Voices: I came out of American public school knowing hardly anything. That’s why I fled to Europe

·9-min read
 (Getty)
(Getty)

The first time I was threatened with juvie was in a humid, portable classroom trailer in West Palm Beach, Florida. The principal stood stately in front of the whiteboard with a police officer on either side of her. As she addressed the classroom, she slowly paced and barked, “This is your final straw. No more games. If we see any more fighting on school grounds, we’re getting the law involved, and you’ll be expelled!” I was a Black child at a predominantly white school in an affluent zip code, but there had been a sharp rise in playground scuffles, which were most probably catalyzed by the thick Floridian air.

I had never been in a fight. I was a nine-year-old pacifist being stared down by a cop with both hands on his holster. I spent the first fifteen minutes of class learning what it meant to be guilty by association, and that made my blood boil. Playground fights among kids too young for middle school seemed like a bizarre reason to bring in the police.

After the principal exited the classroom with the armed officers, I spent the rest of the class disengaged from the coursework in front of me. I daydreamed about what it would be like to be eighteen and “free” and allowed to learn in peace. I wasn’t interested in Lewis and Clarke or memorizing equations or any of the other benign topics that crowded the curriculum; I wanted to learn how to explore. And, as a Black child, I knew that was going to be harder for me than my white counterparts in the US — just as the presence of a police officer with a gun in the classroom was scarier for me because of the color of my skin.

My parents, like many others, were distracted by their jobs and marital troubles while I was growing up. They immigrated to the States from Jamaica and did not believe in divorce. They frequently moved around, meaning that I had to transfer school districts in turn, so my grades and interest in education dwindled. It started in Poughkeepsie, New York; then, we moved around three different districts in Florida in quick succession. A couple of years later, I re-entered the Poughkeepsie City School District for good.

Poughkeepsie had a chronically underfunded school system. In truth, the city never fully recovered from de-industrialization in the 1950s, the arrival of IBM in 1942, or several generations of neglect from school administrators. I found it challenging to learn at high school there because I lacked a stable environment. Fights constantly broke out in the hallways and our buildings were infected with asbestos. My home life was volatile and my parents fought a lot. If you have either a great school and an unstable home life or a bad school and a supportive home environment, you have a chance. What I got was a toxic combination. It was clear from the attitude of the teachers at my school that they view us all as problematic time-bombs to be contained inside defective, adolescent daycare centers as a method of societal damage control.

I sought transferral to the Arlington Central School District, a neighboring district with better-funded schools, in the hope of something better. The school was nearby and it seemed like a better fit. I called the Arlington school myself, hoping they might accept me, and was told that the district lines stopped across the street from my house. That meant I would have to pay tuition if I wanted to enroll. As soon as I learned that, I knew the dream was dead; I didn’t even bother asking my parents about finances. I knew that they were struggling.

I went back to my high school in Poughkeepsie with dashed hopes and low morale. But my luck changed in the ninth grade, when I was accepted into a college readiness program called Exploring College, facilitated by Vassar College. This program aimed to empower and mentor high school students from underserved backgrounds while providing critical life skills in an affirming environment. The Exploring College program fulfilled the role that my public school was supposed to play. They helped develop my interpersonal skills, drastically improved my writing, and, most importantly, gave me confidence.

Toggling between high school and Vassar College opened my eyes to the exclusionary nature of social mobility and therapy. While I was impoverished and disadvantaged, like many of my peers, I was invited to an elite institution and exposed to some of the best teaching in the country. The difference was stark — and it felt unfair, even if I was benefiting.

At one point during high school, one of my teachers stabbed another teacher in the neck with a screwdriver during class hours. For the remainder of the semester, it was all the student body would talk about. Most of them processed the tragedy through humor, while some ended up becoming more violent as a reaction. I, on the hand, had the privilege of working through this trauma with college-educated students who aspired to work in education and with young people. We were expected to return to our studies without any therapeutic intervention by our school, but the after-school programming offered by Vassar College pulled me through.

I graduated high school and applied for community college, where I was accepted. But when I arrived, I was shocked to realize that I lacked the practical knowledge required to be successful at university or in the world. I signed up to participate in the Model United Nations, an advanced course simulating the chambers of the UN, but as soon as I arrived it was obvious that I lagged behind my affluent, well-tutored compatriots. The class was tasked to draft policies to address specific issues, and I struggled to imagine viable solutions. I could not point to Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, or Pakistan on a map. I realized quickly that I wouldn’t just have to learn the college courses, but I would have to teach myself everything I’d missed in order to catch up with my more privileged peers and compete with them on a level playing-field.

I knew it was time to venture into the world and begin my journey toward self-education, but globe-trotting is an expensive hobby. During the Model United Nations course, I made a friend who told me about becoming an au pair. I reasoned that I could start traveling the world in a cost-efficient way if I took such a position, so I contacted a host family in Lidingö, Stockholm, aced the interviews, and booked a flight.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived was that the family was the complete opposite of mine. The two children attended a well-funded public school, and the parents — while both working in prestigious positions at the head of their law firm in Stockholm — still found ample time to spend with them. The kids were brilliant, athletic, and ambitious. What they lacked, however, was cultural competence.

One chilly evening, I attempted to connect with the kids around the dinner table by asking about their taste in music. “What type of music do you like?” I asked the daughter. She finished chewing her fruit and yogurt and said, “Hmm… well, I like Post Malone….” Then she peered at her mother before recusing her statement: “Actually, I don’t like Post Malone because Post Malone smokes weed, and that makes him a bad person.”

The mother didn’t correct the daughter’s assumption; in fact, she seemed pleased with her response. Many Swedes value cultural and ethnic homogeneity, and drugs like marijuana are a taboo. While their public schools do a splendid job of teaching them practical skills, they fail to help them interrogate their own assumptions. No one seems to ask them questions that they really should, questions like: What is cultural piety, and how does it affect marginal groups? Does drug use make you a bad or lazy person? Why do people use drugs? And what is wrong with being “lazy” in the first place?

Despite the faults of my school in Poughkeepsie, its students understood these concepts well. I understood when I was told of the district line which prevented me from attending school in Arlington that these lines were designed to segregate populations to preserve the “cultural and economic fabric” of more affluent areas. No one taught me this outright, but my experience was a valuable education about where I stood in the world.

The racism in Sweden, and, more broadly, in Europe, is the same as the racism in the United States — but it manifests itself differently. People are often profiled based on the color of their skin; however, how people treat you ultimately comes down to your social standing and education level. Europeans like to say that their continent is “not as racist” as the United States, but I’m not so sure about that. For example, being staunchly “anti-marijuana” is a highly racialized bias, and while the daughter may not understand that, the mother surely does. Whether intentional or not, the daughter will grow up with a latent bias toward “weed smokers”, which will inevitably lead to more social stratification.

During my two months in Lidingö, I can confidently say that I learned more about the world and myself than I did in 18 years of American public school. In spite of the cultural faults I found, I prefer European society because of the emphasis on social programs and infrastructure. I found it easier to live a decent life, eat great food, and meet people from across the globe while in Europe. Even though the country I was in — and the continent — clearly suffered from similar problems to the US, a lot of those problems were mitigated by a strong social safety net and infrastructure that made sense.

Moreover, if I have children, I would be confident in entering them into the public school system in a place like Sweden. While there is also corruption and negligence in European school systems just like there can be in America, the mechanisms to address them are infinitely more effective than in the United States. That’s why I see my future outside of the country where I was born.

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