The Miseducation Of Maceo Paul Coates

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Continuing on a theme, here in Harlem, and I'm betting in cities across the country, there are a lot of schools with "success," and "achievement" appended to their name. I think a lot of these institutions are doing God's work. They are, in many cases, servicing families which are fighting to survive and want nothing more than to keep their children off the corner, out of jail, out of teen pregnancy, and out of an early grave. The prospect of college admission is the ticket, the passport, from the hood class into the middle class.

Despite reports to the contrary, Harlem is still a relatively poor area of town. And also despite reports to the contrary, the class of people here, and in poor black neighborhoods around the country, are mostly made up of parents who desperately want to get their kids getting up and out. The schools are addressing that sentiment with uniforms, discipline and three hours of homework. There's a school in the Bronx that bills itself as "college prep." That school starts in fifth grade.

I've lived around my people all my life, but this is one of those points where I feel the distance between myself and the striving collective. Samori will be going to middle school the year after next, and so the conversation about schools has really gotten intense. Kenyatta's been going to all the various open houses looking at decent schools, and almost all of them speak the same rubric of "success," and "achievement." There's a lot of talk about kids who score two and three grade levels higher than the average, and the kind of work-load that I probably couldn't handle as a 34-year-old man.


What's becoming clear is that we're seeking something for the boy that most of our neighbors are not. Maybe this is about class being more than just how much money you make. Or maybe it's about me trying to ensure that my kid has a different school experience than the one I had. Or maybe it's about privilege--I come from a family that, as of this generation, is bona fide college-educated, and thus my approach is going to be a little different. Likely it's about all of those things.

I was telling Kenyatta last night that I don't actually want Samori in a school that's preparing him for college--especially not in middle school. I want him in a school that's preparing him to question the world, that nurtures his formidable curiosity, and at the same time, reinforces the kind of work ethic that we're trying imbue him with at home. More than I hope that he goes to college,  I hope that he learns to be passionate about something. If he grew up to be a curious, humble, reflective dude who was passionate about operating a fork-lift, the boy would be alright with me. Again, part of this is class and privilege. But another part of it is the Coates gene. My Dad grew up in grinding poverty, while my Mom grew up in the projects. I think they, generally, felt much the same way. More than anything, they wanted curious children.

The problem with all of this is that, despite my own experience, I've always been committed to public schools, and I believe in them for many of the reasons I outlined above. Public school put me in contact with kids who were a lot different than me, and forced me to learn to relate. It taught me how to navigate other worlds, and appreciate vocabulary that wasn't particularly native to me. At my middle school, you couldn't erect a wall between yourself and the kids from the projects. You had to learn to cope.

That's a lesson that I'd like the boy to learn also, but not at the expense of eight hours of test prep. I'm not sure what we're going to do. I'd really hate--hate--to put him in private school. But at least up here, it feels like public school is now mainly a means of steering people out of poverty. Maybe that always was the point, and even it's not, maybe that should be the point. But I still think there's something to be said for institutions that bring different kinds of people together. Maybe it's all just a continuation of the a'la carte society. I don't know.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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