One of my most vivid memories of the school I taught at in Harlem was when some rich white ladies came to my classroom. I forget who the ladies were--probably the wives of somebody or other, certainly past or future donors to the school (donors came through pretty regularly). Given their clothes and handbags, the ladies were very obviously of what we later called the 1%. Kathleen, the wonderful pre-K teacher who was guiding the ladies on their tour introduced them to my third graders, and asked if the kids had any questions.
Mischievous DeShawn Williams, a child whose irreverent wit made me smile every day, raised his hand. Kathleen, the Pre-K teacher, said, "Yes, DeShawn?" and DeShawn asked the ladies, “Are you all rich?”
There was a brief moment while his question rang in the air.
Then the ladies tittered uncomfortably. I laughed. No one knew what to say.
No one knew what to say, because no one wanted to make the obvious, simple answer: Yes, these ladies were rich. Of course they were rich. Unlike some of my students, who would wear the same clothes to school for days at a time, they were dressed rich. Like most people who came through the school, they were visiting because they were considering making a donation. So why did they all hesitate to answer the question? Why were they embarrassed by their good fortune? That’s a deep question on which we can only speculate. What’s certain is that they didn’t say anything, and their tour guide had to jump in and answer for them.
Her face turning a bit red, her smile getting bigger and, to my eyes, less genuine, Kathleen said, “No, DeShawn, they’re not rich.”
I remember DeShawn’s impish look of skepticism and disbelief (then again, he often had that kind of a look).
After asserting that the obviously rich ladies were actually not rich, maybe the pre-K teacher felt she had to clarify, to explain herself. “They’re not rich,” she said. “They’re… well-off.”
This seemed like gibberish to me, and I think we all still felt a little uncomfortable; maybe that’s why Kathleen went on:
“You see, Deshawn, they went to school, and to college, and worked very hard, and saved their money--and… you can do that too!”
She no doubt meant this to be a message of uplift. There was no one at the school I admired more than Kathleen; she was present to the children at all times, engaged in their lives, working for their betterment. And if it’s arguable that her answer was actually fine, especially given the context, it still made me uncomfortable, partly exactly because of the way the context seemed to have dictated the answer. But the main problem, of course, was that her answer was so transparently false. The ladies in the room might have been hard workers, but their hard work was almost certainly in no meaningful sense the reason for their being rich, especially not in the sense that DeShawn meant it.
I wonder what the school’s founder would have said in the same situation. A poet who had worked for years as a young man in Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker movement, who was full, in his phrase, of “the fury and the passion of revolution,” he railed in his books about “the cruel power elite.” But, ironically, he was dependent on this same elite for the money to operate his school. He probably wouldn’t have said exactly what Kathleen said, but he was the only one at the school who could have gotten away with saying something even close to the truth. (1)
Kathleen’s response to DeShawn not only implicitly blamed the parents of the children before her for their own poverty, it also absolved the larger society from any responsibility for the inequality that was visibly present in the classroom. You could argue that this explanation could work to empower the students (“Work hard, and you too can be well-off!”), but it seems more likely to have made the students feel worse about themselves. In any case, my guess is that this explanation was not made for the sake of the students. Instead, Kathleen’s real audience seemed to be the rich ladies themselves. And this was the real problem. I am pretty sure the rich ladies did not come to Harlem to have the vast gap between their own privilege and the lives of the children of Harlem pointed out to them, even if their very presence pointed it out to the perceptive children. The rich ladies did not come to Harlem to think about the root causes of inequality and poverty. Instead, the rich ladies came up to Harlem, and were greeted in Harlem, as benevolent, disinterested saviors. But if you don’t talk about inequality and justice, if you don’t talk about structural racism, if you don’t talk about massive changes but only talk about small changes, nothing big will change.
In any case, for me, the morals of the "Are you all rich?" story are many, among them:
- Children always see through our BS, even if they don't always know what to make of it;
- Inequality is uncomfortable to everyone involved, but it's better to be honest and open about it;
- If individual private citizens are funding a school, they should they should not be paraded around through the schools like visiting royalty--but really they should probably not be in the business of funding important societal functions, like school, at all!
- Because the problem with philanthropy isn't only, as per Giridaradhas (2), that donors are self-serving, it's that philanthropy erodes democracy.
(1) Our school was distinctly different from its present-day successors: the KIPPs and the Success Academies of the world believe that the best way to eliminate poverty is to change the poor people themselves, because the main injustice in our world is that poor kids are not educated well enough, while our school believed, I think, that the poverty and injustice were the problems, and that while school could help to heal the wounds of poverty and injustice, the world needed a revolution. There were problems with this, obviously--the founder of the school was a complicated guy, but he was always vulnerable to accusations of having a white savior complex, or worse--but the school really did try to be, in his words, a "community of healing." Unfortunately, by choosing to grow the school, its founder set it on a path that would require more and more money. In order to get this money, the school had to “beg” beyond the pages of the New York Review of Books; in fact, it had to go to the elite levels of technocratic New York business and finance. By relying on this funding source, however, the school was putting itself at the mercy of the establishment, and it simply could not continue to be a place of revolutionary peace and love. The year after I left, the founder was forced out by his board of trustees, and now, less than twenty-five years later, the school is run by people without any teaching background who have aligned themselves in their language (data-driven rigor!) with education reform: They've taken both "children" and "school" out of the institution's name. It's now an "Academy," and according to the International Journal of Progressive Education, the school is now "centered on heavy discipline and traditional instruction."
(2) Anand Giridaradhas's book, Winners Take All, is great, but I wish he had focused a bit more on the ways philanthropy is anti-democratic. I'll probably write about that a bit next week.