Big Mom on Campus: Raising Two Kids in a College Dorm
2012 Grand Prize Column Contest Winner
Taylor Harris enrolled at Thomas Jefferson’s university (as a Black, non-slave) eleven years ago. In 2005, she grabbed her diploma, along with a suitable mate, and left for Washington, D.C. Now she’s back at UVA—with her professor husband, two young kids, and a minivan. For the next year, she and her family will live in a college dorm and interact with students (on purpose).
When Race Matters,
We toured the preschool for an hour that morning. In and out, in and out, of the 2s, 3s, the Pre-K rooms. Down the halls and past the sounds of little girls singing out from the potty. Eliot, glued to my hip, never smiled or waved back to the teachers, but every time we turned toward the hallway, she cried. She wanted to stay and cut foam or play house or run her fingers through gravel in a tray.
We sat in the director’s office and asked questions (Paul asked most of them). Curriculum? Wait lists? Discipline? School security? And so on. Eliot squirmed in my lap and Tophs sat still in Paul’s, straightjacketed by his winter coat.
One question stayed with us, even after we shook hands and thanked her and left. It wouldn’t be, or couldn’t be formed from our lips there, in that office. We could have tried. We could have asked, “How is diversity integrated into your curriculum?” But we would have meant, “How will you make Eliot feel less like the only?” OR “When does race start to matter?”
And maybe that’s something we can’t answer.
We had seen no students of color on the tour and didn’t need a master’s degree in education to tell us what we remembered from our own lives—that at some point, maybe not in preschool, maybe not even by Kindergarten or third grade, but inevitably—she would start to feel alone in that environment, no matter how top-notch the teachers were.
You can say that it won’t kill her and she’d be stronger and more beautiful and more brilliant, and I agree. She will be strong and beautiful and brilliant. But at what cost? And am I willing to have her pay it in the name of resilience?
Funny thing is, we left that tour feeling disappointed, but knew we’d still apply for admission. We chalked it up to good ‘ol Charlottesville, a southern city steeped in both eccentric intellectualism and stale stratification. Here you have White yogis driving Subarus to Whole Foods and Black city folk catching the bus to sweep the university’s floors. Nothing wrong with either lifestyle at face value. The problem comes when mostly one race fits the lower socioeconomic mold. When one race has been squeezed out of the gentrified buildings and marginalized, both in pay scale and visibility.
In this college town (in which the college was built by slaves), I have been hard-pressed to locate a Black middle class. The legacy of an area kissed by the Civil War? Maybe.
It means that when I’m looking for preschools and scroll down the webpage to see who’s on the church’s staff (several churches offer affordable preschool), I see the White pastors and ministers and education directors, and I see one or two Black men at the bottom. They work in facilities. Maybe this has nothing to do with Eliot and the ABCs.
It still means that when people told us, “Charlottesville is a great place to raise a family,” they were telling a truth. I just haven’t decided if it’s ours.
I was raised in a small, White suburb in Columbus, Ohio. People hear “Ohio” and think barns and corn, but I went to school with many well-off kids, some of whom lived in mansions. Their parents drove BMWs and they vacationed in Florida and Aruba over winter break.
My family rented townhouses or small single-family homes. My father worked in a factory and my mother worked various office jobs. As children, we wanted for nothing, but I often wondered how people in the community saw us, because of both our race and class.
I remember being left out of a senior spring break trip because my friends assumed I wouldn’t be able to afford it.
And being the type of girl you’d vote as class president or to homecoming court but not the type you’d take to prom.
I remember the friend who was annoyed with a Black History Month assembly and told me he could call someone a n*gger if he wanted.
And a subsequent meeting I had with the principal, who tried to comfort me with these words: “Yeah, I have students asking me, ‘When are we gonna have White History Month?’ and I tell them, ‘Hey, we can have White History Month, too!’”
I remember these things when I think on Eliot’s future. To become twisted up in bitterness from my past would be fruitless, and yet to forget the strange mix of tokenism and torment that I experienced growing up, to assume it would fly over Eliot’s head, would be utterly neglectful.
Here’s the so-what, you know, the big bridge to bring it all together: I thought I’d have different options for my daughter than my parents had for my sisters and me.
My parents chose to rent in a suburb with great public schools so that we could have graduate degrees. They allowed us to be the only so that we would have options. They hurt when we hurt, but private schools were too expensive and city public schools ran low on textbooks.
It worked. It worked the best it could, and as a high school senior, I applied early to UVA. My oldest sister attended the law school, and I’d fallen in love with Grounds when we’d moved her in. By the grace of God, I received a scholarship turned down by another student who went to Chapel Hill.
At eighteen, I stepped into a world I couldn’t have imagined. Biracial friends who spoke multiple languages and looked like my family; Black friends who took eighteen credits and talked of medical school, and a close White friend who never once seemed uncomfortable hanging out with folks of color.
Where had they been all those years?
Not in Ohio, stupid. I know, I know.
The University of Virginia was the first place (besides my house) where I didn’t feel alone. No one there told me I looked like Rudy Huxtable. Because I didn’t. No one questioned my interest in African-American Studies. They were interested, too. We might have only been ten percent of the student population, but ten percent of thousands is way more than two percent of a couple hundred.
But the Black students here now aren’t my friends, and they aren’t Eliot’s friends, and as a family, we are on the bubble but not in the bubble. Don’t get me wrong; we’ve outgrown the collegiate bubble. There’s no envy, just great memories.
So I am searching. I am looking for a way to make this rich place—where I found my friends, my faith, and my husband—enriching for my daughter.
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