An Intersectional Perspective on the School Search
I have been looking for a school for my Black son with Down Syndrome. I am angry about how this has gone. Our Lorde teaches that there are uses for anger. We should not be afraid of Black women’s anger, for Black women are righteously angry about the conditions, the limitations that they and their families face. There will be cursing.
Jane the Virgin is one of my favorite shows of all time. It’s blend of drama and silliness isn’t for everyone. It is curiously absent from the favorite show list of many in feminist circles and discussion forums that I am a part of. I don’t get it. Not only does the weekly dose of Gina Rodriguez, the smart comedy, and the bright color palette of the show lift my mood, it is a feminist show that shows a broad array of women’s struggles, values, and choices around career, sexuality, family formation, parenting, and romance with a surprising nuance and lack of judgment. I started watching the show during pregnancy, both my own Jane’s whose accidental artificial insemination is the premise of the show. So until last season’s mid-season time jump, our babies were roughly the same age. Though Jane’s Mateo is starting kindergarten, I can still identify with Jane’s struggle for the best possible school situation for her son, for I am at a point that warrior mamas know well…the start of the IEP process, the transition, at age three of children from early intervention services provided through the state to the school district. This meeting, and the series of assessments leading up to it, will determine where my son goes to preschool and what kinds of therapies and supports he has for his safety and learning. It’s a big deal.
The school search arc of Jane the Virgin—when Jane was morally outraged that her babydaddy suggested they lie about their address to send their son to a better district, then found out that that is how her pious grandmother sent her to school her whole life— was the first and only time I ever saw represented on screen what every Black mother I know goes through at every child care and educational transition: when she goes back to work (much too soon) after giving birth, when the child goes from daycare to preschool or kindergarten, kindergarten to elementary, elementary to middle school, middle to high school. Who’s going to keep my baby? Can I trust them? Is it clean? Are trains getting run on girls in the stairwell? (true story, told to my mother by the janitors at a school in which I was enrolled for four hours) Will my child be pressured to join a gang? Will he be safe walking home? Do they even have the classes they need to apply to college? I don’t mean to contribute to the Dangerous Minds image that so many people always have of inner-city schools because there are many great teachers and institutions doing incredible work with very little resources. But for most Black mamas I know, sending your child to the school your address places you in is not even an option. So they gather, at hair salons, bleacher-side at pop warner football games, running in to one another at the mall or the store, and swap strategies: when does the LAUSD Magnet booklet come out and how to strategically rank your choices, how to get into this or that charter, what to say to get a permit to leave the district, whose address to use and how to not get caught, how far you need to drive to get your kid at the bus stop where you told the people you lived, what kinds of scholarships are out there and how to qualify even if you make more money than the limits say, cause upper working-class and barely middle-class folks know that the money they claim you have on paper, especially in Los Angeles, is never actually what you got to spend.
I know Black mamas are not the only ones who struggle with this issue, but we carry an undue burden. The segregation of Black children in schools (along with Latino/a/x children) is as high as it was in 1968. When children learn together: different races, different socioeconomic backgrounds, different abilities—everyone does better. Yet the nation has largely abandoned the project of school integration, which, like so many forms of racial injustice, is now institutionalized not by explicit racial determinants but through housing, class, and poverty. Los Angeles is one of the most segregated cities in this country and is experiencing a housing crisis like no other. Because of the historical and continuing impacts of redlining, federally-supported racist housing policies, discriminatory practices in employment and mortgage lending, your race largely determines where you live and where you live determines (along with your access to green space, clean drinking water, fresh produce, breathable air, safety, and affordable prices for basic goods) the quality of education that you get. Unless your mama lies, robs, steals, hustles a way out of no way. And even in the case of two-parent families of any race, women take the ultimate responsibility for the research, decisions, logistics, labor, and transportation involved in their children’s education. So as Black women, the injustice of educational inequity, the responsibility for trying to compensate, in your child’s life at least, for a structural system of educational disparity several hundred years in the making falls on us. We research, worry, network, scheme, lie, borrow, burn gas, and lose hours of sleep driving to schools and bus stops across town. Black women have lost freedom, fathers and their children themselves, all for school, for trying to find a place for their kids to safely and productively learn, a privilege that we know should be a right. After slavery, Black women dragged their children to hasty one room schoolhouses across dirt roads in droves, to learn things they didn’t know themselves but knew was needed. Michael Brown’s mother kept crying out, “He was graduating!” after his murder. Black women know why she was stuck on this. It is no easy feat to get your Black boy intact through twelve grades of school. Black mamas are always already warrior mamas. But I digress. Perhaps.
I have seen this yearly process, this communal huddling and strategizing of women making magic, anywhere near matched only by collectives of SN mamas. Trading information, phone numbers, things to say and not to say, to get your child to the place, with the support, that will give them the best chance to be safe and nurtured and challenged to their full potential. The constant research, the advocacy, the educating of educators and doctors who don’t bother to educate themselves. The sacrifice, the struggle, the mutual support. The difference in these struggles—the role of race and class. The affluent parents at one workshop I attended already had attorneys and private schools lined up, though they hadn’t seen any of the public preschool options. Black children with special needs have higher levels of need for intervention services from the Regional Center, yet receive the smallest portion of their services. Many Down Syndrome organization websites celebrate the fact that life expectancy has reached 60 years of age—yet for Black people with Down Syndrome, it’s around 30. This celebration of extended life expectancies feels a lot like all these commentators celebrating that the nation is almost at full employment, when Black unemployment rates continue to almost double that of white people. If Black Lives Mattered the way white lives mattered, we’d be holding off on celebration.
I find an affordable, positive preschool, in the community, with Black staff and kids, rave reviews and testimonials, that teaches children to love themselves and be curious about the world. I would love this kind of experience for my child. The admissions requirements included: being potty-trained and at age-expected levels of skill acquisition and independence. Moving on. A teacher at another well-known Los Angeles school that is supposed to be special needs-focused tells me when I explain my son’s ostomy bag, “We are not trained for that.” Moving on. I am a product of public schools and committed to giving public schools in my area full consideration, but, doing due diligence for my child, I check out a highly respected, fully inclusive non-public school on the West Side. It is beautiful. I like their curriculum. They actually have a balance between typically-developing and kids with special needs learning together, with enough trained staff to support additional physical needs. My son runs around, playing on equipment that encourages his gross motor skills and exploration. The directors are specifically special education educators, who understand things like sensory input and medical devices. Then I start learning the details and feel my chest tighten: drop-off time is too late for me to make it to the class I teach on time, pickup time is hours before I’m done, it’s not in a city I can afford to live in without a miracle, the traffic is insane, the tuition high. There is another option, the campus center at one school where I teach, which is very nice, more affordable, but not special needs focused. Will he get the input and structure and attention he really needs? Will they have the patience and staff for his long, messy, stubborn feeding sessions? Help teach him to eat table foods and drink from a cup, things the other kids will all already be doing? What’s worse, having my Black boy with Down Syndrome be the only Black child in his class or the only child with Down Syndrome in a class with a teacher and other children of color? This is what it means to live at the point of intersecting oppressions. I will have to patch together a world that can speak to all parts of who my child is, because no one else is going to do it for him.
The fact that I can write this means that I operate myself, from a position of privilege. I write on an expensive laptop; I have internet access in my home. I have a supportive father of my child and family that affords me some time to write. I have these school choices, at least. I have a car I can drive in to check out these options. I have some sources of support and extra income to which I know I can ultimately turn for help with tuition. I have lots of degrees, lots of skills, lots of access to professionals in special education, and lots of years of witnessing my mama’s own hustle to get me through school intact. So if I feel my temples popping from the worry and decision-making, I can’t even conceive of what this must be for someone without all the advantages that I do possess. When you put together race, poverty, and disability, it seems that it is always the most vulnerable of us who need the most and get the least. We should not leave it up to stress-inducing hustle of Warrior Mamas to try to right several hundreds of years of injustice in this world, one child at a time. We need a better world, where to learn and to play safely, lovingly, surrounded by natural light and good ventilation and bright colors, guided by good teachers who know their shit, and have the knowledge, resources and willingness to work with every child, is a right and not a privilege.