I made the decision to send my son, who I adopted transnationally as a toddler, to Lakeside Forest Kindergarten in Essex, New York, after many hours of deliberation, and after months of looking for a truly diverse public school in which my child would have educational opportunities and support. I could not find such an institution in the Philadelphia area where my son and I were then living. I staunchly defend public education, yet the reality is that the quality of public schools is reflected by the finances of those who reside in any given district, not to mention how thinly spread resources are, given the number of charter schools springing up left and right across the nation. The poor today are poorer and the rich richer and, sadly, what has become ever more apparent to me, mothering my son of color, is that there are very few acceptable options when it comes to publically educating a child of color in a classroom of color. (Don’t even get me started on what is happening to Philadelphia’s public schools and who is losing their jobs as a result.)
Forty years ago, I began attending public school in Vermont. I loved my elementary school. The teachers were caring and the classes encouraged me to become an engaged learner. It also happened that I grew up off the grid in a house my father built by hand in the middle of 54 acres of wood and swampland. My radical parents and my surroundings made up for whatever the public school lacked. The need children have for outdoor learning is integral to becoming stewards of our endangered ecosystem, and there is no substitute for the benefits the natural world bestows upon young lives. If public schools lack environmental resources and fail to instill in children a love of the outdoors, public urban school students are even more disadvantaged in this regard.
Last year, I sent my son to the French International School in Philadelphia for preschool. An exceptionally racially and culturally diverse private school, I chose it largely for its diversity and to keep my son connected with the official language of his birth country. The option to continue to send him to this school this year meant digging deep into my not-so-deep pockets and holding my son back, as his language preparation was insufficient to warrant his placement in French kindergarten. It also meant a continued commute through city traffic. Sick to my stomach at the lack of livable prospects, I applied for a leave from my university teaching job. Before the leave was even granted me, my son and I had packed up our third floor apartment and had moved into my mother’s home in Essex, New York.
Today, my son is ecstatic, after two years of suburban confinement, to be in the country where he can play outside by himself, and he loves kindergarten at Lakeside. I couldn’t believe it when he told me he’d used a log jack and bucked a huge log his first day of school. The following day, he demonstrated this new skill to me, and it was then I began to witness firsthand the power of what my son is currently learning. After not even two months of kindergarten, he is now a more confident, more independent spirit with an ever-deepening love and respect for the world and people around him.
Yes, it’s true that he’s one of the only kids of color at Lakeside. Although he currently attends a Saturday language school with other children of color in Burlington, Vermont, Saturdays are not enough to offset the racial difference my son must navigate daily. But what has become apparent to me as my son and I navigate these fetid waters of education in North America today, is the environmental racism that pollutes this nation. I shouldn’t have to pit nature against culture; they are inseparable. Yet for my son’s health, for his wellbeing, and for my own, I’ve had to trade diversity for the value I place on his growing up outside, grounded by nature. How my whiteness plays a role in making this decision is not lost on me. I’m aware that I may privilege nature over culture precisely because I am who I am and was reared the way I was, and I’m also more than aware of just how many people there are who don’t have the luxury of making such decisions for their children.
Ultimately, I made this decision for my individual son. Back in Pennsylvania, he and I spent a lot of time outside, but the outdoors consisted of roped off park areas overpopulated with other humans. We rode our bikes on park trails. We spent time down by a canal. We traipsed through polluted, abandoned steel mills. In part, we had to exercise our dog. In part, I have to get outside or I feel like I’ve forgotten where I come from. Mostly, though, my son does best—and my son and I do best together—outside. He’s survived trauma, and he is thriving now, but this doesn’t mean that the everyday doesn’t present its occasional challenges.
I teach as a lecturer at SUNY-Plattsburgh now. The difference in pay between this job and my Pennsylvania professorship is astronomical. Luckily, my son and I are now living in what was my father’s old workshop that my mother lovingly converted into a living space for us. We have crammed our three-bedroom suburban apartment into one small room that’s ours. No one is screaming in a downstairs apartment, nor is the smell of laundry detergent wafting up through the crack under the door. Our water source isn’t, like it was in Pennsylvania, downriver from a nuclear plant.
Nature is in trouble. I want my son to know her while there is still wild left. I want him to learn about the earth from his granny who gardens and spends much of her time outside. Something inside me made me spirit my son away from consumerism as a lifestyle. Suburban, professional life has left me most shaken. I am comforted, however, to read my son’s Lakeside teacher’s words each week, describing the activities of the kindergartners. The missives read as love poems to the earth, and describe children exposed to the elements, wrestling stones from one place to another, pushing logs uphill and down, chasing maple seed helicopters, and digging up potatoes.