For the first time, I am seeking an optional transfer for my daughter for the 2015-2016 school year. But I am not waiting in no damn line. I will, as the Shelby County Schools optional transfer FAQs dictate, proceed to the Board of Education on Monday morning to retrieve an application with a barcoded ticket that will hold my place in a first-come, first-served line for the particular school and grade I want my daughter to attend. I realize that waiting puts me at a disadvantage. Reports from the camp site–yes, the camp site–indicate that there are already at least 50 people in front of me. Today is Sunday, and people have been set up at the Board of Education since Wednesday. But I am not pressed, because I know the emperor has no clothes. People camping out, though, haven’t gotten the memo–or refuse to read it because of what it says about race, class, and contemporary American education.
Choosing and securing the right school for our kids is the ultimate parental duty, ranking higher as a symbol of our love for our children than, well, actual love for our children. This parenting is both genuine and performative, as it marks our class status and separates us from the “bad” parents, those who couldn’t care less where their kid goes to school. Except for that parent does not even exist. She or he–but usually she, and a black she at that, a negress, because when we imagine the bad parent most unlike us it’s got to be a single nigger mother–is a figment of our white and middle class imaginations, the thing on the other side of the boundary we put up to demonstrate that we are so much better at parenting, and therefore better people, than the folks on the other side of that conjured line. We middle class parents buy organic IAMS with quinoa and salmon for our dogs, gotdamnit.
In a time of heightened class anxiety in America, the camp-out is a specific symbol and expression of middle class angst and fear. We are still limping along from the foreclosure crisis. Many middle class folks kept their jobs but saw their wages fall. We got older and sicker. The kids needed new soccer cleats. College tuition continued to sky-rocket. College grads weren’t getting jobs. Millennials stopped going to church as much as they used to. The sky was falling.
In this moment of heightened class anxiety and insecurity, it is only natural to attach value to things that are not, in themselves, valuable, or even good. When our material means fail, how else will we maintain our middle class statuses? I mean–we don’t all believe in public school just for the sake of public school–if we really had the material means we wouldn’t wait in line at all. We’d just pay to get our kid into a private school. But we also know that the school inherently does not matter for our kid’s success because we. have. money. And since we cannot put our kid in private school (or shrewdly choose not to because we know it doesn’t really matter because we. have. money.), we camp out for the next best thing and chide anyone who isn’t doing or can’t do the same. Because we are good parents. (We may even chide parents for being elitist snobs and sending their kids to private schools. In this way, choosing public is not the result of an economic disadvantage that we don’t want to own, but another imagined boundary that makes us superior to others–this time, rich segregationist racists, which we are absolutely, positively not.)
In tandem with the ickiness of our current class situation is the other elephant in the room, the naked emperor prancing about. As a college professor, I’ve taught students who have gone on to be teachers, and the other supposed future leaders of the city and our nation in a variety of institutions–public, private, community college, liberal arts, for-profit, top 10, etc. They’ve come from those terrible public schools that we know nothing about except for that they are full of terrible niggers; as well as the elite magnet schools folks are camped out to get their kids into; and private schools. Guess what, though. The schools they went to did not make them smarter, or better people, or happier, or more caring, or the other things we say we want for our kids on parenting surveys. It simply gave them an advantage in obtaining a credential that will help them land a job and perhaps a career. I teach the kids a K-12 ravaged by No Child Left Behind, the privatization of public education, test whoredom, persistent devaluation and underpayment of teachers, and the demonization of teachers’ unions made. Trust me, these kids are not okay. But then again, we aren’t either.
I want the best for my child. My qualms with her current school are about what the conservative social environment is doing to her black girl nerd-dom and her personhood. In fact, the academic preparation she is getting there is superior to most magnets, and they achieve this with no grade inflation.
Have we talked about grade inflation in optional programs or in college honors programs? We haven’t. I digress.
I want the best for my child. But I will not camp out for this K-12.
What is the function of camping out, and what are we waiting for when we camp out? As an increasingly squeezed middle class, camping out allows us to cling to some semblance of class privilege, even when that privilege is predicated upon telling ourselves how much better we are than people who cannot camp out. We are giants stomping ants while the K-12 sky falls on us. And we aren’t waiting for a better school. We are waiting for a manufactured advantage–one that we already have by virtue of our middle class status. Our kid will make what she or he will make on the SAT because of our income, not because of where we send her or him to school.
In Memphis, like every place else, the battle over access to quality public education, and by proxy quality public schools, is drawn along the lines of race and class. Local media show failing, violent schools overrun by gangs without showing the rampant cheating scandals, pill-popping, and coke snorting that the wealthy culture at Your Favorite Magnet promotes. Yet, middle class folks across race can delight together in their superior parenthood, they, there, with their camp-gear, better than the oblivious nigger mothers, or simply more fortunate or “blessed” than those poor working women whose kids don’t have the same chance as ours even if they have access to the better school.
Like in all American institutions, from education, to healthcare, to housing, to employment, to criminal justice, the class rules are already set before the bell rings.