September 2016- As I kid I lived in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, along Marine View Drive. Wealth didn’t afford us a view of Lake Michigan living across the street from Margate Park. No, our benefactor was a lawsuit-driven housing equity program for low-income families.
The neighborhood was much different then than now. The Skid Row of Argyle Street was slowly being transformed by Asian immigrants opening stores. Shop owners emerged every morning with brooms to perform a daily ritual of sweeping up garbage around sleeping drunks. Walking to school involved crossing Sheridan Road to avoid the stench of stale alcohol and the lurking men at the strip club. As kids, we stopped at the Jewish deli to fish crunchy, cool dill pickles from a big barrel. There was a butcher shop with meat hanging in the window.
Away from the parks and beaches, a potpourri of skin colors and languages flourished in apartment buildings small and large. I didn’t speak the language of the Hispanic family receiving a ceremonial suckling pig on holidays, neatly tucked on its back in a cardboard box delivered to their door. I didn’t share the religion of the Irish family who seemed to grow despite hosting intermittent, boisterous wakes. The quiet Chinese family who walked my classmate Kathy back and forth to school was more polite and reserved than my big, rugged family could ever pretend to be.
What we did have in common was school. We all trudged to John T. McCutcheon Elementary School every morning and learned to write in cursive, speak proper grammatical English, perform basic math functions, study geography and history.
Decades later, as I stand in the restored Prairie Union Schoolhouse at American Prairie Reserve, the view is so familiar in a place so faraway that I find myself tumbling back to my youth. It doesn’t seem likely that I would have something in common with a child sitting at a desk in a one-room schoolhouse in what would have been outer space to me back then.
American Prairie Reserve’s restoration of the Prairie Union School includes an audio interpreter. It’s a little jarring to press a button and hear a human voice over a speaker when you’re in the middle of what you hope is nowhere. But the narrative, the objects in the room, and the view tell a compelling story that is more relevant today than ever. As I listened to the narrator, I looked at the prairie expanding away from the window like a growing universe. I glanced back at the map of Asia, wondering what a ranch kid felt like looking at the exotic planet beyond view.
When you live in the inner city of a massive city and your family is poor, the schoolroom is a place that will make or break your future. You have no more access to services and benefits of the developed world than a ranch kid living 100 miles from a town. You have no wealth, power or authority behind you. Your only hope for any kind of future is to get a good education and move upward and out.
Like any ranch kid, you have to be able to gaze out the window and dream of a different place to keep studying. You have to learn to walk a gauntlet to school- maybe it’s prairie weather and rattlesnakes, or maybe social problems and crime that plague cities.
Today, this schoolroom looks quaint, a well-restored photo opp if you’re a hurried and thoughtless tourist looking to populate social media pages. Stay for awhile, though. Think about your life past and present. Listen to the story the building and objects and view are telling you. Think about the state and role of education today in our electronically-entangled world. And know that now, as then, to kids all over the planet, education means everything to our future.
The best kind of graffitti- temporary and beautiful. This signature includes what I believe is balsamroot flower.