Another factor impacting my public-school experience, that I was oblivious to while a student, was the significant level of community support for public schools led by some of the wealthiest and most forward-thinking people in my hometown. They worked collaboratively and wisely to ensure that two things happened simultaneously:
- that our community’s public school system was strengthened and supported by the wider community and
- that private schools were prevented from forming and dividing our community at a time when Mississippi was already experiencing violent racist division.
I can only imagine how difficult and heated some of their conversations must have been with folks staunchly opposed to integration and ones determined to start a private school so their children wouldn’t have to go to school with children whose skin color didn’t look like theirs.
As a direct result of progressive thinking, they convinced enough folks about the benefits of uniting to prevent irreparable division. Community leaders also acted collectively to focus on community development at a time when other towns concentrated solely on economic development. My hometown’s population has more than doubled since I was born there in 1960. In contrast, my current community, whose 1960 population was almost three times larger than my hometown, has now declined by more than 14,000 people. The current median household income in my birthplace is more than double that of the community I live in now … a community that chose to address integration by opening a private school in 1965 … a veiled attempt to maintain segregation.
My family and these two communities who helped shape us are living through the rollercoaster of trials and tribulations experienced individually and collectively and tied directly to public schools. The one lesson we’ve learned that always holds true is that strong public schools benefit more than just individuals and families. Strong public schools build strong communities providing the shared benefits of job growth, booming economies, and improved property values.
Eventually, my husband and I chose public schools for our son and he, too, had a great experience growing up in a school system completely integrated 35 years after my first year of public school.
As anyone who’s experienced fierce competition knows, relationships forged in the shared struggle during battle on the athletic field run deep.
Our son’s longest lasting and most diverse relationships are still the ones built throughout his years of playing football at what was, then, the highest level of public high school athletic competition in the state – the state that boasts the most native sons playing in the 2023 Super Bowl. The most widely celebrated accomplishment of his team’s ‘band of brothers’ was winning the state championship by defeating the six-consecutive-year state champions. When the clock on that title game started, the school we were up against had not only won the past six consecutive championships – the young men who were Seniors on that opposing team had not lost a single game in six years. They boasted a winning streak of 89 – 0. Our team changed that record to 89 – 1. All differences – even the designation of offensive and defensive players on the same team – fall away when blood is shed on the football field. But we had been witnessing the falling away of differences throughout the entire season leading up to that night. Friends and families whose children and grandchildren attended any of five private schools in our community were coming to our public high school football games on Friday nights. They started following this team. They learned who the players were. They were pulling for us. And the crowds continued to grow throughout the season. On the night of the championship game with temperatures approaching freezing, many of these same friends and families traveled for two hours to cheer our team on to historic victory. A few days later, our community held a parade honoring this valiant group of young men. Our team had become their team, too. We were one community.
Even though the community I grew up in and the community we’ve lived in for the past 30 years are quite different in many respects, public schools have equipped each person in our family with a strong, academic foundation plus a wide variety of valuable lessons not found in any book. Our lives are richer, our diverse relationships have grown even wider, and our commitment to community is deeper because of public schools. As a result, each of our family members has been uniquely involved in supporting, advocating for, and, yes, holding public schools accountable.