassador during the closure process, she suspects because she was not happy with the school or the district. But she would show up to meetings and events anyway. “I was determined to be there, because it was my right,” Alvarado said. She has been involved ever since.

While last ditch efforts were made to save others like P.F. Stewart and Ogden—Rodriguez just closed. One parent said she didn’t believe the district even considered other options–at least not publicly or with community input.

Alvarado joined up with COPS-Metro and the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, and even went with them to Austin to protest the closure. But she says she didn’t find a listening ear there either. “They wanted my support, but they didn’t want to listen,” she said, “It drained me a lot.”

Alvarado said she felt bad for the teachers who would have to change schools, and she understood the argument that the neighborhood school is an anchor for community. But those were not her primary concerns. 

Her primary concern was for her kids. Not just that they would have somewhere to go to school— Carvajal reopened to receive the Rodriguez students—but that it would be a good school. A school that the district prioritized.

At one point, Alvarado even considered enrolling in the Advanced Learning Academy. Rodriguez families were given priority in the lottery for any SAISD choice schools, but the drive would have made her mornings too volatile, she explained. She opted for close-by Carvajal for her 3rd grader.

In keeping with her vigilance to keep eyes and ears on the future of Rodriguez, Alvarado agreed to host a redesign meeting in her home—one of at least nine district outreach efforts during the first three months of school this year.

The first meeting in September was a classic public meeting hosted at Rodriguez attended by around 40 people, including former teachers. There the district presented some models that might be appealing. Next, a bus tour of the Advanced Learning Academy, Steele Montessori, and Irving Dual Language gave parents 90 minutes with each school to see what they liked and didn’t like about the schools. 

A second public meeting to get feedback from the tours was not well-attended. Only about five parents came to the October meeting with representatives from each school, Superintendent Pedro Martinez, Board President Patti Radle, and representatives from the enrollment office. 

After that, the district shifted gears, meeting with smaller groups at libraries, school campuses, and Alvarado’s house. Ray has met with close to 100 students and parents throughout November, getting feedback on the various models and priorities. 

All saw the benefits of Montessori, project based learning, social and emotional learning, and dual language instruction. Their main priority, expressed in various ways, was that the school know and respond to their children. They wanted to be engaged as partners. For a community that often feels ignored and written-off, the district clearly has some good faith to restore, and parents want it restored in a particular way: a high value placed on their children.

Several parents expressed hesitation about dual language, referencing an internalized “stigma” some community members have against speaking Spanish. In Mexican American communities, some adults remember being punished for speaking their home language at school. English-only use among Latino immigrants increases with each generation, and while some are worried about losing connection to their heritage, others still have a bad taste left over from discrimination they have experienced.

Dana Ray meets with Rhodes Middle School students to discuss the Rodriguez redesign.

Students at Rhodes Middle School, were all in on dual language when they met with Ray. They liked the idea of self-guided Montessori and hands-on learning at ALA. But they lit up when asked if they would have liked to learn Spanish (or French or Japanese, they added). Students believe in the advantage of being multilingual in competitive job markets. They would be jealous, they said, of their younger siblings or neighbors who became fluent in a second language.

Both priorities are reflected in the new model. Rodriguez students will be able to opt into a dual language program within the wall-to-wall Montessori program, which, when implemented with fidelity, is highly individualized and relational.

The campus will also be a “diverse by design” school, meaning that it will be intentionally integrated using socioeconomic status. Half of the students will come from middle and/or upper income households, and half will come from homes that qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program. This element of the Rodriguez plan may present as large a challenge as training Montessori dual language teachers and outfitting the school in the next nine months. Drawing middle and high income families to the West Side has been a challenge for SAISD. Rodriguez will serve an area that has been historically ignored by the rest of the city. 

While some have raised concerns that development aspirations around UTSA downtown will bring gentrification to the West Side, the housing stock in the 78207 zip code is not as amenable to the kind of rapid change seen in Southtown and Dignowity Hill on the East Side. Small houses and lots, and large public housing developments create a different set of variables than the high vacancy rates and the stately-but-aging housing stock of other areas. For those who have heard Trinity researcher Christine Drennon explain the segregation and gentrification issues of San Antonio, she points out that the West Side was built with segregation in mind. That doesn’t make it immune to redevelopment, but it changes the dynamics. The West Side also has a history of effective Latino activism that could afford residents a stronger voice in conversations about the future of their neighborhoods. 

All that to say, the advent of Rodriguez and its hot new curriculum does not herald immediate influxes of coffee shops, nor does it cater to some future population who may or may not be moving in soon. Putting what might be the most attractive model deep in a neighborhood designed for segregation is something else entirely, in my opinion.

It is definitely a challenge to middle class families to see how much of their school choice really has to do with philosophy of education. Twain and Irving have very different lottery pools, even though the model is the same—diverse by design, dual language. At an event last year, a parent pointed out that there were some other reasons to choose Twain (it had a play scape, and at that moment Irving did not yet have one). But the biggest difference between those two schools is the neighborhood around them. 

More importantly, placing dual language Montessori at Rodriguez spreads the wealth—literally. While there’s still work to be done in making sure that every campus has the resources of ALA or CAST Tech and the attention of schools like Twain and YWLA, placing choice models in historically segregated neighborhoods is a move toward equity as long as those neighborhoods will have priority in enrollment.

Does one new economically integrated school alleviate the concentrated poverty at Ogden, Storm, Sarah King, Barkley/Ruiz, Margil, Crockett, De Zavala, J.T. Brackenridge and Carvajal? No, not really. But it does add integration to the mix of ways that families on the West Side could finally be getting the choices and resources they have been requesting for decades. It is a step. A piece of the puzzle.

Rodriguez will be by far the shiniest of SAISD’s choice schools, and it’s up to the district to make sure that the neighborhood feels the glow.

The Integration Diaries: The one advantage I refuse to give up.

We put our kids in a public school committed to socioeconomic diversity, where they are among the 6 percent of kids who look like them. It’s going very well. They are learning how to speak Spanish while their classmates learn English. My kindergartener is adding, subtracting, and reading up a storm. My pre-kindergartener wants to be an “astronauta” and asks for, “mas jugo, por favor” (pronounced, “po-faloe” because no one is going to correct something that adorable).

So what are we learning, my white husband and I? 

We are learning how to support the work of integration. We got on board with desegregation when we enrolled. Integrating is much…much harder. 

My happy daughter missing a practice shot, my husband cheering anyway, and our city.

I say integrating is harder than desegregation. It is. But mostly because it is very difficult for me not to look like an ass in doing it. Integration is more difficult to do well. Not that it is harder to endure or to survive. Reflecting on my first semester as an integrating parent, I would be remiss if I didn’t dedicate at least one blog post to how awesome it has been for my own mental health and the mental health of my kids. 

Not in a “purposeful life” sort of way. Not in a “the peace of doing the right thing.” Not in a “virtue is its own reward.” No. I mean that saying yes to functional systems and no to the rat race is incredibly freeing and fun and I think it may be saving our lives. 

Because of the narratives around failing schools, and frankly the narratives around desegregation, a lot of the focus stays on the resources that middle class parents bring with them into under-resourced schools. The focus is on what these parents will be giving up, and not so much on what they will gain. But if we look a little deeper, while we might be giving up some elite coaching, some cool field trips and clubs and whatnot, we are also escaping something.

I sort of wanted integration to be more risky, because economically advantaged people need to be willing to feel a little discomfort, and to give up some of our advantages. We have to stop idolizing the idea that our kids will have an edge over their competition, we have to stop the opportunity hoarding whereby we get stuff for our kids and then see everyone else as a threat. We have to stop making everything about childhood a competition. 

We have to stop, because when we do that, we inevitably rely on unjust systems of segregation, nepotism, and power tokens to do it. When we use those systems they get stronger. 

We cluster in the most “competitive” schools, so that’s where the college recruiters focus, overlooking other schools. 

We use our connections to get our kids into programs and club sports they did not earn, or we pay for copious tutoring and lessons to make sure that they can earn their way in, edging out kids who might have gotten in on skill alone if it were really a competition between kids. So now, to get into some programs a certain amount of expensive pre-gaming is assumed. Eventually some families are priced out.

We use our influence to create internships, clubs, and learning experiences centered on the interests and ambitions of our kids, giving them the natural advantage of interest and ambition.

We continue to build the world to their advantage, which is a zero sum game. Not everyone can win. But the race doesn’t start in the classroom. It doesn’t even start at birth. It started generations ago, which is why one group (white folks) are over-represented among the economically advantaged. While not every white person is rich, in America we have had more consistent and longstanding access to means of creating wealth–property ownership, inheritance law and tax code written with our norms in mind, fair lending, insurance.

Our inheritance as second-and-forthcoming-generation privileged folks is the obligation to maintain and expand our lead. 

This rugged individualism is just as destructive…and it’s self-destructive too. It’s become pathological. It starts so early, and costs so much. Not only in money, but in mental health. Which is why opting out of it is, in my opinion, an advantage worth having.

I truly believe that the pressure we put on our kids to achieve is as toxic as the social media apps we like to blame for everything. The drug use, the self-harm, the eating disorders…those thrive in highly competitive school environments. (Not like “do your best” competitive. There’s a difference between success and dominance.) The kids begin to self-destruct right along with us.

The social pressure between parents is, yes, the stuff of parody, but get one whiff of it and you will find it is not funny at all. We can snicker at Big Little Lies, The Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce, I’m Sorry, Modern Family, I Don’t Know How She Does It, Where’d You Go Bernadette?, Bad Moms, Bad Moms’ Christmas, or any television show set in a private high school…but all of that is a derived from a real, gut-churning thing.

We all say we aren’t going to be the parent who does our kids’ school projects or stays up all night making bake sale goodies. That we wouldn’t indulge their request for absurdly expensive athletic gear. We all say we would nev-er pay a man to fix their SATs. 

Evidence says we will.

Okay, so we may not commit a federal crime, but we would pay just as much in tutoring.

Look at what else we’ve been willing to do. Is any of that less radical than clumping our children into affluent enclaves that have been proven to disadvantage other schools across town? Is doing your kid’s homework somehow more egregious than demanding they be put in a certain teacher’s class? Is paying thousands of dollars in SAT prep any less fair than signing a petition against a rezone that would bring in more low income households to your child’s school?

Opting into integration, for me, is the first step in opting out of all of that. I say no to competitive parenting, starting by forfeiting the advantage of segregation. 

When I say “no” to that, I say “yes” to other things. We still have a lot of joy.

I sent my daughter to school with a historical figure pumpkin that she made herself. I helped her a little with the pinning part so that she didn’t hurt herself, but she did do the rest herself. And it looked like a five-year-old made it. It was Ruby Bridges (and I was beyond proud of her selection), but you could not tell by looking at the pumpkin. She’s playing YMCA soccer at her school, and dabbling in random other things where she’s interested, as little people do. My three-year-old does nothing outside the house besides school, as being with me is his preferred extracurricular. 

I’m a super indulgent parent, and I typically let my kids try whatever they want to try as long as it’s ethical and safe. Jumping off stuff, making concoctions in the kitchen, dance lessons. I think their curiosity is wonderful, and I have a hard time saying “no.” Our economic situation enables a lot of this, which is why I have to say “no” at times as a discipline. I set boundaries when I know I should, but I’d always rather say, “Yeah! Let’s see what happens!” (Those who know me, know that this is not just in regards to my kids…this is just me in life…send condolences to Lewis.)

But every time I talk to parents who share my demographics, I’m bombarded with the idea of more competitive leagues, mastering a musical instrument, or thinking about getting into the pipeline that leads to the best colleges. Not in the interest of indulging our children’s quirkiest interests, but in the interest of helping them stand out and get ahead.

The obsession with selective colleges begins the moment our children are born, if not before. Even though research shows that selective colleges don’t really carry an extra advantage for kids who already come from the professional networks and social circles made accessible by selective colleges.

Even though the research shows that having professional-class parents pretty much dwarfs whatever other advantages you do or do not give your kid.

There’s good guidance out there that desegregation shouldn’t be a stealth power move. If going into a desegregated school is a way of garnering yet another advantage for your kid—whether dual language, project-based learning, or just the many actual benefits that come from diverse settings—you probably won’t really integrate. And you’ll miss out on all the sanity it has to offer.