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Why I Chose Boston Public Schools

In a few weeks, my youngest child will graduate and I will be able to say I sent three children through the Boston Public Schools.

Since I am a middle-class (holding on by my fingernails!) white person, I hear a LOT of people talk about how they "have" to move out of Boston "for the schools."

(There's a lot to unpack in that statement, but I'm just gonna leave it packed up for now. )

To people who say stuff like this, my decision to stay in the city and send my children to public school here is incomprehensible. So I'd like to explain it. Here, ladies and gentlemen and everything in between, is explanation of why my wife and I chose the Boston Public Schools for our kids: 

In elementary school, you want your kids to learn to read, write, and do basic math. Guess what: they're gonna learn that stuff. Especially if you're reading to them and what not. So what else do kids get out of school in the elementary years?  A whole lot of socialization. 

It's certainly possible to live in a bubble in this country and have no idea that not everyone lives the kind of life you do. I did not want my kids to live in such a bubble. I wanted them to meet, and share space with a whole bunch of different kinds of people in different circumstances in hopes that they would grow up open-minded and empathetic. Of course you can be open-minded and empathetic no matter where you go to school, but you're going to be inherently less open-minded if you've never met anyone who doesn't fundamentally live the same kind of life you do.

When I named my older daughter Rowen, some of my friends who lived in the suburbs asked if I was worried about her being teased for her name. This literally never happened in Boston Public Schools, where a diversity in names is the norm. I was a high school teacher for ten years, and when I taught in urban schools, my height (or, more accurately, my shortness) was never an issue. When I worked in the suburbs, I was teased about being short every day. Now, I'm not sensitive about this: I know I'm short. It never comes as a surprise to me when it's pointed out.  But the relentless reminders that you don't fit the mold do begin to wear on one.  

All of which is to say, there's a lot of acceptance of differences baked into the Boston Public Schools experience. My kids had white kids, Asian kids, Hispanic kids, black kids, and mixtures of all of the above in their classes. They had classmates from at least four different religions and classmates who were born on four different continents.  They had classmates with single moms, moms and dads, two moms, two dads, grandparents...just about every permutation of family situation you can imagine seemed normal to them because they knew someone in that situation.

A lot of people don't want to send their kids to Boston Public Schools because they feel like they'll have to be extra vigilant, work hard, and be involved. As an antisocial and lazy person, I sympathize with this point of view. But here's the thing: there really isn't such a thing as a Crock Pot school system that's just "set it and forget it." No matter where you go, you're going to have to get involved. And if you have a child with special needs, that's especially true. People I've known with special needs kids in suburban school systems have had to fight especially hard with intransigent administrators in order to get their child's needs met.  This happens in Boston too, of course. It happens everywhere. All of which is to say, not wanting to be an active parent is a bad reason to not choose the Boston Public Schools.

A final note: my kids have had a handful of fantastic teachers in the Boston Public Schools. They've had a handful of horrible teachers. And they've had mostly competent teachers. That was pretty much the spread in my education at both Cincinnati Public Schools and the private middle and high school I attended. It's been the case in every school where I worked.  

So, if the amount of excellent, good, and bad teachers are more or less the same everywhere, what exactly do we mean by "good schools?" I have my suspicions about what most people mean by good schools. But for my family, the Boston Public Schools were good schools.


Anarchy in the YA

A lot of the conversation about young adult lit these days seems to focus on rules for what you as an artist (sorry--gonna use the a word throughout this post) are allowed to do.

You are not allowed to write characters who do not share your race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, skin tone, and Meyers-Briggs Personality Type.

JK, actually you are allowed to write characters who are not you, but you must immerse yourself in VERY SERIOUS RESEARCH first.

Unless you are writing a character not like you who is not wholly and inarguably good. Then your work is problematic.

JK, your inability to write a complex, multifaceted character who is not like you shows that you should pretty much only write characters who are you.

Oh, and by the way, you must be very careful about what "messages" your art is conveying because THINK OF THE CHILDREN!

The hell with all this. Let me tell you something about art:

There are no rules.

Anybody telling you what you must or must not do in your art is inherently wrong.  Do whatever you want. 

Even if your art is aimed at young people. Maybe especially if your art is aimed at young people.  You do not have a responsibility to be didactic or morally correct in your art for young people. Young people live with ambiguity all the time. They can handle it.  By the time you're a teenager, you've already noticed that bad people frequently prosper, that good people do bad things, that love is complicated, that hate is complicated, and that people are complicated. You know people who have done terrible things. You know people who have had terrible things done to them. 

And, you have a very good bullshit detector. So you don't require art that tells you how the world is supposed to be in order to shape your delicate mind.  Art that tells you how things should be rather than how they are can be comforting, and so go for it. But you also deserve art that reflects the world in all of its messy horror and glory. 

When I was young, there was a big anti-art push from the right. Google Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Karen Finley, or W.A.S.P. if you don't know what I'm talking about.

Now, the anti-art forces are also coming from the left.

But here's the thing: the urge to dictate terms to art is a totalitarian impulse, and it sucks wherever it comes from. Art requires you to think for yourself. People who want to regulate art through actual lawmaking or through the internet shame patrol are fundamentally against you thinking for yourself.

Regular readers, both of them, know I am an advocate of real criticism; if something sucks, say it. After you've read it. That is your right, and, I would argue, your responsibility as a reader.

But you don't get to tell artists what's permissible. You don't get to make rules for what artists get to do or for which artists get to do what. 

One reason art matters so much to so many of us is that making or consuming art is one of the only times we can really feel free. Don't let anybody take that from you. There are no rules.