I watched a short documentary tonight about the high school I would have attended had we not moved just before my 8th grade year, Hume-Fogg Academy. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my school experiences, how culturally diverse they were and how thankful I am that I spent my most formative years in alternative schools.
From fifth through seventh grade, I attended Meigs Magnet School, which was Hume-Fogg’s middle-school equivalent and it’s only in looking back that I see how incredibly blessed I was to have been there. In the years prior and the years following, I attended both public and private schools, an art school in Manhattan (LaGuardia) and spent a year at our local university. I can say, with only the possible exception of an art school like LaGuardia, a magnet school is the ONLY type of lower education school I’d ever send my children to, if we were to stop homeschooling.
Funny thing is, it’s not so much the formal education I received there that sticks out in my mind (I don’t remember making very good grades while at either of my favorite schools, although the lessons I learned there probably did more for me than any of my other education did – those schools taught me how to learn, not just what to learn), it’s the atmosphere I’m most thankful for. Not the atmosphere of education and learning (although I’m thankful for that, too), but the atmosphere of acceptance, individuality, and lack of prejudice.
See, I attended Meigs during a time when desegregation of Tennessee public schools was in its infancy and there was still a great deal of racial prejudice, especially in the school system. But although hindsight enables me to see that it was practically everywhere else (I eventually learned that the statue in our neighbor’s yard was that of a slave boy), as a kid I never recognized the prejudice around me because in the schools where I spent most of my time, it just didn’t exist. Almost without exception, the kids I encountered there – regardless of reace – were mature and thoughtful and driven and I can’t remember a single time when I felt that the black kids at my schools were any different than anybody else… Racism just wasn’t part of the atmosphere. (A funny example… I was just thinking about the black guy I dated at LaGuardia only to remember that the guy I dated wasn’t black, it was my friend’s boyfriend who was black!) I can’t even begin to examine all the ways this was strikingly different from my public school experience where, to be perfectly (and ashamedly) honest, I learned to be afraid of some of the “black boys” who ran around in groups making cat-calls and trying to grope me during class. (I also learned to be afraid of some of the “white boys” for the same reason and I still carry – and wrestle with – some of that prejudice to this day.)
And unlike my years in public and private school in both Tennessee and Kentucky, I never felt particularly pressured to “fit in” anywhere at the alternative schools. Basketball star, band geek, good grades, bad grades, clothes from goodwill (which I wore with an impressive flair, thanks to my mom who had an eye for the unusual) or designer clothes brand-new, none of it mattered because the kids at Meigs and LaGuardia were there to achieve something. They weren’t there to socialize (which is laughingly the #1 argument I hear against homeschooling) and they weren’t just there doing time until they could get out from under their parents and the truancy officer. They wanted to be there, and they wanted to learn. And although the halls weren’t completely free of gossip (and yes, we “socialized,” too!), in the end it didn’t amount to much, because no one really cared about who was dating who, or wearing what, or going where (which was in striking contrast to the public and private schools I attended, where everything from how I wore my socks to what backpack I carried to who I dated and who I hung around with was fodder for analysis and criticism by many.)
Please understand that I’m not being idealistic here. When I say that no one cared, I really mean that no one cared. I can’t remember – even once during my time at LaGuardia – stumbling across someone gossiping about someone else. Not once. There were no “popular” kids or “unpopular” kids, I don’t remember anyone getting picked on or made fun of – ever. I never had any idea about who was dating who (seriously, why would I? It just didn’t matter), except inside my immediate circle of friends. I’ll never forget my first days after moving to Kentucky, listening to a group of people talking about how so-and-so had cheated on so-and-so and I felt like I’d just landed on Mars. I couldn’t begin to imagine why people were talking about that! And when I heard a girl making a snide remark about the way another girl was dressed, I racked my brain to try and figure out exactly what was so horrifying about the clothes in question. Unfortunately, I was a quick study and it didn’t take me long to conform.
At the magnet/artistic schools, individualism and diversity was valued, appreciated and encouraged and I remember as a kid loving getting to know the people around me, precisely because they were so foreign to me. My New York school was filled with dancers, artists, singers, musicians and actors… we had “goths” at our school about ten years before the South (or at least MY school in the South) ever imagined such a thing and there was no such thing as “the closet” to come out of. Nothing – nothing that I can remember – was off limits to us as a form of personal artistic expression and I can’t remember there ever being any sort of “dress code” (Please. We weren’t kindergarteners who needed Mommy to dress us and we weren’t insecure little girls vying for the attention of insecure little boys.)
It’s precisely because of this diversity and because they would be under absolutely ZERO pressure to conform to anyone’s else’s standards that I would probably let my kids attend a school like Meigs or LaGuardia. Wanna be a crazy Christian who wears long dresses, headcoverings and believes in healing and speaking in tongues? You’re not going to get any flack from the girl who wears all black, paints her face white and has a pentagram tattoo (or whatever it is kids are doing up there these days!) Try finding that kind of acceptance in a small-town public school – or any small town, for that matter.
In the description attached to the video I watched, it is written:
[Hume-Fogg was a] place where… kids felt comfortable in their curiosity, and students from any zip code, socio-economic background, and ethnicity could find allies, champions, and a sense of belonging.
I can’t speak for the high school, but the middle school certainly was.
I’m incredibly thankful for the environment that both Meigs and LaGuardia provided for me, and the role they played in helping me to become the person I am today. I’m thankful that my kids won’t go through some of the things I went through during my formative years (and that they will experience some of the other things I went through!) and I’m thankful that immature and apathetic peers won’t be the primary influence on the people they become. Although I did later pick up some prejudice (which I still fight) and some silly self-confidence issues, (I’ll always be ashamed of myself for leaving school during my senior year of High School to go home and change out of a dress I really liked!), my early years of alternative education gave me a foundation of freedom and diversity which is a big part of who I am today, and who my children will get to be tomorrow.
At Meigs, we had a school anthem that went:
Great things at Meigs begin with me
Great things at Meigs begin with me
Just look around and you will see
Great things begin with me
I look back on my years at Meigs and realize:
Great things in me, began with Meigs.
*Obviously, these are MY experiences in the respective schools I attended and I don’t mean to imply that everyone else has or would have the same experiences. I also don’t mean to disparage the teachers or students in the public/private school system (my dad was a public school teacher for many years.) There are some amazing teachers in the public/private schools and I’m extremely grateful for many of them. I also made some amazing friends in my public and private schools, many of whom I’m still friends with today, and have a lot of absolutely wonderful memories. But as a sweeping general rule, I’d say (and I think most teachers would agree) that the main differences between public/private schools and magnet/art schools are the mindsets and attitudes of the majority of those who attend. Public (and to a lesser extent, private) schools are filled with kids who don’t want to be there and have little or no incentive to do well, whereas specialty schools are filled with kids who choose to go through the difficult process of being accepted and keep up the work that will allow them to remain. They’re two completely different worlds. I’m thankful for the privilege to have experienced both.