There is a loud silence about social class in U.S. public schools. The silence was deafening on the first day of the course I recently taught — a course in which teachers look closely at how education in the United States is deeply entangled with social class.
In this course, students look closely on their own memories of school as we learn how social class affects access to opportunity, to a sense that one has the right to dream limitless dreams, to the right to feel pride in one’s family and community. Students from poor and working-class homes tell me often they cry when they get home after class as they revisit painful childhood experiences of exclusion and constraint. Students from middle class homes come to realize the privileges that they’ve long taken for granted. At the end of the course, the students tell me that “we see class everywhere now.” At the end, they tell me that this was the very first sustained conversation about social class they’d ever had in sixteen years of schooling.
In the course, we grapple with how we can break the silence about social class in schools to start these conversations much much earlier. We lament the lack of children’s literature that honors the lives of low-income children, and talk about inspiring children’s dreams while teaching children about very real class barriers. We imagine helping children and families to understand that when dreams are not realized, forces other than personal failure are often in play.
I thought of my students when I came across this essay this week about a highly-educated parent grappling with indirect advice he’d gotten in a school conference about whether
a certain child, “Jennifer,” was an appropriate friend for his daughter. Jennifer, it seems, was doing well in school and was well-liked by this parent and his daughter, but the teacher warned of unspecified problems at home. There is silence in this essay about the nature of these problems.
Had my students and I read this essay together, I believe they’d have thought “classism” (“we’re seeing class everywhere”), and they’d have wanted to start talking – out loud – about class.
While recognizing that both this parent and teacher are likely good people who are acting out scripts about class that they long ago internalized, my students likely would have recommended at least some of these things:
• Rights to privacy are not indexed to family income, and children should always have the right to be seen for who they – in their fullness – are.
• We all need to work harder to recognize the differences between family resources and family values. It’s very true that in some homes, as this parent notes, children aren’t read to, fed to, or allowed to feel safe. But child abuse happens across income levels. And in some homes nannies are the ones reading to kids and housekeepers are feeding them breakfast. Empathy is often in very short supply for parents who can afford neither nannies nor housekeepers when they are overwhelmed by parenting.
• If they are willing to look closely, parents can find examples of strength, resiliency, and beauty in their children’s less-privileged classmates, and in so looking, may come to question their assumptions that young children are best protected from knowledge of lives lived differently from their own.
Many of my students this term had been like Jennifer, and from their perspective now as adults, they’d want this parent and teacher to know that in the end, things may well work out fine for both Jennifer and her young friend, depending on what happens next.
This man’s daughter has within her power the gift of unconditional friendship, based on six-year-olds’ joy, unmarred by the whispered fears of adults. And as she comes to understand this power that come with her privilege, his daughter may well be richer for being part of a diverse and complicated community in which not every story has a happy ending, but in which everyone has dignity and respect and a measure of control over their own lives.
Jane Van Galen, a first –generation college student, is Professor of Education at the University of Washington Bothell. Her work focuses on social class, education, social mobility, and teacher education. She also teaches courses on Digital Storytelling and other forms of digital media.