The Cost of Community 2.0
Well, here we are again. A few years back, I wrote a piece called "The Cost of Community" about the battle for our middle school. In rereading it, I could have copied and pasted it into this post, made approximately two edits, and published it as written. It would have still been accurate today.
So, let's make a quick update to the current situation. Here's the quick background:
Our high school district (separate from the elementary/middle school) has two high schools. Both are excellent schools with graduates who go on to top universities. Both have rigorous academics and extracurriculars. Both need repair. The last time our district passed a referendum was to build the second high school in the 1960s. While the buildings have had maintenance over the past fifty years, the time has come to pass a referendum to make more major repairs and bring both of the buildings up to the 21st century.
Here's the problem. We have an active group of people in our community who are adamantly opposed to any kind of tax increase, including this current referendum to repair our two public high schools. They are vocal (although they refuse to engage in dialogue by blocking people who ask them direct questions) and, in what I think is an egregious abuse, they use their voices to prey on people's fears by using underhanded and dishonest means to sway people to their opinions. It makes me sick.
[Disclaimer: If someone has thoroughly researched this proposal and has decided to vote against it for one reason or another, I don't have a problem with that (although, truthfully, I wish he/she would have voted a different way). What I have a problem with is the attitudes and tactics I'm hearing from the "No" camp. Example: They brought an elderly woman into the high school to talk to the kids about how this tax increase will force her out of her home. Through tears, she asked the kids to tell their parents to vote against it. It turns out that she doesn't live in the district and her taxes would not be affected. This seems like borderline elder abuse and manipulation of children. I have no patience for either of those.]
I work with high school kids as a college consultant. (Side note: No, I'm not helping anyone cheat their way in. That's a post for another day.) Here's what I want to say about the kids I work with. Do you remember being 16? Do you remember being 17? I do. I remember desperately trying to stretch my wings to be who I wanted to be. I remember using music as an outlet for my frustrations with friend cliques and to mend a broken heart. I remember when a dad that I used to babysit for told me that the memories I was making with friends then would carry me through the years ahead. He was right.
If this referendum doesn't pass, our students are losing football, marching band, cheerleading, and many other clubs and extracurricular activities. What do you remember from high school? What groups were you in? How did you make your friends? What did you learn from those experiences? While I respect the board's decision not to make cuts to academic programs, I think about how the extracurricular activities you participate in during high school directly contribute to who you grow into as an adult. Only excelling in academics is not the full high school experience.
For example, I'm working with a kid who's in the marching band. Music is his passion. What happens to him (or the hundreds of kids like him) who will get their passion taken away because we vote no? I'll tell you. It sends a message to these teenagers — our community's children — that we don't care. We are telling them that they're not worth $250/year. Our future — our community — isn't worth $250/year. It's hard for me to imagine a worse message to send to someone 16 or 17.
I recently engaged with a "No" voter on social media. This person had written a rant about how our children don't deserve to have their schools improved because she felt that they were all entitled, privileged kids who didn't need to have anything else nice. She was tired of kids walking in front of her car to go to Starbucks. Her post made me overwhelmingly sad.
Are there entitled, privileged kids in our community? Of course so. Every community has them. We're not unique in that regard. Because they're privileged and entitled, should they continue to be in a school that's not up to Title IX code or ADA compliant as a punishment? I'm going to say no. ALL students deserve to be in a safe learning environment. Hard stop.
I thought about an article in our local paper about a current high school girl with cerebral palsy whose friends have to meet her at the top of the stairs and carry her and her walker down the stairs so that she can get to class on time. The one existing elevator is on the other side of the school, through the cafeteria, and she can't physically get there. To this angry "No" voter, I responded that I would be happy to introduce her to kids who were the opposite: kind, thoughtful, respectful. Kids like these who help a classmate in need.
I also asked her how she equates punishing privilege with not complying with the law to update facilities and add security features like fire doors. She never responded. (We're all brave behind our screens, aren't we?)
Then I thought about what high school must have been like for her. Or if she could even remember. I've heard that one of the people spearheading the "No" campaign may have had a tough time in high school. That was the first thing that made sense to me. At a tax increase of roughly $250/year for a $500,000 home, it doesn't make sense that money would be the reason. That's two or three nice dinners out. But if you feel like you have a vendetta about something that happened to you in high school, maybe that explains the extreme lengths you would take in order to cause a high school referendum to fail. It seems pretty petty to commit yourself to that level of vindictiveness. Is this how you want to be remembered? "Here lies [No Voter.] He dedicated his life to screwing over his neighbors' children. Memory eternal." I know I don't.
Did I have a perfect high school experience? Far from it. I have bitter memories of being the target of a nasty sketch in a ballroom full of people I thought were my friends. Does that mean that I want my high school to fail? Of course not. If anything, I want the kids around me to have a better experience than I did. I want them to learn more fully who they are and what gifts they've been given. We all have challenges and obstacles to overcome in our youth. That's part of growing up. But why would we purposely put road blocks in the way of these kids, taking away opportunities (some would be losing their chances at much needed scholarships by eliminating these programs) from kids when they need it the most?
Our high school's Homecoming parade comes down our street. They go right in front of my house and my kids love waving at the kids in homemade floats (and running after the candy thrown from those float-riding kids). This year, I felt myself get teary-eyed when a small but spirited group of students marched in the parade proudly waving a rainbow flag. They were behind the marching band, mixed in with the dance team, the cheerleaders, various organizations, athletic teams, and clubs. High school is different from when I was there. The kids in the LBGTQ group clearly are each others' support navigating school. So are the band kids. And the dancers. And the speech and debate team. And on and on. I don't want any of these students to lose their place, to feel lost in the vast landscape of a high school where they don't feel they belong if there's no group for them. I'm not going to vote to alienate anyone, especially not a 15-year-old kid.
One last thought: our kids are dealing with navigating things we never had to imagine. It would be one thing to hear that you weren't invited to a party. (I remember that feeling.) It's a very different thing to see pictures all over your Instagram of it, to have that exclusion in your face. The nastiness, manipulation, and outright lies all over social media are what the "No" group is showing our children. This is its own lesson. What are we going to teach them?