When asked where I would like to work when I join the movement dubbed “education reform” in order to insure that students in urban areas have access to a quality education, I asked myself if I would, should, consider working for the public school system in St. Louis.
Explaining my St. Louis upbringing to someone who knows little about the city always gets me tongue-tied. “There are so many cool things to do,” I start, before realizing that I should portray a clear and authentic idea of he city. “Folks there are so racist! I mean, I don’t feel welcome in entire parts of town,” I start, before remembering that warm tugging feeling that I had the night we loaded the van and headed toward New Jersey to drop me off at Princeton. “St. Louis loves me, and I love it,” I finish, leaving the person that I’ve just ranted to confused, and asking a dozen questions that basically amount to “What’s there to love?”
This summer, there was an article in The New York Times titled “Race Plays a Role in School Transfers in St. Louis,” regarding the way students from two low performing (unaccredited) districts now have the ability to go to higher performing (accredited) schools in nearby counties. These schools usually serve predominately middle class white students, and the transportation and tuition for students transferring from the unaccredited districts are supposed to be paid for by the unaccredited districts that they come from. The objective is for all students in St. Louis to get a decent education. Parents of the students from the accredited districts made it very clear on Twitter and other social networking sites that they feared for their children’s safety because of the influx of these students, and that the transfers would pose threats to the performance of the otherwise high performing schools. Some even suggested that if these students deserved a quality education, their parents would be able to afford to live in an area that served accredited schools. The xenophobic (and, arguably, racist) responses from these people were promptly met with public responses by mentors of mine—who happen to be community leaders in education—in a call to stop the hatred toward St. Louis’ children and collaboratively work toward equality in education.
On a long street called Delmar, there is a busy area (colloquially called the Delmar Loop) with artsy shops, hipster cafes, quirky boutiques, muggy hair salons, and restaurants with (nearly) authentic ethnic cuisine. Women who only carry designer bags and wear sunglasses on dull winter days walk this street alongside teenage boys looking for something to do on a promising Friday night. It’s almost as populated midday Sunday as it is on a Friday night in July. About a year ago, I flipped to a local news station and heard “Due to large groups of African American teenagers, the curfew at the Delmar Loop has been made earlier, and there will be more security in the area in order to enforce it. “
There have been instances in which I was on another side of town and knew that just my presence was undoubtedly ruining the decorum. There have also been instances in which I have felt more than welcome to be my authentic self in the presence of friends, mentors, coaches, and teachers, from all over St. Louis. I recall being asked what I was doing the in neighborhood when shopping with a friend in a trendy boutique; I was followed to the back of the store, back to the front, and then out of the door as I left empty handed because my dignity was worth more than $200 jeans. I also recall being in North St. Louis City, an area populated by mostly poor Black families, in which small, chocolate skinned girls with long braids and popsicle juice on their clothes played like no one was watching, or could ever deny themselves their presence, and relished the crooked smiles on their faces and underdeveloped sass in the way they interacted with one another.
All of these instances come to mind when I attempt to explain the culture of St. Louis, and why I feel like my community, however flawed, genuinely loves me and deserves my love in return. In fact, in so doing, I’ve realized that not only do I want to work to better the education of socioecomically disadvantaged students in the United States, I want to start with the children in the eclectic, accepting, divided, bold city of St. Louis.