Thursday, July 26, 2012

Oakland School closures: A Day of Tears and Joy

by Robe Rooke former President of Maxwell Park Elementary PTA

A small emotional moment can sometimes capture all the important stuff, where grey facts and figures can sometimes simply confuse.

It was the 8th of June. It was the day of our closing school's Yearbook Celebration. The day our school Yearbook was handed to the students at Ily and Havana's school.

As a blue collar worker I am rarely called Mr. Rooke. But on this day I probably heard this formality fifty times or more. Some of the younger kids thanked me for the Yearbook while speeding past on their way to play, some fourth and fifth graders stopped and waited to get my attention and then thanked me.

The journey to that day started six months earlier with the decision by the Oakland school board to close our school, along with three other schools with African American student majorities. Our school's PTA was launched after this decree with the hope that, as parents, we could collectively help our children through the emotional turbulence of the final months of our school.

I felt a yearbook would be something concrete for our school community to organize around, something through which we could express our defiance at the closure and our joy for both our school and our school community.

Maxwell Park had served as our neighborhood school since 1924. In the 60s, with Oakland's booming economy, the neighborhood and the school became racially integrated. But as the 70s set in, America's deep-riven racism unfolded and the white population completely abandoned the school. And this, in the final analysis, is why the school was eventually closed. In August the school building will reopen housing a bilingual-emersion school, transforming the African American student population of the school from 70% to 10%. Essentially our school got gentrified. As parents, we saw this coming, but in the end there was little we could do to stop this process unfolding.

So I pledged about four months of my life to producing the yearbook. A yearbook that would potentially help our students understand that their displacement was not their fault, that our school was a good school and that it was a mistake to tear up our schools' history and roots. A book they would treasure for the future.

On the day of our Yearbook celebration, the children were totally hyped up. In previous months they had walked in our Walkathon to raise money for it, they had each had their class pictures taken, five student's graphics were used for the yearbook's cover (below), 
three fifth graders' essays on what the school meant to them had been picked to open the yearbook,  and dozens more students contributed to the contents of the Yearbook.

In the Yearbook we'd honored our veteran teachers and staff, all African American women. One of whom was awarded elementary school Teacher of the Year in Oakland for this year. The 3rd graders who won our city's Oratorical (spoken word) contest were celebrated. Letters to Jackie Robinson shone a light on how our children view racism and second graders wrote about their Oakland, about hearing fast cars and gunshots and police sirens along with going to the movies and wanting more toys.

But one moment still resonates with me from that Yearbook celebration in June.

Ms. Leslie, a twenty-something mom of two, and I were on the playground. I was looking for a couple of girls that would perform a hand-clapping song that was in the Yearbook and another child to read something else out of the Yearbook at the assembly. Leslie suggested a couple of fifth graders to perform and pointed out a small African American boy to read at the celebration.  

The kids were all excited to be a part of the assembly. I also noticed the older girls tease the boy that he was too young, saying to me, "he's a first grader! Really, he's a first grader!" Despite his height, it turns out he was a fourth grader and did a brilliant job at the ceremony. But the moment that moved me came later.

After the slideshow of our Yearbook, our veteran teachers took the mic to speak. One was Ms. Pitts who taught at Maxwell Park for 17 years. She was immensely popular with our students. As she spoke, her tears wove through her speech. The bubbly, excitedness of our elementary students slowly hushed until the entire hall was utterly silent and captivated. Ms. Pitts spoke of her family and how they'd joked to her that Maxwell Park School was her actual first family. Even the Kindergartners who'd been sitting on the floor for forty minutes had stopped fidgeting.

And then I watched at my side, the small boy who had read from the Yearbook had tears streaming down his cheeks as he quietly cried. 

And in the row ahead of him were the two girls that had teased him on the playground. I noticed as one of the girls turned and saw him crying. She then turned a second time, reached out her hand to his, held his hand and looked into his eyes and asked him if he was going to be okay. He thanked her and said he gestured he was fine.

It was a small moment. But the most important moment for me that day. It summed up all the heartache and all the love. It reminded me that the politics of today, of money and brute force, will be rejected by the next generation. It signaled the wonderful hope for the future that is embedded in our children.

I am so glad Ilyana and Havana got the chance to go to Maxwell Park Elementary School and that I got the chance to get to know such wonderful parents, teachers and children.

Eventually we will win the future our children deserve.

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