August 2, 2021

glassmerchantsbalaclava

Skillful education crafters

The problem with a Mountain Brook education

6 min read

We didn’t move to Mountain Brook until I was in sixth grade. At the time, I was mostly upset that I would be going back to elementary school. In Hoover, middle school starts in sixth grade but, in Mountain Brook, junior high didn’t start until seventh.

Cherokee Bend Elementary was much less diverse school than the one I was leaving but, by reputation at least, it was considered the best. The schools, from elementary to high school, consistently scored high marks in everything other than diversity.

With a student body that was ~97% white and wealthy, Mountain Brook school system looked more like Maine than Alabama. It did not look like the South. So they tried to fill the gap by teaching students other perspectives and history through class readings or experiences.

One early example: our sixth grade class performance of “We Haz Jazz!” a musical exploration of the history of jazz music performed entirely by white 11 year-olds. Thankfully, this was 1999 and we didn’t do blackface. But I was always a theatrical kid, and I sure did my best Louis Armstrong impression.

In high school, we put on a production of West Side Story, a beautiful show that teaches high schoolers the importance of tolerance, diversity and more. But, as the student body was almost entirely white, the students playing Sharks decided they could look “more authentically Puerto Rican” by getting spray tans and dying their hair black. After all, what was the difference between that and faking a Russian accent or wearing a fake mustache?

I thought about these moments a couple of years ago when a picture of Gov. Kay Ivey in blackface was unearthed from an old Auburn yearbook. Those insidious ways racism can sneak up on you. Those two experiences, in theory, were supposed to be opportunities to learn about other cultures and perspectives, but in practice we reduced other peoples’ histories to games of dress up and make believe.

When your student body all looks like Atticus Finch, it’s a little too easy to think: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

I highlight those moments because, on the surface, they may have been well-intentioned, but when you otherize people by turning them into elementary school mascots or class productions, you wind up fostering an environment that accepts explicitly racist and hateful actions too. And when your student body and staff are almost all white, it rarely gets questioned.

During a junior high homecoming spirit week, students showed up to school dressed in “urban attire” one day. In high school, the student government decided to throw a winter dance. The “Black & White Ball” referred to the formal attire but took on a nastier connotation when a group of boys got drunk and started peeing over the railing at the venue in downtown Birmingham. They peed directly onto the wedding party of a Black family.

Police were called and the event was canceled permanently and students talked about it in hushed tones for the next couple of weeks. And then we just never talked about it again.

Racism doesn’t always manifest itself in the ugliest possible ways. But this was the logical endpoint for a community that started with whites-only neighborhood ordinances in the first half of the 20th century.

Recently, Mountain Brook has had more than its fair share of anti-semitic incidents. And so the school board tried to take action and implement anti-bias trainings for the faculty. And some Mountain Brook parents (or, perhaps, grandparents) have responded with a weird, Fox News-fueled anti-Critical Race Theory fever dream. They’ve shown up at city council and school board meetings and forced the school system to backtrack.

I recognize the names of too many friends’ parents on the letter to the school board decrying any form of critical race theory in schools. I’m sure there are some young people who signed this letter but when it started going around, I got several texts saying things like “my dad signed this and he hasn’t had kids in Mountain Brook schools in 15 years.”

Maybe some folks regret not paying much attention to the stuff their kids were learning in school.

Throughout high school, we read eye opening texts like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, The Awakening, Invisible Man, Their Eyes Were Watching God and Farewell to Manzanar. We learned the Civil War started because of slavery and that the American colonists were driven as much by gold and glory as they ever were by God. We had brilliant, compassionate teachers that taught me how to think and how to write. Many of the most forward-thinking, accepting people I’ve ever met came through Mountain Brook High School.

Even in the early 2000s before same-sex marriage was the law of the land, we had LGBTQ student groups on campus. They were met with the reactionary backlash you would expect, some students held up signs that said “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” but MBHS offered more space for self-actualization than many high schools in Alabama. Or the country for that matter.

And, yet, there were hard truths always just out of reach. We read other people’s perspectives without ever actually hearing from them. We learned more about Latin grammar than Latin America. We talked about the civil rights movement during our history courses without examining why our school opened in 1966.

And perhaps that’s what these parents are worried about. If you look at history too closely, you’ll have to answer questions about Mountain Brook extracting wealth from Birmingham for nearly a century. You’ll have to wonder why the school remains 97% white when other Birmingham suburbs have started to reflect the demographics of the state.

It’s easy to pick on Mountain Brook, especially when you read some of the flyers being passed around to stop students from learning about diversity. But this same fight is playing out in systems all over the state and the country, because American schools remain absurdly segregated.

I credit Mountain Brook teachers with helping mold me into the person I am today. But once upon a time, Mountain Brook parents at least wanted their kids to have a world class education—even if some attempts to walk around in other people’s skin look terrible in hindsight.

But now?

Now it seems like some parents want to go even further and reject the idea of learning about other people’s perspectives altogether. They’re leaving their children unprepared for the world of today by grasping onto a world of yesterday. And they are isolating themselves in the process.

Mountain Brook is having its own brain drain. I’ve heard from former teachers that say the quality of education has fallen in recent years as parents meddle more and more. Several of my classmates have elected never to move back, choosing more diverse communities or leaving the state altogether. Compare the cost per square foot in Homewood and Mountain Brook and it’s easy to see that there’s an actual financial cost to sealing yourself off in a blindingly white ivory tower.

There’s long been a fight between people who want Mountain Brook to remain the same and people who want to make the Tiny Kingdom bigger and more inclusive than it has been.

There’s a new counter-petition going around and I recognize many of the names on this one as well. They argue, “As we graduated from [Mountain Brook] and went on to forge professional lives and careers, we experienced the negative impacts of this mis-education (and of the lack of diversity in the community in which we were raised), and we had to find ways to seek out the education that we were denied.”

So far, a lot more people have signed the counter-petition than the one demanding the school board back off the anti-bias training. 1,100 Mountain Brook graduates had signed when I last looked this morning. It’s encouraging that many of the people who went through Mountain Brook schools are pushing to make it better.

They recognize that you could have the best classical education in the world, but it won’t prepare you for anything other than a life in Mountain Brook if it doesn’t reflect the realities of the city, state and country you live in. So many of the best things in American culture and history were shaped by Black and Brown Southerners and Mountain Brook students will be at a permanent disadvantage if they close themselves off to those stories.

You cannot be the best school system in Alabama if you look nothing like Alabama.