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.