If Public Schools Don’t Survive, Kids Like Me Won’t Either

The teachers at my high school made miracles out of the little money we had. Under the oversight of Betsy DeVos, I worry they’re about to lose even that.

“Shiny” was the word I came up with to describe the rich-people high schools. They were schools in the white-flight suburbs of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, hours away from where I lived in Lawton, and I visited a few of them for yearbook workshops back in 2011, when I was a junior. They were public schools, like mine, but the difference was that they had money, and we did not.

These schools referred to their finely manicured grounds as “campuses.” They had glossy new textbooks and full-blown media centers and stadiums that wouldn’t look out of place in a college brochure. They even had a football team with football players they had gone out and recruited.

That was wild to me. That a high school could find the time and money to recruit people, while the teachers at mine would have been over the moon to have more paper to print on so we could stop sharing worksheets and Scantrons.

But above all, the kids themselves were shiny. Their shoes were shiny and their teeth were shiny and I swear they all smelled uniformly like the inside of an Abercrombie & Fitch. I sometimes imagined their everyday lives, their classrooms outfitted with Smart Boards, their hallways clean as a whistle, and I’d get jealous.

I thought immediately of those shiny schools yesterday, when I heard that billionaire Republican donor and philanthropist Betsy DeVos had been confirmed as the country’s new secretary of education. And I wondered how a woman who was born rich, who has never attended a public school, or been a teacher at one, or sent a child to one, would go about representing the hundreds of schools in this country whose students are the opposite of rich. Schools like the one I went to.

What was the real difference between us and those shiny kids, I wondered? The answer, of course, was just a few million dollars.

On the first day of ninth grade, a big chunk of the chalkboard fell off. It missed my math teacher, Mrs. Hanna, by a matter of inches. The way it fell, it looked like it had just given up — or, as they say where I’m from, let go and let God. Mrs. Hanna stared down at it. The tile had fallen so close to her feet that the chalk dust had gotten on her black shoes. We students waited, with bated breath, to see what she would do.

“Oh,” she said. And then she started laughing. And so we started laughing. But Mrs. Hanna was laughing in that way people laugh when everything has really, truly gone to shit. Which, considering the way the day had gone, was understandable.

Mrs. Hanna taught from a desk that she had fashioned out of scrap plywood and a metal frame. I had arrived early enough to claim one of the 15 desks in a classroom with 27 students. The unlucky kids had to sit on the window ledge or on the floor.

We were the first ninth-graders to ever attend Lawton, and absolutely nobody wanted us there, for good reason: We didn’t fit.

Some genius, I’m not sure who, had seen fit to add an entire grade of people to the already overcrowded Lawton High School. It was one of the three major public high schools in Lawton, Oklahoma, a city otherwise known as “the Shady 580” for its telephone area code and its reputation for violence. We were the first ninth-graders to ever attend Lawton, and absolutely nobody wanted us there, for good reason: We didn’t fit.

On the first day of school, the day Mrs. Hanna’s chalkboard gave up, it was made clear that we would have to share everything. We would have to share our textbooks. We would have to share our desks. The smaller, shorter kids were crammed into pairs while the bigger, taller kids had to stand in the back. We would have to share the cafeteria in three shifts: first lunch, split lunch, and then second lunch. Split lunch, the lunch I had, was smack-dab in the middle of Mrs. Hanna’s math class.

“Go ahead!” Mrs. Hanna said when the bell rang. “Split lunch! What a great idea! Just try your best to come back, I guess!”

Mrs. Hanna was in the same boat as us; it was the first day at LHS for her, too. Teachers from the surrounding middle schools had been transferred to LHS to accommodate the massive influx of students. And my mother, up until then an English teacher at Central Middle School, was one of them.

It was because of my mother that I was able to go to LHS in the first place. We lived out in the middle of nowhere, technically miles outside the Lawton school district. An exception had been made because my mother was a teacher, and because it was a life-or-death situation for me. I had been bullied so badly in my rural middle school that I absolutely had to switch. But after my first day, I wondered if I had made the right decision.

“How’d it go, buddy?” my mother asked me in her car at the end of the day, our school IDs hanging from red lanyards on the rearview mirror.

I thought about the blackboard, and the split lunch, and the girl who had bitten the vice principal’s hand (and drawn blood!) when he tried to break up one of the four fights I’d seen happen, just that first day. My mom and I looked at each other and laughed. I took the lanyards down from the mirror and threw them in the glove compartment; neither of us wanted to look at them.

The majority of the students at Lawton High were people of color. That was in stark contrast to the middle-of-nowhere middle school I’d come from, where all the students were white except a few Comanche kids and one Mexican. (I was the Mexican). It was at LHS that I first met someone who wore the hijab, where I first met someone who was Buddhist, and where I first met other Latinos who weren’t members of my family. It was the kind of school that could have easily been the backdrop for a feel-good movie for white people, where an optimistic white teacher comes in and inspires the unruly students to play chess or recite Shakespeare.

Every morning at Lawton High, we lined up in front of the metal detectors to get into the building. (Apparently, they weren’t worried about grizzly bears.) Sometimes we were frisked, and sometimes pants were hoisted up, and sometimes there were police. Every year, we were handed a brochure that featured cartoon drawings of gang members holding up gang signs: the Bloods, the Crips, the Latin Kings, La Familia, etc. They told us which tattoos and colors to look out for. But gang violence was a part of everyday life, and we didn’t need a cartoon to tell us about it. The hallway floors were always littered with brochures on the day they were passed out.

Most of all, everywhere, in everything, there was poverty.

Most of all, everywhere, in everything, there was poverty. White, black, Latino — poverty was the great unifier. Pages were missing from novels in English class, because of the poverty. Students in band and in sports wore old used uniforms, because of the poverty. Teachers had to pay for supplies out of their own pockets, because of the poverty.

There weren’t enough teachers, and the teachers we did have were underpaid. There weren’t enough desks or classrooms, and the classrooms we had were too small. There wasn’t enough of anything, except for students, which there were too many of. And most of them, from what I could tell, were dealing with obstacles that would be completely unthinkable to the shiny kids in the shiny private schools across town.

I knew a kid who could solve algebraic equations in her head. She dropped out to work full time, because her mother had lupus and couldn’t afford treatment. I knew a kid who could pick up languages so fast it was like he’d known them all along. He was shot. But despite our struggles, our school thrived, because what we lacked in funding we made up in ferocity.

Our football team went to state almost every year I was there, even though we lacked the equipment and recruiting methods of the bigger, richer schools. Our academic team went head-to-head with the teams that had Smart Boards and special tutors. Our yearbook won first place for the cover we designed on our own, without the help of the templates and design software the other schools had.

We were a school where everyone had a story to tell, and we excelled at poetry and essays. Our English department — which included my mother and Ms. Keller and a teacher with a PhD whom we called Doc — had us enter local, national, and even international writing contests. We won quite a few of them.

It was in Doc’s class that I learned I wanted to be a writer. I remember walking into his classroom one day to find my name on the board: I had won a national essay contest. National. As in, beyond Oklahoma. And remembering that day is how I know that education is power: In that moment, the moment I realized I had actually achieved something, I felt the whole world open up. Not just in an emotional way, but, I swear, in a physical way.

It’s in that moment of I can, when you realize, yes, you can, that the gulf between you and what you want to make of yourself suddenly becomes jumpable. Life changes in that moment. Forever.

Betsy DeVos has a long history of criticizing struggling public schools and advocating to move resources away from, not into them — to an extent that suggests, to me, a kind of contempt for the very concept of public education. Nor does she have any qualms about how she got where she is. “My family is the biggest contributor of soft money to the Republican National Committee,” she once wrote. “I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence.”

What DeVos does as education secretary remains to be seen. But what she represents to me, today, is what those shiny schools represented to me years ago: Money. Enough money to be comfortable, to do what you want, to be who you want, to effortlessly inhabit that feeling of I can, to be born into a world that’s already open to you.

I am proud to be a product of public education. I am proud of the way my teachers and my classmates took what little we had and made miracles out of it, refusing to lose hope, even when we saw the vast disparity in resources between us and the shiny schools. It motivated us. It made us that much better.

When I think about that gap getting wider, it frightens me, because I know exactly who will be left behind. I went to school with them.

John Paul Brammer is a writer, speaker, and activist based in New York City.

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