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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

The Reciprocal Benefits of Inclusion
October 28, 2012 - 4:08pm

I read this New York Times article, on non-wealthy and minority children who attend elite schools, and this IHE series, on dealing with racism on campus, with interest. It seems that isolation of students who are "different" is a widespread and tenacious problem that can begin as early as elementary school.

I was particularly struck by the many comments to the Times article that dismissed scholarship students' complaints as whining; a common attitude seemed to be that these kids had been handed a golden opportunity to improve their lot through education, and instead of being grateful all they could do was complain. There seemed to be an assumption among these commenters that the students are unhappy because they don't share the economic privileges of the majority, not because they are lonely and isolated.

As discussed here, we sent Ben to an expensive private school from preschool through the fifth grade. We did this because he was bullied in his original preschool, and our local elementary school had a reputation for serious behavioral problems.

We found, though, that starting in the third grade, he was subject to another sort of bullying. Nobody ever threw him to the ground and kicked him, as bigger kids had repeatedly done in his original preschool, but comments were made about his inexpensive sneakers, our small apartment, and the fact that our family never seemed to go anywhere or do anything interesting. (We didn't start taking real vacations until Ben transferred to public school and we actually found ourselves with some disposable income).

Except for some vacation envy, Ben didn't care about the stuff the other kids had. He craves good music and sports equipment, but beyond that he's not a materialist. Nobody in our family is. We buy cheap clothes, often at tag sales, and wear them down to a nub before discarding them. We're happy to live on top of each other, and to invite friends over to increase the crowd. We sold our car when Ben was four to help pay his tuition (even though he had a partial scholarship, his school fees ate up most of my salary) and we've never missed it. He doesn't much notice or care what other people wear or what their homes or vehicles look like.

What he did care about was being excluded from the rich kids' lunch table, or being allowed to sit with kids he had known since they were three only as a special favor because they needed to collaborate on a school project. He cared when a classmate's stay-at-home mother offered to drive Ben to an activity that took place when I had to work, and the classmate complained loudly about being stuck with a "charity case." He cared when a classmate we had invited to accompany us on our weekly sojourn to the public library's free movie series objected that it was stupid to watch a movie on uncushioned seats, without popcorn or soda.

His experience in an unusually diverse and inclusive public school for grades 6-12 was completely different. The principal, a true visionary, created an atmosphere in which bullying and group exclusion were not tolerated, and in which children who clashed were forced to interact and communicate.

The benefit to him was much greater than the simple cessation of misery, which was all we were initially looking for. In this new environment, Ben was considered wealthy and privileged—he has a private school background, two employed parents, an apartment in an upscale neighborhood, and travels to Europe frequently. (Plus, he is now over 6 feet tall and an athlete, unlikely ever again to be thrown to the ground and kicked.) Fortunately, those tokens were meaningless at his new school, and he formed strong and lasting friendships across grades, ethnic groups, and socioeconomic class.

Ben is now thriving at a large public university. He began making friends on the first day, and he seems to have integrated his new friendships into his high school circle. He just accepted a job teaching advanced guitar at his old high school, and is happy to be back there, as well. He is comfortable talking to individuals and groups, and he seems to make interesting friends wherever he goes.

The advantages of working to combat exclusionary behavior, in other words, don't accrue only to the perceived underdog. The ability to deal with people who are different from us, as equals, is a valuable life skill, one that many students at the "better" schools might benefit from learning.


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