Three minutes. I am lined up on the steps in the lobby of the Ohio Theater, second in line. At 7:30, I’ll process in with the rest of the Upper Arlington High School Class of 1985, to the strains of ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ played by the Symphonic Band. After a few opening words and the ‘1812 Overture’, I will be one of the groups of valedictorians to speak. There are 12 of us in total–all of us having achieved 4.0 GPAs (we were the last of the classes not to have advanced-level classes rewarded with weighted grades). I am speaking in a group with four of my friends (all male, oddly enough)–definitely the nerd representatives of the valedictorians. I still have our speech, in which we salute the rest of the class for their accomplishments outside of academics. My specific portions focus on the fine arts and volunteer work, as well as non-spotlight sports. After our graduation, we’ll go to an all-night party. And then, most of us will lose touch with each other forever within a year or two. Of course, I have no idea at the time, but tonight, on this thirty-fifth anniversary of our graduation, I will have no idea where Doug, Dan, and John are. I have some idea where Bill (who I kept in touch with through four years at OSU) is, but haven’t spoken with him in thirty years, either.
Facebook has reinstated a few connections. I never fully lost contact with Kerstin, my closest high school friend. There are a handful of closer friends, too–Scott, Melissa and Mary–as well as a few less close friends and acquaintances, and, of course, my cousin Monica. There is a much larger group I wonder about. How about Michelle, who was one of my oldest friends, who I saw last at our 15th reunion? How about Jeannette, headed for an accelerated medical school program? Or Ellen, who married the guy I had a crush on my sophomore year? Of course, there’s also Kellee, who (as far as I can tell) is still living with a degenerative neurological disease which first started to manifest itself while we were in high school; last I had heard, she had been moved to palliative care. And Deborah, who died at least 15 years ago.
I’d hoped to, perhaps, go to my 35th reunion this year. Now, between the pandemic and the turmoil in the US, I wonder when–if ever–I will go back to Upper Arlington. When and if I go again, my elementary school and high school will likely have already been torn down–so there will be no halls to wander through to see where my old locker was my senior year (#0018), no visit to the old orchestra room or my homeroom (with the mural of a WWII warbird on it). I wonder if they still have the tazidermied bear that stood in the lobby?
I’ve wrestled with conflicting emotions about my years in Upper Arlington these past few weeks, but particularly the past few days. The education I received at the UA schools was wonderful, and there are so many things I remember fondly, particularly in my final couple of years at UAHS. Playing wonderful classical music, growing my passion for Shakespeare, challenging myself with the toughest science and math classes (and still keeping my perfect GPA), and the inspiring teachers I had–it was a charmed life. Yet I had two horrible years (third and seventh grade) where I was bullied and struggled to make friends. And as my school years receded in my rear view mirror, I began to understand the deep inequalities that had made it all possible.
Ain’t no worry, ain’t no fuss
‘Cause someday you’ll work for us.
I remember the crowds at our home football games yelling this at opponents, and while I always thought it was gauche, I also remember finding it kind of funny. By the time I graduated and voted for the first time, I had fully begun to understand why there were “good” school systems and “bad” ones. “Good” systems were funded by property taxes, and if you lived in an almost exclusively upper-middle class suburb like we did, those taxes were considerable, and could be raised by voting in “school levies” for additional tax revenue. (We’d had one fail, in fact, the year before my senior year, causing the marching band to have to fundraise to attend away games.) Of course, my parents had never made any excuses as to why we had moved in the first place–it was not just to get me into a “good” school (they had briefly considered a private school) but also to get me away from ‘busing’–court-ordered desegregation in the Columbus school district–which would have eventually sent me to a “bad” (read: located in a mostly Black neighbourhood) middle school.
So: The education that I loved, the education that had challenged me to become the valedictorian I was? The entire concept is based on a racist system, where those who are willing and able to pay–largely white people–are able to obtain better schools for their kids. So it’s public education, but it’s fundamentally unequal. And if anything, it’s only gotten worse over the years. Now, for-profit charter schools have been established in many ‘urban’ school districts (the suburban districts rarely have to worry about them) that siphon off public school funding with varied results. Teachers in those districts struggle to even provide supplies for their classrooms, while in the suburbs you have such phenomena as a high school string music program that includes close to 10% of the entire student body (as it is at UAHS now), not to mention all kinds of class trips, International Baccalaureate programs, and other offerings that were barely on the radar when I graduated 35 years ago.
Here in Canada, the situation is a little better. Our schools are provincially funded, so at least on the surface, top and low performing schools are given the same amount of per-capita funding. Still, the systems struggle with the inequalities produced by income discrepancies as well as racism.
My school years in Upper Arlington made me into to the inquisitive, passionate student I still am. They cultivated a life-long passion for music, critical thinking skills, and the foundation of learning I needed to eventually get my PhD. And they set me up for success in life–but it was my privilege that allowed me to even be there in the first place. I did not earn my position there on merit; even my successes were as much a product of privilege as they were of my own efforts. So my emotions are complicated–but mainly what I take away is that I don’t want anyone denied the opportunity to learn I received. I don’t want to perpetuate a system that allows those with money or the right colour of skin to buy their way to better opportunities.
I sometimes wonder, however, how I would have felt had I been a parent. Would I, too, have used my privilege to get my child into the ‘best’ school I could? Quite possibly, yes. That’s certainly the way I was raised.
The ceremony is now coming to an end. The Class of ’85 will soon be tossing caps in the air and flood out of the Ohio Theater, our futures bright, to enter a world that will soon evolve in ways we cannot see–from the end of the Cold War, to 9/11, through several recessions and the rise of the Internet, to where we are today, battling a global pandemic and confronting some of the fundamental untruths of North American society. Where will we be in five years? in 25 years?
And what will each of us do about it?