In my little town
I grew up believing
God keeps his eye on us all
And he used to lean upon me
As I pledged allegiance to the wall
Lord, I recall my little town
And after it rains there’s a rainbow
And all of the colors are black
It’s not that the colors aren’t there
It’s just imagination they lack
Everything’s the same back in my little town
Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town
Back in the 1970s, when I interviewed for a teaching job in the community where I would work, and then live, for more than 35 years, the principal told me that the small, rural district was the “far edge of white flight.”
He was right. The district never stopped growing while I was teaching there, morphing from a cute little town surrounded by farmland, to a kind of sprawl of dozens of back-to-back subdivisions, each new sub with bigger and more pretentious houses than the last. It remained persistently non-diverse, however, both in demographics and in thinking and behaviors.
When I interviewed there, I didn’t pay much attention to these factors. I was desperate to get a teaching job—we were experiencing a teacher glut at the time, with most Michigan universities exporting newly minted Baby Boomer teachers to states where the pay was abysmal. I wanted to teach in Michigan.
When I got the job in Hartland, I couldn’t believe my good luck. It was a charming little village, with a library, a music hall and the first high school in the county, built in 1921—the building, in fact, where I had the interview. And it was growing—I didn’t need to be worried about being pink-slipped!
My students were generally polite, and their parents showed up for conferences and programs. My colleagues were outstanding—smart, funny and generous with their time. I taught in what used to be the high school band room—probably the nicest classroom I had in all my 30+ years in the district.
Teachers often talk about their disastrous first year of teaching—but it wasn’t like that for me. I loved teaching band and general music at Hartland Middle School. In fact, if it weren’t for my really awesome first year, I might have walked away from Hartland a dozen times.
The trouble started in Year Two, when I was let go (along with 20 other first- and second-year teachers) because of a millage failure. We all signed full-year contracts in April, but two summer funding votes failed, so after starting school in September, the Board decided to lay off a couple dozen teachers. In October.
We took them to court (thank you, strong union), and all of us got a job back—just not the job we were hired to do. I became a district-roving sub, and had to be available from 5:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day (split sessions, due to the cutbacks). I was pink-slipped an additional five times over the next few years. We were dependent, it turned out, on an ultra-conservative, anti-tax community.
I also started going to Board meetings, to hear what the nice white people in my community said—about the curriculum, sex education, teacher pay, offensive books in the library, and why don’t we sing Silent Night at the Christmas program like we did back in the day? It was illuminating, hearing parents urge the Board to make ‘necessary’ cuts in their ‘wasteful’ budgets—kids didn’t need music, art, counselors, librarians or other frills. What did they need? Well, football, mostly.
I learned that most people who addressed the Board were concerned only about their personal children, that those children would have access to the educational goodies parents wanted—a gifted/talented program, perhaps, or a soccer team, or maybe a snazzy computer lab. Or a new math program, since the one adopted by teachers didn’t work for Jennifer.
I once attended a Board meeting where a mother demanded that the marching band (MY bailiwick) wear spats. Her kids weren’t in the band, of course, but she just thought they looked good, and insisted we should be wearing them. This is a true story. What’s also true is that her husband was on that Board.
Note: I never heard a parent talk about all the kids in the community—the disabled children, those who required free lunch, the bullied or the bullies. It was always about advocating for My Child.
None of those issues was particularly upsetting. This was the reason, I thought, schools have elected Boards—to hash out contentious issues, to represent community beliefs, to address problems that arise.
Over time, those problems grew exponentially more serious. The Hartland football team made national news by hiring strippers to entertain them before a game—then confessed that they usually just watched pornography, but this was a big game. There was a series of bomb threats. There were student suicides. There was overt racism.
None of these things were directly related to curriculum and instruction—but they were reflective of how we handled emerging and controversial concerns with the children entrusted to our care. School—and yes, this is a broken record—is the stage where we prepare our children to handle what’s coming down the pike. Not a place to avoid, cover up and deny what’s happening in the world.
Slowly, it started to feel like maybe Hartland wasn’t such an innocent, wholesome place. Most of that dawning recognition happened when I started paying attention to the students who looked different—the five percent of students who were Black, or Hispanic or Asian. It wasn’t such a comfortable place for them. When students started communicating via device, outside of adult supervision, the cruelty and disrespect became endemic.
I began to understand the role of the public school teacher as much more than Person Who Delivers Academic Content. Teachers are role models, confidantes, discussion leaders and arbitrators. If we want a better, more just, equitable and democratic society, teachers and schools are part of that equation.
I no longer live or teach in Hartland. Since I left, there have been many more unsettling things. One of the men who planned to kidnap and possibly kill Governor Gretchen Whitmer lives in Hartland. And a year ago, a Black student had to be escorted off the Hartland HS campus after being threatened with lynching. Four students were charged with stalking her, as well as assault and battery. The district was offered assistance from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, but eventually turned away this help, due to parent pressure, and Board worries about the incident leading to (faux) CRT in the district.
I am always cognizant of something my friend Maria Stuart said. Maria lives in the next town over from Hartland—Howell–where there was once, years ago, an active KKK, and even a Grand Dragon. Maria helped found a Diversity Council there, which did a lot of good work to rebuild a town with an ugly reputation for racism and intolerance.
Once, when I was doing exactly what I’m doing in this blog, trashing people in my little town for undemocratic and racist behaviors, Maria reminded me that things don’t improve when people are accused of wrongdoing. They improve when people promote healthy, accepting communities. When they’re commended for welcoming diversity and inclusion. Not shamed.
I want to believe Maria is right.
But towns that understand diversity is a strength have better prospects than towns where a high school girl has to deal with threats of being lynched. A town that can’t adapt to change, hanging on to centuries-old prejudices, is in trouble.
Makes me sad.