Eve Pearlman: Public schools and diversity
As a Jewish person, or a person of Jewish ancestry, or a non-religious, Jewish-identified person – or however you like to describe me (and you would think I would have adopted an appropriate phrase after 39 years of life, but I have not) – I am not always, nor is my family’s life always, in sync with the public school community, its practices and structures.
“Why don’t we get school off for Hanukkah?” my son has asked. (This year, Hanukkah begins today, one week before the start of AUSD’s two-week ‘winter’ vacation.) I explain to my son: “We live in a nation that is primarily Christian, one where the vast majority of people’s family traditions come from Christianity” – because, of course, we have many friends who are not even slightly religious, but who celebrate Christmas with their families – with singing and Santa and cookies and gifts.
Being Jewish makes us one of many minority families in the Alameda Unified School District. And at school, because of our cultural heritage, many things that are said by other children or by teachers, many things made explicit or implicit in school lessons, are not in sync with our family values.
I tend to think that the majority of these disjunctions – though sometimes painful (”Why does Santa not visit the homes of Jewish kids?”) – are in fact good for my children. They’re points where thinking begins, where the most important lessons – those I hold dear above all others – begin. The world is not simple, the world is not the same for everyone, the world is not fair. But we do our best to live in that world, to make sense of that world, to bring kindness to that world. Because if civilization is going to persist, we must live with others who may be different from us. People who may sometimes believe we are less good, less worthy of love, less human.
While a lot of lip service is given to the value of diversity – especially in the recent, months-long brouhaha over Lesson 9, AUSD’s anti-gay-and-lesbian bullying curriculum – I think that face-to-face experience with people whose views are different than ours is essential to the strength of our public schools. Having our children sit in classrooms side by side with children of multiple religious faiths, different family structures, contrasting class backgrounds, varying national origins, demands that we know ourselves – and complicates ideas that we might otherwise take for granted.
This week I had a very long talk with an outspoken opponent of Lesson 9. I am quite sure I disagree with her in at least one fundamental way – I think it is normal and positive and good to build love or a family with another person of the same gender. But I am also, at core, quite sure she wants for her family what I want for mine: warmth, comfort, an ability to love, safety, feelings of purpose and connection. She and I are, I suspect, quite in sync in this way.
But I want to ask her, and others who subscribe to similar beliefs about gayness, to consider the implications of their judgments on gay families. Because despite our laws and protections, we still have plenty of violence against gay people in the world. And words like ‘sin’ or ‘unnatural’ stir that pot. I ask her to understand that these words embody potentially violent judgments.
Specifically, I ask S.E.R.V.E. Alameda – the organization working to recall the school board members who supported it – to excise conflict-building phrases like “homosexual sympathizers” and “activists [who] are poised to wage battle on natural systems that create family” and “card-carrying members of the militant Alameda Education Association” from their website. Rhetoric like this has no place in a community like ours where we pass each other and smile in the aisles at Safeway, where our children play together on the school yard, and where we can all certainly recognize that, at heart, we all want our lives to be peaceful.
If someone had a website that referred to “Jewish sympathizers” or suggested that the fact of my speaking out about my family and our needs meant I was “poised to wage battle on the natural systems that create family,” it would be darn near impossible not to take it personally. And I submit to S.E.R.V.E. that, given that we all live together, given that we want our children to coexist kindly and politely, that this sort of rhetoric, while part and parcel of the national debate, deserves no place in Alameda, or in our safe and inclusive public schools.