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Don’t be afraid to deviate from the script

When I was in the 11th grade, my family had to move suddenly from one part of Massachusetts to my grandparents’ house in Boston. My parents weren’t able to line up new housing or new business in another state as quickly as they hoped but they were steadily working on it. My parents had ambitious plans to bounce back from losing our home and they were trying to pursue these goals with a family of six. Since we all thought this would be temporary, my mom didn’t want to enroll us in a school in Boston just to have to transfer us again in a few weeks. Yet, housing and resource insecurity were a real thing for us and a move that was supposed to take place in two weeks took on a timeline of its own. One month in Boston became two, then three, then four months and my three younger brothers and I- ranging from in age 5 to 16 years old- were out of a school building for the second semester of the school year. It was stressful and my brothers and I resented such an abrupt change to our lives and routines. 

“At the time, the stress of the situation made it hard to see it, but in a moment of crisis our parents took leadership over my brother’s and my education.”

My mother strongly valued education, however, and us not being in a school didn’t mean to her that the learning stopped. So we trekked down to the main branch of the Boston Public Library and got some library cards. We would spend hours there over those months. When there was extra cash to spare, we could go and buy books and materials in whatever we were interested in learning. We had computers available to us and my parents paid to install dial up internet service in our grandparents’ home. We didn’t have to be up at 6:30AM every day or follow a rigid schedule, but by a certain time in the morning the tv went off and we all needed to be doing something productive. While our parents were working on my family’s situation, my brothers and I were studying. The rule was that we could learn what we wanted and at our own pace, but we needed to be learning. At the time, the stress of the situation made it hard to see it, but in a moment of crisis our parents took leadership over my brother’s and my education.

What did that look like for us? Well, I read all the books “above my grade level” that none of my previous teachers were going to teach me. At the time I was going through a strange Tolstoy phase and spent time reading “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace”. The oldest of my younger brothers dived deeper into computer coding. He picked apart the video games he had mastered and started teaching himself coding language. He does similar work today as a coder for a major construction company in San Francisco. My middle brother who always loved art got private lessons from a well-known artist that lived on my grandparent’s street and who had known my dad since he was brought home from the hospital after he was born. At his previous school he had been diagnosed with ADHD and I remember my mother’s stress when they pushed hard for him to go on medication. Fully immersed in his art and under my parents’ supervision that stress and those pills went away. He graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design and now animates video games in San Francisco. My youngest brother who has dyslexia worked closely with my mother on his site words and reading. He also got really engaged in storytelling and character development as an outlet and way to process the experience and express himself. Today, he is an independent photographer, videographer and writer for film. 

At the end of that May we finally moved to North Carolina. In August when it was time to go back to school, we each walked into a high school, a middle school and an elementary school in Charlotte, registered and didn’t skip a beat. Our records transferred over  rather easily. I remember a high school guidance counselor asking me a few questions and then I was given a 12th grade schedule. Additional services were made available to address my brother’s dyslexia and a few extra tutoring sessions for my artist brother to get “caught up” in math. None of us were retained and we pretty much all kept it moving. 

It wasn’t all rosy during those months we spent learning under our parents’ leadership. It was stressful at times and my brothers and I missed our former routines and friends. We had low patience for the uncertainty of it all and my teenage attitude which usually rested at an 8 out of 10 hovered around 15. My parents were making hard choices and adjustments in a high stress and unstable situation (sound familiar?) and we felt the weight of that. For my parents, my brother’s and my best interests were their primary concerns, but those concerns had to be balanced with the interests of the whole family unit and the reality of our situation. In order to make it work we had to deviate from the script for a while. There was a bigger picture at play that required us to be temporarily inconvenienced in the moment. But those 5 months out of a school building did not translate into a lifetime of failure for me or my brothers. Quite the opposite. This experience was particularly powerful for me because I learned the difference between getting an education and going to school. We often treat the two as the same, but they are different things. And I found freedom in this understanding that has shaped me- and my brothers- to this day.

“For my parents, my brother’s and my best interests were their primary concerns, but those concerns had to be balanced with the interests of the whole family unit and the reality of our situation.”

When COVID hit, it took me back to the 11th grade. The abrupt change in my life (I was in a school on a Friday and at my grandparents’ home the following Monday), the uncertainty of the situation (when will I go back to school?), fear of the future (will I be able to go back to school? Will I be kept back?) and the frustration of not knowing how to navigate the present (what do I do with my day? Should I try to keep up with “regular” school?) were all of the concerns and questions I had over 20 years ago that I’m sure were similar for the 40,000+ public school students in New Orleans in March.

In a letter to Black parents, recently I wrote “Don’t confuse what we do to survive a crisis with what is possible if we had the time, space and community resources to plan.” My parents were responding to a crisis with limited resources but with some family and community support (sound familiar again?). Life is unpredictable and sometimes even with our best efforts plans stall or fall through. Even in their response to our family crisis, though, my parents saw the long game. From their situation they realized that following “the plan” didn’t guarantee stability or success. They wanted my brothers and me to be flexible and adaptable, to take chances and practice freedom. These are beautiful goals that any parent can have for their children. And I still wonder to this day what if my parents had the space and opportunity then to plan for the gift they were trying to give us.

“Deviating from the script gave us a much fuller life than the traditional path promised our family.”

But like I also mentioned in the letter: “Black parents, Black children are gonna be alright.” And with the space, opportunity and intentionality in our planning we can be better than alright. We can reap the benefits of giving our children a rich education without the stress and trauma of being yanked back and forth between school buildings. 

My brothers and I now live on three different coasts. We hop on Google hangouts every other week or so, catch up and sometimes talk about growing up together. We all agree that though the situation wasn’t ideal instead of limiting us, it actually opened up our worlds. To this day we all love to learn and know how teach ourselves. We can adapt to new and changing circumstances. We all make a living doing what we want to do. A moment of inconvenience at 16, 11, 8 and 5 led to a lifetime of freedoms. Looking back, we can see the beauty in our experience and that how facing the fear of deviating from the script gave us a much fuller life than the traditional path promised our family.

COVID is the crisis but it doesn’t have to be your children’s fate. There’s an opportunity now to embrace the gift it is offering.  OPEN will be partnering with local parents on a virtual series about how all parents can take leadership over their children’s education. How families approach this will differ but know that there is a way for you to customize your child’s education in a way that is in balance with your family’s current needs and the future dreams and aspirations you have for your children. Whether you work inside or outside of the home, perform essential work and no matter what your family looks like, you can lead your child’s education. Join us the weeks of July 28th and August 3rd to learn more about your options in Louisiana. Let’s get free together.

Yours in the work,
Nahliah Webber
Executive Director, Orleans Public Education Network

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