Thursday, January 15, 2009

Naked Confessions of Love for Oakland

Sometimes I drive home past a group of teenagers hanging out on Filbert Street. Their school, McClymonds (which now houses two separate high schools) is part of Oakland's rather notorious school system

Me, I went to school in what is reputedly the best school system in the world. The Finnish Comprehensive Schools were fashioned after the East German educational system in the sixties. After World War II, when Finland was still a developing country, it was decided that a good education, free for everyone up through University, would be the best way to pull the country out of poverty. Et voilà. Education is considered to be one of the most important reasons why Nordic countries have the highest social mobility in the world. My grandmother grew up shoeless and starving and clawed her way into the working class, my mother educated and married herself into the lower middle class, and I am the first university graduate in my family. My government gives everyone a small monthly stipend who gets into the free universities, so we can finish our degrees.

And so I look at these kids in West Oakland who are essentially living in a developing country inside a superpower, and I can't wrap my head around their experience in any meaningful way at all. I feel like I am from the Moon. I listen to the emotional somersaults people - rich, middle class, poor, everyone - have to perform to justify what's going on. I feel like I am listening to the spoiled child and the abused child of the same family making excuses for their belligerent, unstable, unfair parent. If you are shit out of luck, you had to somehow deserve it.

Moaning expats are tiresome, so I mostly try to keep it to a minimum. But this is one of the things that hits me like a baseball bat and leaves me floored. It seems so blatantly obvious that education equality is a good thing, and not just for the people who gain better opportunities. The educated become drivers of innovation, and create more opportunities. They aren't going to steal the slice of the pie meant for the private school kids, they are going to make the pie bigger. For everyone. I mean, take gay marriage. How can it be a surprise to anyone that progressive legislation doesn't pass when the single clearest indicator for progressive voting behavior is a high level of education?

I feel a naked, childish, shame-ridden love for everyone who exists inside this system - lucky or unlucky, rich or poor - and holds onto their human dignity and kindness. The ones who don't harden themselves with defenses and excuses and emotional crutches. The ones who keep tinkering away on creating change. The ones who dare to be vulnerable and real. My neighbors.


jennconspiracy said...

Have you ever had a conversation with any of those teenagers in your neighborhood?

I did recently - and his name was James. We talked after I got off the bus and we shared the sidewalk to my cross street. Then, he ran from his bus stop to come and talk to me some more under the pretext of asking me the time.

It was kinda cool - he was a decent kid, and it was mindblowing to him that I was older than his mom but didn't have kids. That floored him.

It was like he didn't think it was possible to wait that long - I told him to try to avoid accidents and he could have a lot of fun and go places before deciding to be a dad. He was really kind of sweet.

What if people like you and I were to volunteer to spend some time with these young adults - it might be an interesting experiment.

Sussu said...

Yeah, I talk to people in my neighborhood! But I feel more like I am learning, not teaching. I'm the newcomer.

Sussu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sussu said...

Somehow though, Jenn, I feel like your comment missed my point. I feel like what happens is people identify lack of education equality as "their" problem. And instead of structural change, what gets proposed are these charity solutions - "we" should talk to "them" about how they should act differently. Americans have the most expensive health care in the civilized world, and the most expensive prison system, because - forgive me for being so provocative - they prefer paying for education and opportunity and health inequality after the fact. It's much more expensive, but much more psychologically comfortable, because it seems to prove that "they" just don't know how to take care of themselves or stay out of trouble. The political will to actually do anything about this just isn't there, not even among the so-called liberals. And meanwhile, "we" can score brownie points just by talking to someone outside of our socio-economical bracket, so that feels nice too. Charitable.

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