In 1970, I was a newly minted third-grade teacher in Bushwick, Brooklyn. My students were Black and Latinx, living in crowded apartments, relying on school meals to hold back hunger, playing in drug-challenged parks and being as eager and happy as most 9-year-olds. These were my kids before I had kids. They were good kids. I was proud of them.
The school was at double its capacity, so we had “split session.” One half of the students attended in the mornings, the other half in the afternoon. I never heard of schools in the better districts (read: the white neighborhoods) cutting their kids’ learning in two. But we struggled to cram in as much as we could into the shortened day — because education was the ticket out of poverty, out of the ghetto. A few teachers volunteered to run clubs in the hours the kids were off. We set up extra field trips on Saturdays. The kids lapped it up.
I remember a reading lesson that wove some civics into the mix. It featured Police Officer Joe, a grandfatherly white man whose job it was to help lost kids, keep them safe, be a guardian of his own neighborhood. I’m not sure my students recognized this fellow, but they took it in. Maybe he was just around the corner, and they just hadn’t met him yet. They didn’t giggle or roll their eyes. But they were only 9.
This was just a few years after the riots of the long, hot summer of 1967, just two years after the gut-wrenching that followed the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps their parents had shielded them. Perhaps they were still processing.
And now it’s been 50 years. Where are Newton, Charlene, Carlos, Olga? They would be about 60 now. Most likely parents, grandparents. Where are their children, grandchildren? Have they prospered? Did they get better jobs than their parents? Did they get jobs at all? Are they healthy? Are they even alive?
The odds are not so good. My students lived near the very bottom of the economic well. Today, income inequality is much worse than ever. Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage is lower now than it was in 1970. Social mobility has been declining since 1980. Black and brown people continue to have less access to health care, suffer from more chronic illness and die younger than their white counterparts. Just look at the ethnic disparity in the death rate during the current pandemic.
Did our meager efforts help them get out of the ghetto? Schools are more segregated than ever. Redlining is officially gone, but neighborhoods remain stubbornly racially isolated. Diversity in the better paying jobs, the trades, and most professions, is meager at best.
And where is Police Officer Joe? Is he there to help a lost child, keep her safe, guard his own neighborhood? Or does the plexi-shield, assault rifle, camo gear, humvee make him a warrior instead? And who is the enemy? How does he know friend from foe? And what do my schoolchildren tell their children about dealing with Police Officer Joe?
Are the faces of my schoolchildren still smiling, eager, filled with anticipation? The faces of their children? Grandchildren? The American dream is a promise that anyone can have the “good life.” You can be whatever you want, if you just work hard. This is a myth. Witness the struggles of the hard-working poor, the middle class, often to little avail.
For people of color, that dream is often a cruel taunt. When will we change enough as a society, as a country, that all children, all adults can at least have the same chance to learn, to work, to try, to do just a little better, to survive.
Mr. Hanlon ran unsuccessfully for the Southold Town Board last fall.