The first time I was threatened with juvie was in a dank, portable classroom trailer in West Palm Beach, Florida. The headmaster stood stately in front of the blackboard with a policeman on either side of her. As she addressed the classroom, she walked slowly and barked, “This is your drop. No more games. If we see more fights on school grounds, we’ll involve the law and you’ll be expelled!” I was a black kid at a predominately white school in an affluent zip code, but there had been a spike in playground fights, most likely catalyzed by the thick Floridian air.
I had never been in combat. I was a nine-year-old pacifist who was stared down by a policeman with both hands on his holster. I spent the first fifteen minutes of class learning what it meant to be guilty by association, and it made my blood boil. Playground fights among children too young for secondary school seemed like a bizarre reason to bring in the police.
After the principal walked out of the classroom with the armed officers, I spent the rest of the class detached from the courses in front of me. I daydreamed about what it would be like to be eighteen and “free” and be allowed to learn in peace. I wasn’t interested in Lewis and Clarke or memorizing equations or any of the other benign topics that crowded the curriculum; I wanted to learn how to explore. And as a black child, I knew it was going to be more difficult for me than my white counterparts in the United States—just as the presence of a police officer with a gun in the classroom was more frightening to me because of my skin color.
My parents, like many others, were distracted by their jobs and marital problems while I was growing up. They immigrated to the United States from Jamaica and did not believe in divorce. They often moved around, meaning I had to move school districts in turn, so my grades and interest in education decreased. It started in Poughkeepsie, New York; then we moved around three different districts in Florida in quick succession. A couple of years later I re-entered the Poughkeepsie City School District for good.
Poughkeepsie had a chronically underfunded school system. In truth, the city never fully recovered from deindustrialization in the 1950s, the arrival of IBM in 1942, or several generations of neglect by school administrators. I found it challenging to learn in high school there because I lacked a stable environment. Fights kept breaking out in the hallways and our buildings became infected with asbestos. My home life was unstable and my parents fought a lot. If you either have a great school and an unstable home life or a bad school and a supportive home environment, you have a chance. What I got was a toxic combination. It was clear from the attitude of the teachers at my school that they see us all as problematic time bombs to be kept in defective youth daycares as a method of social damage control.
I applied to transfer to the Arlington Central School District, a neighboring district with better funded schools, hoping for something better. The school was nearby and it seemed like a better fit. I called the Arlington school myself hoping they would accept me and was told the district lines stopped across the street from my house. That meant I had to pay school fees if I wanted to enroll. As soon as I found out, I knew the dream was dead; I didn’t even bother to ask my parents about finances. I knew they were struggling.
I went back to high school in Poughkeepsie with broken hopes and low morale. But my luck changed in ninth grade, when I was accepted into a college readiness program called Exploring College, facilitated by Vassar College. This program aimed to empower and mentor high school students from underserved backgrounds while providing critical life skills in an affirming environment. The Exploring College program fulfilled the role that my public school was supposed to play. They helped develop my interpersonal skills, drastically improved my writing and, most importantly, gave me confidence.
Alternating between high school and Vassar College opened my eyes to the exclusionary nature of social mobility and therapy. While I was poor and disadvantaged, like many of my peers, I was invited to an elite institution and exposed to some of the best teaching in the country. The difference was stark – and it felt unfair, even though I had an advantage.
At one point during high school, one of my teachers stabbed another teacher in the throat with a screwdriver during class. For the rest of the semester, that was all the student body wanted to talk about. Most of them processed the tragedy through humor, while some ended up becoming more violent as a reaction. I, on the site, had the privilege of working through this trauma with college-educated students who wanted to work in education and with young people. We were expected to go back to our studies without any therapeutic intervention from our school, but the after school programming offered by Vassar College pulled me through.
I graduated high school and applied to community college, where I was accepted. But when I arrived, I was shocked to realize that I lacked the practical knowledge required to succeed at university or in the world. I signed up to participate in Model United Nations, an advanced course that simulates the chambers of the United Nations, but as soon as I arrived it was clear that I was lagging behind my wealthy, well-coached compatriots. The class was tasked with developing guidelines to address specific problems, and I struggled to imagine viable solutions. I couldn’t point to Saudi Arabia, Nigeria or Pakistan on a map. I quickly realized that not only did I have to learn the college courses, but I had to teach myself everything I had missed in order to catch up with my more privileged peers and compete with them on equal terms.
I knew it was time to venture out into the world and begin my journey towards self-education, but globetrotting is an expensive hobby. During the Model United Nations course, I had a friend who told me about becoming an au pair. I thought that I could start traveling the world in a cost-effective way if I took such a position, so I contacted a host family in Lidingö, Stockholm, approved the interviews and booked flights.
The first thing I noticed when I arrived was that the family was the opposite of me. The two children attended a well-funded public school, and the parents – while both working in prestigious positions at the head of their Stockholm law firm – still found plenty of time to spend with them. The kids were brilliant, athletic and ambitious. What they lacked, however, was cultural competence.
One chilly evening I tried to connect with the children around the dinner table by asking about their taste in music. “What kind of music do you like?” I asked my daughter. She finished chewing her fruit and yogurt and said, “Hmm… well, I like Post Malone….” Then she looked at her mother before rebutting the statement, “Actually, I don’t like Post Malone because Post Malone smokes weed, and that makes him a bad person.”
The mother did not correct her daughter’s assumption; in fact, she seemed pleased with her answer. Many Swedes value cultural and ethnic homogeneity, and drugs such as marijuana are taboo. While their public schools do a wonderful job of teaching them practical skills, they fail to help them question their own assumptions. No one seems to be asking them the questions they really should, questions like: What is cultural piety, and how does it affect marginalized groups? Does drug use make you a bad or lazy person? Why do people use drugs? And what’s wrong with being “lazy” in the first place?
Despite the failings of my school in Poughkeepsie, the students understood these concepts well. I understood when I was told about the district line that kept me from going to school in Arlington that those lines were designed to separate populations in order to preserve the “cultural and economic fabric” of more affluent areas. No one taught me this directly, but my experience was a valuable education about where I stood in the world.
Racism in Sweden, and more generally in Europe, is the same as racism in the USA – but it manifests itself differently. People are often profiled based on their skin colour; But how people treat you ultimately comes down to your social status and education level. Europeans like to say that their continent is “not as racist” as the US, but I’m not so sure about that. For example, being firmly “anti-marijuana” is one loud racial bias, and while the daughter may not understand it, the mother surely does. Whether intentional or not, the daughter will grow up with a latent bias against “weed smokers,” which will inevitably lead to more social stratification.
During my two months in Lidingö, I can safely say that I learned more about the world and myself than I did in 18 years of American public school. Despite the cultural flaws I found, I prefer European society because of the emphasis on social programs and infrastructure. I found it easier to live a decent life, eat good food and meet people from all over the world while I was in Europe. Although the country I was in—and the continent—clearly suffered from similar problems to the United States, many of those problems were mitigated by a strong social safety net and infrastructure that made sense.
Also, if I have kids, I’d be confident putting them into the public school system in a place like Sweden. While there is also corruption and negligence in European school systems just as there can be in America, the mechanisms for dealing with them are infinitely more effective than in the United States. That is why I see my future outside the country where I was born.