This essay is the second of a multi-installment series called “The Burbs”.
You know, I constantly hear sound bites of severely out-of-touch conservatives bemoaning people who want what they call “hand-outs” or who feel “entitled”. But the people using these terms and clinging to a belief that there is some reserve of dirt poor, drug-addicted panhandlers trying to get their hands on the well-to-do’s precious tax dollars don’t see what I see. If anyone operates on a sense of entitlement, it’s the middle class, cash-clutching, tight-fisted suburbanites.
I could not imagine more irresponsible spending than what I have witnessed in this suburban community. They may claim to have chosen to live where they do because of the “good schools”, but they don’t seem to understand that school funding comes from taxes, which conservative suburbanites wish to be low to non-existent. They become the most indignant people in the world with the addition of one more child to their child’s classroom. “Why can’t they just hire another teacher? My gosh! Isn’t that why I’m paying taxes?” a stay-at-home mother who has never held a job outside the home will proclaim. (The same woman complains when she has to stand in line at the post office or at the bank when only two agents are on duty.)
There are three large-ticket items suburbanites are happy to spend their money on and one thing that makes them sweat to thinking about spending money on.
The one thing is public or supplemental education.
The three things are: cars, their children’s sports activities, and church.
They spend money on cars so they can keep up with their neighbors and appear successful. They spend money trying to get their kids to be sports phenoms in order to entertain the bored, suburbanite dad as he attempts to vicariously succeed through his offspring, but also so the entire family can avoid thinking about the importance of knowledge, or education, which is, in their lifestyles, exceedingly inconvenient.
They spend money on church because they are supposed to according to what the Bible says, what their neighbors say, and to avoid thinking about how they could fund a better education for their children. They also need to maintain a rigid two-day-per-week schedule at church so they can justify not spending time on education. I’ve learned they do not expect to be argued with on this point. They are appalled to think that someone would not find this excuse acceptable: “Well, we can’t do anything [educational] on Wednesday nights because that’s church night.” They usually do not have a good response when I say, “Well, I’m sure [your] god wants your child to learn and he wouldn’t mind him missing church on Wednesdays for just a month or so. I mean, that’s why [your] god gave him a brain to think with!” (Incidentally, most public school teachers in this area do not assign homework on Wednesdays because they know most of their students will be spending their evening doing church-related activities, and therefore will not have time for reading or doing math.)
I don’t think there are many things that make a Christian suburbanite squirm in his/her church pew quite as much as education.
Like the gutless, mediocre suburbanites of today, the early suburbanites of the 1950’s and 60’s couldn’t have their children going to school with Black kids, no siree. If they weren’t allowed to legally segregate, they would find a way to do it acceptably: move away from disparity, “otherness”, and, in effect, originality and the beauty of difference.
If you need evidence that suburbanites today are still motivated by a desire to segregate from “otherness”, ask them why they live where they live (especially if they have the audacity to tell you they’re jealous of where you live). They’ll answer you by saying, “We moved here for the schools.” Oh, really? Well, your next question should be, “And, in your opinion, what constitutes a ‘good school’?” After they look at you with a bewildered face, they might have the presence of mind to be able to formulate an answer. If they do, it’ll sound something like this: “Good teachers, strong leaders, individualized attention, small classrooms – you know?” Now, ask this suburbanite if he/she ever went to their child’s would-be school system’s website to investigate its report card. “Uh, well, no, not really,” he’ll/she’ll say, “but, I mean, I knew someone whose children were in school there, and she said it was great.” Now you say, “So, you don’t really have a clue what makes a good school or a good education, do you?” (And that friend who referred them to the school district? She was undoubtedly white.)
“Good schools”, to these people, means white schools. I’ve had a number of parents of the suburb where I work tell me they pulled their kid(s) out of a metro school because “they didn’t want their children exposed to a certain element.” “You’re just scared of anyone who’s not like you,” I wanted to say. What’s more, such suburbanites live in terror that their children are going to learn new things, have experiences the parents cannot relate to, or actually turn into the “other” themselves (gasp!).
But suburbanites (especially in the Bible Belt) have solutions for the dilemma of desegregated and publically funded education.
Education: that pesky legality that requires you send your kids to school everyday. Oooo, nothing sticks in the craw of religious suburbanites like annoyingly having to education their children in public schools where (supposedly) no one is allowed to push their beliefs on you and you’re not allowed to push your religion on them. Public schools are a place where beliefs should not enter the conversation. Schools are a place for learning how to learn, learning how to think critically so you can see the world for what it really is. There are three ways in which the conservative, religious suburbanite (and they are, by and large, conservative and religious) handle the disgusting issue of public education and its separation from all things god and Jesus.
The first solution is to ignore that conversations about beliefs really have no place in public tax-dollar-funded schools. A week ago I had a meeting with a public school principal in the next county over. There was a huge picture of Jesus with a Bible verse underneath it hanging on her office wall. Last year, a principal in the school system of the county in which I work was asked to resign because she was handing out Bibles during registration day at school. Several months ago I met with a teacher in the teacher’s lounge of a public school. In the teachers’ lounge a Bible verse in quite large print was attached blatantly to the room’s bulletin board. And probably 80% of the time, if you have the displeasure to be transferred to a public school teacher’s or principal’s voice mail, the message will end with, “Have a blessed day.”
I believe these religious fanatics are taunting and daring the values our country was founded on. They especially daringly thumb their noses at the separation of church and state. They want to be respected for their religious beliefs and freedom, but won’t give any “other” the same consideration. It’s as if, if you are the one offended by a Christian Bible verse or a picture of someone else’s prophet or god, YOU are the one in the wrong. If you’re offended by Christians, you’re wrong; not them. They’re on the right side.
But just to give Christian zealots another avenue in which their child could be more inundated with religion than the typical Bible Belt public school student, churches create their own schools, where the teaching and indoctrinating of religion comes first, and learning facts comes a distant second. Some of these schools are populated by a fine staff of well-trained and well-meaning professionals. Many of them are very small schools who exist for one lonely reason: to get out from under the thumb of the evil government who expects all people to operate under the same laws of tolerance and respect – even Christians. These really small schools are usually terrible. I mean, terrible. Many times the children who emerge from six years in a small, Christian elementary school go on to a small, Christian middle school. Then, they go to a small, Christian high school. And they are like little fragile baby birds who simply cannot find their way out of their thin but confining shell. They are dependent, naïve, cannot think critically to save their lives, and often do not go to college. If they do go to college, they go to a small, Christian college. And this area of the country has those colleges in abundance, to be sure; some of them are accredited, some not.
What do you get when you employee a person who has spent her whole life in the scenario I have described above? Let me tell you. Because I work with one. And it’s maddening.
I have been writing this article on my lunch break for about thirty minutes now and have received no less than (oh, as I’m typing right now, another one popped up) ten instant messages from, let’s call her Jane. She simply cannot be handed a project of any degree of simplicity without asking my opinion at every turn. She is apparently incapable of handing me a finished project and saying, “How’s that?” Jane uses minimal common sense, and I often have to walk her through the steps she should take to resolve a minor issue. She is afraid to have conversations with some clientele because they intimidate her so intensely. I can always tell (and I’m sure the client can, too) when Jane is not confident because she switches from a normal register to a high-pitched squeak. Jane is so self-unaware that she doesn’t even realize when she’s doing it, even though I’ve mentioned it to her multiple times. In her last employee review I flat out told her to stop doing it.
Jane is the product of a system of under-educating the over-religious. Can I blame her that she doesn’t know how or when to use the brain between her ears? She has actually been taught not to rely on thinking. She’s been taught to feel first, react, and think later – if at all. She’s learned more about using her brain since she’s been working for me than she did during her sixteen years of “education”. One of her past employers, she once told me indignantly, actually told her, “You’re daddy didn’t do you any favors.” I have to agree with that insight. I think the same thing everyday I work with her.
The third solution the suburbanites propose to handle their child’s education rather than send them to a public school where they won’t be encouraged to pray, witness, and might learn a thing or two that isn’t covered in the Holy Bible, is homeschooling. The region in which I work is among the most densely populated homeschooling areas in the country. Some homeschooling parents do it the right way. Most do not.
A man who, I must say, was NOT very well-spoken called me several months ago to learn more about homeschooling, and during the course of our conversation informed me that his wife would be doing the majority of the teaching of their three children they were pulling out of public schools, even though she did not even have a high school diploma. From what I’ve seen, this situation is not uncommon. Homeschooling is severely under-regulated in this state, much to the detriment of the children subjected to such an education. Do we really expect the student of a teacher who does not have an 8th grade education to go on to achieve great things, get a higher education, and contribute to society?
Consult any data collection agency or census and you will find that the number one reason homeschoolers cite for removing their children from public school to be homeschooled is because they want more oversight over their children’s ‘moral upbringing’. They want to shelter their children from everything “else”. In my opinion it’s all just an effort to breed more conservatives, but that’s a topic for another day. (I mean, the more ill-educated conservatives we have, the more likely we as a country are to elect conservative policy-makers and soon we’ll have the church-run state conservatives want. Once a country is “run” by a church, rich Republicans will be able to very easily buy all the policy they want. The church will sell it to the people who won’t question it because, after all, churches are “moral” and people who are uneducated but very religious tend to be less questioning and unequipped to comprehend the complexity of government and politics.)
Most of the time, I find most of the people of this community absolutely revolting. From gentle, naïve Jane to the outspoken professional woman client who informed me earlier this week that she really tries to be a subordinate wife because “it’s biblical”, I can’t stand them. And I’m surrounded with this lack of sense until I get back to where I belong and am understood; I can totally be myself in East Nashville. I don’t have to hide the fact that I live with my long-time partner and have for eight years though we’re not married. In my neighborhood, with my true friends, I don’t have to constantly justify my choice not to have children. In East Nashville I don’t have to hide that I am an atheist who left her Southern Baptist faith gradually over the course of six years, during which I was getting an education; some of what I was researching during that personal glorious enlightenment was prehistoric religions that centered on the divinity of women.
These suburbanites don’t understand me, but feel I certainly understand them. Of course, I’m much more likely to understand them than they are me because I’ve been where they are: but they’ve certainly never been where I am. I was once a romantic, very conservative and religious child (up until about age 25). I remember being blind and thinking very similarly to the way these people think. But it was because I was closing myself off to learning and growing. That’s what you have to do when you care more about your neighbor’s perception than you do your own growth, more about protecting your child(ren) than educating your child(ren).
They’re the people who are scared. They are scared of “otherness” and originality. They don’t shop or eat at places with which they are unfamiliar. They don’t talk to people who are not like them. And they don’t want their children to talk to people who are different, either.
Lucky for them, after World War II the suburbs were created, and the phenomenon swept the country, giving rise to “white flight”. The suburbs provided (and still provide) a place where they can get away from the otherness that terrifies them. Even the minorities who do live in suburbs like the one I work in are trying to escape an undesirable element their kids might be accidentally exposed to. And, to be fair, minority kids are likely to be swayed toward the misadventures of other minority kids. But, here’s a newsflash, everyone: There are just as many, if not more because they are the majority, terrible White kids. I’ve seen some absolutely horrible White children in my life. I have no doubt some of them will grow up to be the scum of the earth. But most of them who grow up in the suburbs will grow up to be unaware of the “other”; they’ll be mediocre, unhappy, unfulfilled people. They’ll divorce the spouse they married to please their parents and prove to their parents, “I’m like you! I really am! I’m like you, just like you always wanted!” They’ll spend the rest of the their lives in the bubble their parents created for them. And some of these bubble-dwellers will run for some influential political office. Or they’ll be teachers of our future generations.
I, myself, find that terrifying. What better way to water down education than to breed an army of teachers who really don’t care about the significance of the nuances of language and the higher level thinking fostered by algebra? What those teachers are or will be more concerned with is how they can insert their own personal religious beliefs into the classroom. They are or will be people who have rarely traveled to distant, foreign cultures, are not very well-read, and do not represent any “otherness” our children could be benefiting from being exposed to, educated by.