The Nightmare of Harper High

I haven't slept much this week and it's starting to wear on me.

The good news is that I did sleep for about five hours last night, which is more than I can say for both Tuesday night and Wednesday. I may have slept in my clothes, but at least I didn't wake up till around 3:30 this morning. I did laundry, cleaned the house, did some work, and talked on the phone to family back in the Midwest. My sister's recommendation, "Take Tylenol PM."

I don't think even Tylenol PM can banish the images in this video from my mind. In fact, I think I had a dream where I kept drowning in this massive, Olympic size swimming pool. Seriously, take a moment to check out the video. It's the uninspiring stuff of nightmares.

The footage, passed on to me by one of my colleagues, (who, interestingly enough, got it from a teacher who showed it to her students) is from an Oprah Winfrey show that aired last year. In the clip, students from Harper High School in Chicago swap spots with kids from Neuqua Valley High in Naperville, IL, thirty-five miles away.

There are the shots of the Neuqua kids being stunned by the presence of metal detectors at the entrances of Harper. The Harper kids are floored by computer labs and the huge Olympic sized swimming pool at Neuqua. Harper's pool is the size of a small living room and never has any water. The comparisons spotlight all the differences in what the two groups of kids are getting as far as facilities, technology, etc.

The heartbreak really comes though when they compare the academic rigor of the two schools. One of the Harper girls sits in a math class and is shocked by how much more difficult the work is, even though it's technically the same class that she's getting at her own school. She starts to worry about whether she'll be able to survive in college. (I hate to say it, but honey, no one is really expecting you to go to college, or if you do, to get to a top tier school).

I felt so awful for the mom who was crying at the end of the clip because she had no idea how wonderful other schools like Neuqua were and she didn't understand why her daughter's school is allowed to be so inferior.

I have an answer for her: Because your daughter's poor and black. Believe me, if she wasn't, her school wouldn't look the way it does.

I know that not everyone knows that schools like Neuqua Valley exist. But folks know that schools like Harper exist. Parents in rich areas know about schools like Harper because they want to make sure that their child doesn't have to go to a Harper. The way the system runs right now, I should only care about the educational opportunities of my own child, make sure my kids can go to a "good school" and screw everyone else's kids.

In fact, if those lazy black folks (like the mom crying in the clip) really wanted to, they could get off their asses, go to college, get a decent job and move to Naperville too, so their kid could go to a good school too, right? Yes, America is a meritocracy, we all have an equal playing field and if you work hard, you'll get a good education, the best free education in the world.

Yeah, we are good at telling lies in this country to rationalize the fact that we have a racist, unjust and unequal system.

I'll bet those Neuqua Valley kids and their parents were glad that they didn't have to stay at Harper permanently. Thank God this was just an experiment for the Oprah show, right? A little tour to see how the other half lives and then home to swim in the Olympic sized pool.


epikles said…
I've been writing a screenplay dealing in part with segregration, and a reviewer recently told me that she'd rather see the characters "succeed despite society's hindrances". Wouldn't we all? But being deprived of a decent education is not a mere "hindrance", it's a tragedy.
West said…
I checked out the video on my phone and it was quite a contrast, considering the proximity of the schools. Same country. Same state. Same region.


I noticed how Oprah kept up the code words: "inner city" & "suburban" instead of "Black" & "white."

Not saying she's wrong for that, but it was interesting.
Anonymous said…
Hello Liz:

I’m going to have to interject a bit here, as you know I live in Chicago, my wife actually went to Harper and I went to East Aurora (albeit when Aurora was a bit of a better place to live). Heck OUR High School experiences were a stark contrast.

Harper is not messed up because the people around there and who go there are poor and black, Harper is messed up because these people don’t give a damn.

They don’t give a damn enough to put Daley’s punk arse on front street and DEMAND a better curriculum for grades K-12, instead the get behind the democrats in Chicago, vote for who their “pastors” tell them to vote for without ever demanding anything from these people.

I saw Jesse Jackson hoping into Harpers “refurbished” swimming pool last year, big damn deal. WHY isn’t he pushing for a better CURRICULUM, one that will allow these children to compete?

I compared schools in predominately Black Matteson, IL and predominately White Tinley Park, IL, ( the communities are right next to each other, and the Black community in Matteson has a higher median income, tax rates are about the same, yet the schools in Tinley Park score higher and so do the teachers, who make LESS than the teacher in Matteson.

Unlike Harper and Nequa Valley which are literally worlds apart, these towns are RIGHT NEXT TO EACH OTHER.

Again, same scenario, the Blacks in Matteson DO NOT demand ACCOUNTABILITY from their elected officials, simple as that, and these aren’t “Poor Blacks”.

Just my observation, the people in Nequa Valley have such a nice school because the people give a damn. They hold their elected officials accountable, demanding High standards. We might not get an Olympic size pool, but we could get an Olympic size curriculum.

Race is not the problem, apathy and falling for whatever the democrats say in Chicago is.
Anonymous said…
DJ Black Adam...Yes, a blind, blanket adherence and allegiance toward a political party that never holds itself accountable to its constituents; never actually keeps any of its promises, or moves its people forward by providing systemic changes and tools for positive change, must be booted out.

Such a deposing will take an invested, more learned constituency - one determined to undergo a period of sacrifice ON PURPOSE in a unified stance of serious boycott of the b.s. Such a stance, and understanding and commitment to such requires an activism that will sweep up the working class folks, and those unemployed, eligible to vote folk.

In this day and age, that sometimes sounds like leisure time activity. I'm not saying it is, but there is an enormous outpouring of time needed to knock on the doors and rally the support to apprise the people of just what it is that they are not looking at.

And apathy comes from a real place. In this case, it is a catch-22 situation. Apathy due to the broken promises, and a subsequent continuation of the bad faith promises by a candidate to an apathetic constituency.

I doubt such a scathing rebuke as yours could ever rally the folk into action, even if it were ever the intent.

Liz: I am reminded in this post of the reasons I broke down crying in relaying to my husband your tales of emergency color-code drills, and the teaching that took place while on knees and belly.

I couldn't click through today. Didn't have the heart.
Anonymous said…

“I doubt such a scathing rebuke as yours could ever rally the folk into action, even if it were ever the intent.”

I don’t see the “rebuke” as scathing, I see it as “a clear and accurate observation” without equivocating for the sake of politically expediency and without making excuses for people to NOT do what they CAN do.

People in Chicago can rally to keep R. Kelly’s music on the radio, but these same people cannot and do not rally to get for their children the tools to succeed and do better then they have.

The parents being poor IS NOT an excuse, there were slaves that sacrificed so their kids could learn how to read, after the reconstruction Blacks sacrificed so that we could have our first generation of African American scholars.

I have lived on the South Side of Chicago, I have seen parents more concerned about what brand of clothing their kids clothing than the brand of their children’s education.

It is about choices and values, race is a tired crutch that we have to let go of, the Black leaders and Black people who rely on an outdated civil rights paradigmn that does not address the current actuality in Black America need to wake up.
Anonymous said…
One of the things that I learned over the last ten years was how poor I really was. I've lived in the 'hood for a long time; a place where you know that you are poor, but not how poor. As I started working and moving up in the non-profit management world I started to see things that I did not understand. For example, nursery schools that people pay $15K a year to send their kids to for a half day. People that aren't celebrities that own mutiple vacation homes. I went to an exclusive HS and still I had no guidance on college admissions. Only years later did I know that I was screwed.

The problem is that poor black folk don't know the secrets of the "good" life. How can you tell a family that is stuck in the cycle of poverty to advocate for something that they've never seen? How can I tell a girl whose mother was a crackhead in the 90s to drag herself up from her bootstraps and tell her 10 year old son to go to college and become a marine biologist? Some of us are privileged to know what's out there - I was told to take the post office exam and not worry about college. That's all the good advice my folks had. I don't blame them for that, they never knew anything else.

Race is clearly an issue here. And while the Civil Rights Movement is over many things have been left unaccomplished.
Anonymous said…
Okay, so, this being Liz' blog, and we the invited guests, I will merely say to you, Adam, that where you see a core problem, and divest that from race , though not from cultural attitudes, yet make no connection between the two...race was never part of what I addressed in the tone of your comment.

You: "Harper is not messed up because the people around there and who go there are poor and black, Harper is messed up because these people don’t give a damn.

They don’t give a damn enough..."

Me: You find nothing there scathing?

You'd be hard-pressed to find any cultural apathy apologists at sites so thoughtful and insightful as Liz', so you must know that there are many intersecting points of philosophy about what is out of order and how to get it fixed. However, I think most people know that speaking to others in that tone is never productive.

It was the tone that I addressed.
Anonymous said…

You wrote:“Okay, so, this being Liz' blog, and we the invited guests, I will merely say to you, Adam, that where you see a core problem, and divest that from race , though not from cultural attitudes, yet make no connection between the two...race was never part of what I addressed in the tone of your comment.”

Since this is Liz's blog, and we ARE guest, let me make this my last since for whatever reason you felt the need to address what you implied or infered regarding my "tone" so I will be brief.

Regarding Cultural attitudes, People can do what they want to, some of the people in these neighborhoods MOVE or put their children in private school, same “culture” DIFFERENT “attitude”.

I said, pretty matter of factly: "Harper is not messed up because the people around there and who go there are poor and black, Harper is messed up because these people don’t give a damn.

You focused on: “They don’t give a damn enough..."

You wrote: You find nothing there scathing?

Nope, not at all I find that pointed. If someone said the same thing to me if I was too busy buying Baby Phat and Sean John for my kids instead of getting them to Sylvan to help prepare the for their collegiate journey, It might hurt, but I’d consider what they were saying.

Now if you are unable to consider the substance of my words because of what you imply regarding my tone, then I guess it may not be for you to consider.

”I think most people know that speaking to others in that tone is never productive. It was the tone that I addressed.”

Excuse me? "never" and "My tone”, really...sorry, I’m not speaking to anyone at “Harper” or on Chicago’s South Side to try to change them or motivate them, I was making a statement on a blog about a situation that I am intimately familiar with. I have had college professors, military officers, parents and teachers speak to me in such a tone when I needed to get my stuff together, and you know what, I am THANKFULL that they did, them sitting with me holding hands and singing Kumbya with me while sugar coating what my problems were that I needed to address wasn’t going to help.

Since we are merely stating our opinions on a blog, I don't see why you feel the need to address what you imply in my tone, you do you, I do me.
Anonymous said…
"It might hurt, but I’d consider what they were saying."

Consideration was the key.

At a party like this, the guests will often speak to each other, and will find themselves at pointed odds at times, even when the conversation has them walking along parallel lines. (Of course, parallel lines will never meet...)
Liz Dwyer said…
Hi All,
Sorry to be so MIA on responding to comments over the past day and a half. My real life has definitely interfered with blogging! In any case, I'm going to have to reply to you all tomorrow because it's almost one in the morning and I'm actually TIRED! Given the insomnia, I need to go to sleep instead of staying awake to comment in the manner your thoughts deserve. BUT, I will say that even though this is my blog, please feel free to say what it is you need to say. A Demain Folks.
Liz Dwyer said…
I think it's great that you have the courage to choose to write your screenplay about segregation. I'm sure some folks might say that such a topic isn't super marketable to a studio. In any case, good for you for pointing out to your reviewer that not providing an excellent education to all children is definitely more than a "hindrance".

Good point about the code words. I suppose it's because if we actually talked about how the majority of the kids getting the education gas face are black or Latino or poor, we'd actually have to have that "national conversation on race" that we keep claiming we're going to have after every racial dust-up in this country. And you are just loving that Treo aren't you?

DJBA and Kim,
I am so glad you both engaged on with each other. You don't have to worry about abusing my blog hospitality. I had this long comment and I'm just reposting it as a new post...

I am feeling what you are saying so much. Yeah, I never knew how screwed I was either... how come I never got encouraged to take AP tests? How come my teachers/counselors never asked me if I needed help with college essays? Why did one teacher start a discussion about affirmative action after one kid got rejected from the school I got into? And that's just me. It makes me sick because I know this is what my sons are walking into.
Anonymous said…
Several months ago during the Imus scandal a reporter named Jason Whitlock made the comment that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were terrorists because they went around and stoked fires but never seemed to make a change. Blacks all over were enraged because they felt that he was so wrong...but when I saw the video I have to admit...HE IS BLUNT BUT CORRECT!!!
Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton should be protesting in front of those schools EVERYDAY and bringing the power and money of the Rainbow Coalition, NAACP and Urban League to these schools, but they are not. What are they doing...running down to Duke to protect a young woman who lied. Running to Texas to protest a racist town (but the town never changed their descriminatory practices)!
I as an educated young black woman would like to make a change, but honestly I don't know how. I don't trust my local NAACP or Urban League. I don't know how to convince my neighbors (b/c I do live in the inner city) to give a damn about their children's school much less their neighborhood. So to all you people out there reading and writing on these blogs...What really can be done...How do we as the educated blacks (not necessarily wealthy) to unite and convince those who really are broke to step up as parents and as citizens and push for change?

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