By Dana Williams
I still have vivid memories of each first day of school throughout my childhood — especially during my elementary years.
The back to school routine in my house usually went something like this:
I would spend the night before the first day of school admiring my new stack of school supplies and changing my mind a half dozen times about what I was going to wear. The next morning, my sister and I would share space in front of the bathroom mirror as I fussed with my hair, and she, known to have a nervous stomach, would look over to tell me she was going to be sick. I, being the wonderful big sister, made fun of her for acting like a baby before we skipped off to the bus stop.
Everything about the impending new school year excited me, from the new Trapper Keeper notebook in my backpack to which homeroom assignment I would get. But more than anything, I was excited about seeing old friends and making new friends. More than anything, the most vivid memories of my school days are of the classmates beside me.
Of course, not all of those memories are happy ones. Indeed, some of those memories are of being bullied, teased or ostracized — sometimes for not wearing the coolest clothes, sometimes because of my race, sometimes for being a girl. But I know this — attending a school with classmates of all races, and from various socioeconomic backgrounds and family structures, not only enriched my educational experiences, but prepared me for life in our diverse society.
A sad day
Today, I have a 10-year-old son who is brimming with excitement about starting 5th grade this year. He is zoned to attend the same public elementary school I attended some 25 years ago. And sadly, like many of our nation’s public schools, it is far more segregated today than it was decades ago. Today, nearly every public school in the city in which we reside –- with the exception of a handful of magnet schools for which you must win a school lottery to attend — is far more segregated than 10-20 years ago.
This summer, a decision by a divided United States Supreme Court effectively dealt what many perceive as a fatal blow to the historic Brown vs. Board of Education ruling of 1954, limiting the use of policies and plans that promote racial integration in our public schools.
As a product of an integrated public school, it’s a sad day to know that even fewer children today will receive the benefits of a diverse educational experience than when I attended school. As a parent, it’s a sad day to know that my son, unless he is lucky enough to win a spot in a magnet lottery, may never have an opportunity to experience a public education that opens doors to his future not just because of the lessons to be learned from books and lectures, but from the diversity and differences of the boys and girls beside him.
We know that integrated schools are an important pathway to leveling the playing field for all students and for righting the wrongs of a society that has for too long been ruled by racism and classism. We know that an integrated public education system that provides equal educational opportunities for all its students is perhaps one of the most important pathways to ending the racism and classism that continues to plague our society. And we know that diversity is an important element of education because it encourages higher levels of tolerance and respect for differences among students, encourages heightened critical thinking, and fosters tolerance by reducing stereotypes and prejudice.
As parents, it’s clear that we cannot depend on the courts or our government to champion the importance of diversity or tolerance in the lives and education of our children. It is time to renew our commitment to teaching tolerance and respect for diversity in our homes, and it is time to find new ways to expose our children to diversity in our neighborhoods, communities and social activities.
This essay originally appeared on Tolerance.org, the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama.