The woman at the heart of this story doesn’t want me to use her name or her picture–or the names and pictures of her children. I can’t blame her for that. I don’t know anyone who wants to tell the world about her troubles, especially personal financial troubles. The story would have more impact if she were willing to provide identifying details and you could see a picture of her and her children, but I understand why she wishes not to do that. The woman, however, is real and I have spoken to her at length. If someone in authority wants to help her, I will tell that person how to reach her.
I will call her Dolores because that means sad. I will call her 8-year-old son David because that is my son’s name. I will call her 4-year-old son Henry because that is my grandson’s name. All children are our children, after all.
Dolores recently moved to Newark from another town in Essex County. She is unemployed. She ran out of benefits and she is broke. She and her children were evicted from their last apartment. Although she and her children moved into the city before the school year began, she was unable to register her children in the school closest to her apartment, Belmont-Runyon.
Newark doesn’t really have neighborhood schools anymore. Rich white people who live in places like Montclair and Glen Ridge and Mendham have decided the residents of Newark must go to the schools they–the rich white people–say they should go to. So Dolores’s two sons could not go to Belmont Runyon, just a short walk away.
It’s almost funny because those rich white people call this system “choice” and they tell themselves and their friends how they are bringing “choice” to poor black people like Dolores and her children. Choice, just like rich white people have–but, of course, poor black people like Dolores cannot choose to live in rich white suburbs and go to the schools there.
No one I know can explain why any of this is called choice. I can’t.
If Dolores could choose, she says, she would choose the school a block or so away. Belmont-Runyon. But strangers who can’t possibly know how it is to live like Dolores chose to send Dolores’s 8-year-old son, David, to a school more than a mile away. It’s called the Hawthorne Avenue School.
To get David to school every morning, Dolores must get up about six when it is still dark and feed and dress her two sons. Then Dolores walks with her two young children to the bus stop and catches the bus that goes partly across town to the Hawthorne Avenue School.
Then Dolores gets back on the bus with Henry to go home. A few hours later, she gets on the bus with Henry again and goes to Hawthorne again to pick up David. Then the three go home. Soon it will be dark when they come home, too. They spend about two hours a day waiting for, and riding, a bus. It costs $6 a day, which, to rich white people in Montclair and Glen Ridge and Mendham, isn’t a lot of money.
“But I have to borrow it,” says Dolores. Sometimes, she says, she’s tried to sell her food stamps to raise the money for the bus fare. Rich white people in Montclair and Mendham and Glen Ridge rarely see food stamps.
And many, probably most, have cars. When you have a car, driving to a school 15 blocks away takes a few minutes. That’s probably why people in towns like that who make choices for Dolores don’t understand what a neighborhood school means. It’s more than a convenience. It’s a necessity. A necessity now denied to poor Newark parents like Dolores. She cannot afford a car or gas to put into it or insurance. Imagine that.
Here’s something else that’s, well, not really funny. Although David can go to the Hawthorne Avenue School, the rich white people from Montclair and Glen Ridge and Mendham have decided that Henry can’t go to the same school as his big brother. He has to go to a different school far away. There is a private pre-school near Hawthorne and that would be ok, says Dolores, but that one is filled up, too.
“No room,” she says.
People who work for the rich white people in Montclair and Glen Ridge and Mendham have decided that “school choice” means Henry must go to the 13th Avenue School and the 13th Avenue School is way across town, not just from Belmont-Runyon, but also from Hawthorne Avenue. About 25 or 30 blocks.
Imagine getting two young kids on a bus for a 15 block ride and then taking another child on another 25 blocks in the opposite direction and getting it all done by 8:30 a,m. Then going home and, a few hours later, doing the whole thing all over again. Try looking for a job under those circumstances.
“It’s impossible,” says Dolores. “No one could. I just can’t get both kids to school on time.”
She also says, even if it were possible, she cannot afford the bus fare. Can you imagine anyone living in the kind of house Christopher Cerf or Chris Christie lives in not having bus fare?
But they make the choices. And this is the only choice Dolores has:
Henry cannot go to school at all.
I tried to explain to her about Christopher Cerf, a rich white man who lives in Montclair and is the Newark schools superintendent. Cerf runs the Newark schools because another man, Gov. Chris Christie, gave him that job. Christie lives in Mendham and he and his wife are rich, too (their children went to schools that charged $36,000 a year in tuition and they could pay that, no sweat). Anyway, Christopher Cerf likes to go around saying how much he loves the people of Newark and wants to help them and so, I said that, maybe, if I wrote about her, maybe Christopher Cerf would help her.
He probably hates bad publicity more than he loves the poor, black people of Newark.
It will be easier for him to ignore Dolores and David and Henry if no one knows their real names and can’t see pictures of them. He will say I made it all up and that’s the real reason I didn’t use Dolores’s real name or publish her picture. Rich white people in places like Montclair and Glen Ridge and Mendham don’t have to tell the world their stories in order to get help from government. They are the government.
I just think what those rich white people who live in Montclair and Glen Ridge and Mendham do to people like Dolores and her children is a crime.