As it often does, the most recent neighborhood education meeting I attend each month featured a representative from Chicago Public Schools. This man spoke for about twenty minutes and took a number of questions from the participants. It was a normal presentation aside from the subject matter: helping students cope with the upcoming school closings. A long, anxiety-producing process throughout the winter culminated in the announcement last month that 49 schools will be closed at the end of this academic calendar.
Displaced children and their families are now trying to understand their options and considering the consequences of their eventual decisions. How much farther will a child’s new school be from home? How welcomed will she be? What invisible lines now have to be crossed?
A few months back I attended a breakfast with other clergy from the South Side and the CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Dr. Byrd-Bennett is clearly an intelligent woman and very capable as the CEO; she said much during our breakfast that I appreciated. But there was this one thing… “Don’t forget,” she stated while discussing the upcoming school closings, “children are resilient!” Her point was simple: It’s unfortunate that we have to close these schools, but kids are tough and they will be just fine.
The representative at our neighborhood meeting said much the same thing even as he ran through a massive list of programs, initiatives, and strategies to help school children who are experiencing crisis. Crises like the school closings.
So which is it? Resilient or vulnerable and in need of systems and support during crisis?
Probably it’s both, though if we get clearer with our language we might be slower to talk about a young child’s resiliency. The more than 31,000 displaced students (8% of these are currently homeless) are experiencing the violence of the system in which they find themselves. Dr. Bryd-Bennett, Mayor Emmanuel, and the Chicago School Board would dispute it, but theirs are violent decisions. That they aren’t talked about as such only indicates the extent to which violence is normal, the currency of the powerful.
Of course, we can all sleep easier if we believe soothing truisms about the resiliency of the powerless.
Now, this is what I had a chance to talk about when I met with some young men from Hyde Park Academy who were participating in this B.A.M. program. Where are the guys I talked to? Stand up you all, so we can all see you guys. (Applause.) So these are some — these are all some exceptional young men, and I couldn’t be prouder of them. And the reason I’m proud of them is because a lot of them have had some issues. That’s part of the reason why you guys are in the program. (Laughter.)
But what I explained to them was I had issues too when I was their age. I just had an environment that was a little more forgiving. So when I screwed up, the consequences weren’t as high as when kids on the South Side screw up. (Applause.) So I had more of a safety net. But these guys are no different than me, and we had that conversation about what does it take to change. And the same thing that it takes for us individually to change, I said to them, well, that’s what it takes for communities to change. That’s what it takes for countries to change. It’s not easy.
Out of everything he said at the public school down the road from our church and home, it was these two paragraphs from President Obama’s speech that grabbed my attention. I noticed not because the President said something new but because he acknowledged the systemic injustices that are rarely mentioned in public. So much of the commentary about the violence in our city ignores the surrounding circumstances not to mention the troubling history that has led to this constant crisis. And while he just barely eluded to it, the President is right about the systemic inequity that provides a safety net for some while leaving others to fend for themselves.
The day before the President delivered his speech at Hyde Park High School, Chicago Public Schools announced the list of 129 schools that are on the preliminary list of schools to be closed. Most of these are on the city’s south and west sides, in the neighborhoods that already lack much of the safety net the President referenced. And so it goes.