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Vicki Phillips, are you really gone?

July 9th, 2007

Even though Vicki Phillips has left for the Gates Foundation, we’re still stuck with the mess she’s left behind for Portland Public Schools. We have some K-8 schools; some that don’t fit the mold; Jefferson High School, my neighborhood school, still in shambles (but they can spring for astro-turf at Grant. Go, Generals! You’re right, you do deserve the best, ya idiots); they’re possibly adding on to Lincoln (hell yes, Lincoln Needs Money and More, More, More) (I’m being sarcastic, is it transmitting?), etc.

Let’s go back a few years. A long, long time ago, I didn’t have kids. And I didn’t know much about schools, like many of you. I always cared, though. So I always voted for the school funding measures, and I even volunteered at the public schools once in awhile. (They’d ask me to come in sometimes and talk with the kids about How I Became a Writer.)

At the back of my mind, always, I’m thinking, “Who’s going to be cath-ing me when I’m old? Who’s going to be working at the nursing home? Will they talk Kerouac with me?” I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. I had to fight hard to finish. I worked two or three jobs the entire time I was in school and graduated debt-free, thankyouverymuch. (My aunt brought up the number of grads in my family to two a few years ago! Yay, auntie! And my cousin graduated this spring! Go, us! That’s three college graduates. Plus one who just finished nursing school! I was raised by wolves, people, but it’s OK. I’ve learned to deal.) School is important to me, and always has been.

My Mom had a little mantra for me that she started chanting when I was three years old. Or maybe two. “First you’ll graduate from grade school, then you’ll graduate from high school, then you’ll graduate from college!” Oh, OK. And she and my Dad set aside enough money to pay for my first year, so I had to go! (See what happens when you expect things from your kids?)

We need decent, strong, free public schools in this world, especially for those students who aren’t getting a lot of encouragement or money from the homefront. Not everyone has parents who are pushing them.

I had a stepson, sort of, lo these many years ago. When my live-in boyfriend and I broke up, I kept visiting rights with his son, so I got a little glimpse into the Portland Public School system at that time. (He’s 21 now.)

(And if you hate parentheses, you’re gonna hate this post. I’m feeling parenthetical.)

My stepson went to school on the east side, where we lived — I lived off Hawthorne Boulevard for years, until we all moved over here to North Portland. At the time, of course I couldn’t afford to buy a house off Hawthorne. I was still in college. My friends who were working all bought houses over there. At first I was insanely jealous, and now I hate the traffic and the snobby assholes over there so much (most of my friends have cashed out on their houses and moved on) and am relieved we didn’t buy over there. Relieved I tell you.

Besides, all of us who made the neighborhood “hep” have moved on to Alberta, North Portland, and now Lents. Since we were only artists, musicians and writer losers who couldn’t, you know, afford to live where we had lived for long. So nyah-nyah. (Not that bitter, really.) (A little, perhaps.)

(Also, totally am being a white bitch helping to gentrify North Portland. Great! Glad I could help! Fuck fuck fuck. This was not my plan. But I wanted to buy a house, see? That’s a whole different post. I’d like to say, in my own defense, I have more than one black friend. Even though only one bothers to read my blog. I have exactly two friends who read my blog. Three if you count the Pink-Haired Housewife, but she only reads it because I give her free books to review. And also? Am not a brain donor. Or a porno addict. And even though I’d like for my Nasty Neighbor to move to, say, Gresham, I am in general an alright neighbor. Just sayin’, as Rockstar Mommy would say.)

Anyway. The neighborhood — SE Portland — had gone from being, in my aunt’s eyes, a place where her oldest child, my cousin, couldn’t live — “My baby can’t live there! You have all those transients there!” — to being “The Hawthorne.” That’s right. She calls it “The Hawthorne.” Now her younger daughter lives in the Brooklyn neighborhood (“The Brooklyn”), because she, too, couldn’t afford “The Hawthorne.” Jesus. OK. My point is — at the time when my stepson went to school there, the neighborhood was pretty diverse. Not as diverse as close in Northeast Portland, and North Portland, but diverse, race-wise, somewhat, and economically, yes, economically diverse.

And artistically diverse. Which I am sad to say, is not so true now.

I worked for a newspaper. OK, it was the Oregonian. And it blew my mind how many of the editors and reporters 1) lived on the west side of town (for those of you who aren’t Portlanders, that’s our “fancy/rich” side and 2) sent their kids to private school and 3) wrote about the public school districts like they knew anything about them, when a lot of the stories were done over the phone.

Although I do remember a lot of grousing about long-ass boring school board meetings. And coffee dates with the superintendents.

But mostly I remember phoners. They like to climb in the Velvet Coffin, those reporters, and take their phones in there with them.

I was (and am) pretty naive about school politics, funding, racial issues, all that, but when I heard how much some of these reporters and editors were paying for private school, with no tax write-off, I thought, “Damn.” (Private school tuition here now runs about $5,000 a year for Holy Redeemer, up to $18,000 a year for Catlin Gabel.)

“Self,” (that’s how I talk to myself), “why the fuck aren’t they sending their kids to public school and spending mebbe, eh, I dunno. Two hundred dollars a month? Fifty dollars a month, even, on school supplies?” It made sense to me. You write it off on taxes, the kids get some new books and art supplies, jump ropes for gym class, whatever; the teachers get some help, say, if a few of you pool your $200 a month and buy her an aide.

What a maroon, huh, thinking something like that? Still though, it made sense to me. Even if half of them went for this plan, my brilliant plan, that would be a huge infusion of cash and kids into the schools.

Sadly, none of them went for my plan. Probably because I forgot to mention it to them.

Fast-forward to us moving to North Portland in June of 2000 (after “The Hawthorne,” after Westmoreland, after a brief venture to the west side, so we could be closer to my husband’s work). Ten minutes on the west side was enough to send me screaming into North Portland’s arms. Because honestly, if I have to choose between another fucking Starbucks and a gumbo place someone’s running illegally from a trailer? Give me the gumbo, baby.

I grew up on the east side — I went to Harvey Scott Grade School for nine years, Madison High School for four years, then headed downtown to Portland State University for five years. Then I walked down the street and got a job at the Oregonian. I am home-grown. Fast forward a few years: We’ve had two babies. We’re at a barbecue. The dad is bitching about his neighborhood school, Vernon. What he’s not saying is: “They’re all black there.”

What he is saying, out loud even, is, “We’d send her to Vernon, but I just don’t know what she’d learn there.” He kinda wrinkled his nose, like he smelled something nasty. Black people, maybe.

“She’d probably learn not to be a stuck-up snob,” I said, helpfully.

“Touche,” he said. Needless to say, the friendship didn’t last.

They transferred out of their neighborhood to a fancy school up the street. We stayed in our neighborhood. I volunteered at our neighborhood school, to get a feel for the place, before our daughter started there. It was alright. Then it wasn’t. So we’re sending our kids to the next neighborhood over (we’re smack-dab in between the two public schools — equal distance apart). It’s an equally poor school. The classes are huge, as is the case in most PPS schools. We have no aides, unlike the wealthier schools — the Portland Schools Foundation will not give out grants for that, when they’re divvying up the “bonus bucks” the rich schools donate.

We hope to not get lice this year. (Rich schools get lice, too, duh. They just have more parents who can afford to treat it.) I was really hating our school by the end of this school year and ready to homeschool, but by the time June 15th rolled around, we were OK again. Feeling the love and all.

I volunteer once a week. I have been the only in-class parent volunteer in my daughter’s class the past two years. That sucks. My son’s class had a couple of other moms who occasionally volunteered. We usually have enough volunteers for school events, field trips, class parties.

Yeah, it’s good we left. The other school didn’t work out for us at all. But at least we gave it a shot.

At least I stepped foot in the building.

At least I fucking volunteered, savvy? At least I didn’t get all sniffy and say I was “underwhelmed” by the school, move out of the neighborhood, and move across the street from Buckman Arts Magnet. (Which, coincidentally, is where my stepson went to school, many moons ago.) “Oh, my GAWD, it is a good school!”

(Kip and Colleen Richardson, I’m talking about you here.) There was a big write-up in the Oregonian last week, profiling a couple of white families and their happy little children (the Richardsons were one of the families) and Aren’t They Smart? To find a good school, you just move! Or transfer! (We transferred, so I shouldn’t talk. But I will anyway.) And move right into a crowded school, with a bunch of other self-righteous parents. And maybe, like the Richardsons, you live near the school and actually go to school with your neighbors, but most likely, you don’t. And none of the kids on your block know each other, and your money isn’t going into your neighborhood school, it’s going into the big fat pockets of the few, Frozen Chosen schools where all the kids with money go.

The poor schools get starved out this way.

(Also, Kip was a longtime freelancer for The Oregonian, as was I. Does the story in the Oregonian mention this? No.) Also, keep in mind that the Oregonian’s home section is an ad rag, and that the realtors in town have quite a bit of control over editorial content. The realtors are the ones who bitched so much about the neighborhood profiles (many of them written by moi, thanks) that they finally pressured the editors into turning the section over to the advertising department.

So you’re not going to get an even-handed view of things, let’s just say that.

Kip and Colleen, you are so cool! What a cool idea! Because your neighborhood school before, it was shit. So good of you to do your part. You rock!

Then comes today’s Metro section, and an article about parents, including Shannon Berlant and her husband, who want to “redraw” the boundary lines so their kids don’t have to go to their (shitty) neighborhood schools where there might be (underwhelming) people. (Can I say that here, underwhelming? You all leave me underwhelmed.) Maybe if five, ten, fifteen of these families all decided, Hey, we’re going to our neighborhood schools — wow, then you’d have people just like you there.

And maybe I should start promoting my fifty-dollar a month plan, after all.


  1. BlackFriend says

    DANG! I love white people. MWAH! As a friend of mine once said, Portland will turn you against them.

    Between the wweek and these, I may have to join the Nation or something. Or maybe the Republican party and move to the westside. I like my bigoted, classist white people with integrity dammit. McCain ’08

    July 9th, 2007 | #

  2. Mrs Mogul says

    Schools? AHH I can’t even think about it right now. $18K for private school??? I’m panicking over nursery school costs!! I grew up in a good area and when the “poor” kids were allowed to enter my sister’s junior high school, my parents withdrew her and shipped her to Montreal. Sorry that my parents were elitists. I ended up going to the same junior high and did not get shipped to speak French.

    July 9th, 2007 | #

  3. edj says

    You go! Rant on!

    July 10th, 2007 | #

  4. becky says

    Shit, I hope that wasn’t my husband you were talking too! (I don’t think he’d say “touche” though, not his style.) We transfered out of Vernon after hearing lots of shitty things about it from people who worked there. Like you though, we are equidistant to two schools and chose the one that was fancier (but also on the way to work and still full of kids on free lunch! see I can justify my snobbery with the best of them!)

    July 11th, 2007 | #

  5. WackyMommy says

    Nope it was someone else’s husband, fear not. I am so bratty about all this, sorry.

    July 11th, 2007 | #

  6. shannonberlant says

    Don’t judge people you don’t know in a neighborhood you don’t know! Did you watch the re-broadcast of us speak after the board meetings (channel 28)? Did you look at the map to see exactly what we’re talking about? No, go ahead keep judging! I live one mile from Grant – Jefferson is two and a half miles away. Four other Portland Public elementary schools are closer to my home than the one assigned – Vernon! I could easily walk my child to Beaumont (four blocks) – yet we are not assigned there.

    July 20th, 2007 | #

  7. WackyMommy says

    I am judging, though. It’s what I do best.

    July 20th, 2007 | #

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