Old School

Illustration by Shino Arihara

Summer is not a time of year to start big undertakings. It can be a time when the groundwork laid in preceding months or years reaps big payoffs — the march on Washington, the resignation of Nixon, the recall election in California — but action in August is generally either on the downward side of an arc or optional entirely. My seasonal inertia was in full non-swing when I made my way a few weekends ago to what I knew would be a weighty meeting at Dorsey High School. This was a town-hall affair that felt doubly foreboding summerwise, because it was trying to get a movement going and it was being held at a school. Worse, it was tackling the gray institutional hide of the Los Angeles Unified School District — an attempt to drum up support for the Black Learner’s Initiative, a year-old resolution that was the district’s official admission that African-American students had been failing in too great numbers for too long, and now, at last, something had to be done.

I couldn’t have agreed more. I couldn’t have wanted to go to the meeting less. My convictions were alive but strained with use, in desperate need of an extended holiday afforded by clearance sales and patio dining. I wanted the immediacy of food and shoes, not the eternally delayed gratification of schools that worked. I thought of not going and getting a report later from one of the many old-timers who I knew would be there, except one of those old-timers was my father, who had never in his life observed any downtime for The Cause. I ultimately went because I believe in The Cause, but also because I didn’t want to appear soft or ungrateful to the veterans who were still holding the reins a good generation after they should have turned them over to the likes of me. Whether they botched turning them over, or whether the likes of me never cared to take a firm hold because our communal spirit and sense of triumph was routinely siphoned off by sales at Marshall’s, I don’t know. I went to the meeting to cover myself in case I ever wind up on the wrong side of the equation. And because my father was there.

 

Dorsey High is old in the charming, not rundown, meaning of the word — low and rambling across a big green lawn as if it has all the space in the world, its walls replete with art-deco curves that are at once prim and voluptuous. Despite being a school it is a quintessential L.A. place, like summer is L.A.’s quintessential time. On the walk from the parking lot to the auditorium, I am joined by a man also seeking the town-hall meeting. His reservations are different; he’s a parent with kids not in LAUSD but in private school on the Westside — a very good school — though ideally he’d have them in a local public school. Except that public schools have monumentally failed black children, and he doesn’t want to fail his, doesn’t want to see his kids consumed by a culture of indifference and risk contributing to yet another generation losing ground. He is the product of public schools, as am I. “Of course you are,” he says. “Everybody was.” I am back to almost but not quite knowing whose fault it is for the way things are. We fall silent, though not uncomfortably.

The auditorium is big and sloping and smells of old wood. There are far more people here than I expected to see, parents and their graying parents and mothers with strollers, and teenagers wearing droopy pants and holding clipboards and backpacks in their laps. They are largely black, with Latinos and whites sprinkled in. I’m pleasantly surprised — I’ve been to many community meetings like these where those at the podium ended up outnumbering the audience. My father is prowling the aisles with papers clasped behind his back, surveying the modest masses with the barest look of satisfaction on his face. I spy four cousins in the room — older, first-tier cousins, ex-acolytes in The Cause 35 years ago — and take a seat behind one of them.

People are sorting through their information packets while several high-ranking suits from LAUSD take turns declaring war on the racial educational gap that’s been slaying the fortunes of black students for too long. It’s tough talk that people are nonetheless eager to hear. Even if this is only the latest reformist rhetoric from a district that’s almost tried them all, it’s a truism rarely voiced in public, and even more rarely addressed by anybody as a problem worth solving. This aims to be different; one of the speakers invokes Langston Hughes’ famous cautionary poem about dreams being deferred and becoming “like broken-winged butterflies” (the correct line is “like a broken-winged bird that cannot fly,” but it’s a mistake of semantics, not spirit, and the applause acknowledges as much). Another emboldened speaker disparages the “bunches of platitudes” about black student under-achievement that’s been tolerated for years, and says that “Now we’re moving on to the red meat of the matter.” Inelegant but effective, and it occurs to me that the no-holds-barred, not-a-moment-to-lose political climate of the California recall campaign in mid-August might be exerting a kind of gravitational pull on this meeting, and on a normally soporific subject like the Black Learner’s Initiative. I’m strictly opposed to the recall, but I suddenly feel better about it than I have in months — hell may be breaking loose up and down the Golden State, but in the Dorsey High School auditorium the truth, at least, is breaking free.

 

Hell is always in the details. Our packets are full of brightly colored bar graphs breaking down the bad old news that test scores and other more comprehensive measures of academic progress reveal that way too many black students — 70, 80 percent — are not making the grade. They’ve never made it. Many of us who are solid members of the black middle class raised on the idea of education being the great equalizer — next to money — stare at the figures like we might stare at a palm reading that reveals something outlandish but incontestably true. No one says anything because there’s little to say. The midday sun pours in through the exit doors, which are starting to look very tempting; everyone feels summer ebbing, and the dire verdict growing, by the minute.

Then Marguerite LaMotte, the newly elected board member who represents Dorsey and adopted the initiative as a premier cause, starts speaking. Her voice quavers out of habit or fatigue, her hair doesn’t move, and in a blue pantsuit she cuts as bureaucratic a figure as anyone else in the LAUSD crowd. But as LaMotte explains the particulars of the graphs with an ex-principal’s rote composure, she is angry and rueful, and she connects with those of us who feel the same way but who have been too focused on shoring up positive energy, or too willing to ignore the feelings altogether, to vent them. This is our chance. The room rumbles with agreement and a fresh, improbable energy as LaMotte snaps into the mike that we all must stop being complacent, that we must stop setting the bar so low for black students that a five-point gain in test scores from one year to the next is cause for celebratory press conferences. “We have got to stop saying that black students are achieving when they’re not,” LaMotte says hotly, to rousing cheers. “When I was young, I was expected to achieve. Until we sit down now with LAUSD and be honest with ourselves, ain’t nothing gonna change.” The good news is that we know how to fight, she says, and that she knows from experience that kids, whatever their test scores, are never a lost cause. “Once you know where a child is,” LaMotte says, “you can take him or her as far as they can go.”

I leave feeling like I’ve snatched inspiration from its own ashes, like I got the best deal in town today; clearance shopping will be a bonus, if I do it at all. I search for my father to share the glow, then remember he had to leave mid-meeting to collect my mother and drive out to Las Vegas. It is their last small trip of the summer; for my father, it is but a break in the action. I resolve to brief the old-timer when he gets back.


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