It has been a tumultuous few years in the South Brunswick community, specifically the South Brunswick School District. All you have to do is google the district and a few of the headlines you’ll get are: “Amid allegations of intimidation, N.J. school superintendent placed on leave” or “South Brunswick superintendent accused of bad behavior toward staff resigns” and “Embattled superintendent resigns amid community outrage.” This is reading separate from the purpose of the conversation here. But it gives context for what the environment in both the community and the schools has been over the past few years.
Things have quieted down considerably. School days continue to pass. School board meetings have returned to mere order of business with the scattering of members of the public. I, too, have taken a step – a giant step – back. These past two years were traumatizing for many of us who are distraught over what occurred, frustrated with little change, and above all else, really damn tired. Despite the relatively calm outwardly appearance of the school district, one thing caught my eye from the start of the new school year: this year’s district theme. South Brunswick School District always has a theme that is the year’s motto, displayed on practically every official document released by the district and often at the core of the work for that year as a district-wide slogan. This year’s theme, prominently displayed across the top of the district homepage is, “Attitude Determines Altitude – Fly High!”
Let’s just start by addressing the obvious – is it a great decision to put “fly high!” in a district motto? I’m not so sure. All I can say is that there have been some hilarious, and I’m sure at times concerning, response from mainly high schooler’s who have interpreted “fly high!” to mean something other than what I’m sure the district intended. Aside from the silly nature of what that has become, the first part of the theme carries with it very serious and troubling implications: “Attitude Determines Altitude.” For even further context, some of the past themes include: “Schools Only Succeed When Students Achieve” circa 2007-2008; “Success is a Choice” circa 2012-2013; and “Challenge Your Limits” circa 2015-2016.
Each of these truly deserve their own analysis. If schools only succeed when students achieve, how are we measuring achievement? Is that based on the social and emotional care of our students and the meeting of their basic needs, or is that a measure of achievement on a standardized test? If success is a choice, what happens when you’re not given a choice not due to your lack of self-determination but due to much larger systems and institutions that limit access to a select privileged few? And if one is supposed to challenge their limits, at what point are we focused on making sure that their foundational needs are met before reaching limits, and most of all, who decides what those limits are? My guess is the answers to these are: standardized testing, get over not having privilege, and push your limits no matter what trauma or pain you’re experiencing.
Which brings us to “Attitude Determines Altitude” circa 2016-2017. While this is arguably coded language, in many ways it is not. In simple terms, this can be translated to: your attitude determines how far you’re going to get in life. This statement reads exactly like the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” statement so often used to dismiss the systemic disenfranchisement of marginalized communities as well as to blame individuals for their lack of “altitude;” all the while pretending that individuals don’t exist within systems and those systems don’t play a very real role is defining where one gets in life. This statement is founded on beliefs such as “we all have the same opportunity and access” and that “some people just don’t work hard enough and are individually responsible for their place in life.” What the same people making these arguments often fail to see is that the wealthy older white men so often in positions of power actually didn’t pull themselves up by their own bootstraps; rather, they had the incomparable help of the entire system founded on white supremacy and anti-Blackness that rocketed them into positions of power and authority with little to no effort.
What would happen if a district theme – intended to bring the district and all involved parties together around a shared value – focused on the importance of education for democracy, education for liberation, and education for freedom? What would happen if a district theme moved away from a focus on individual competition and limiting definitions of achievement to a theme rooted in the growth and sustainment of community? What would happen if a district theme focused around reimagining the very purpose of education through practices and principles of equity and justice?
It’ll take far more than changing a theme to move us from an oppressive, violent schooling system to one that is rooted in democratic and liberatory practices and principles. Schooling at its very foundation was not designed for all people; it was designed for white cisgender heterosexual christian able-bodied men who continue to be held up as the ideal, as the norm, and as the only ones worthy of an education. Everyone else is an “other.”
Some may argue that focusing on a district theme is extremely minor in comparison to other issues in education today. We’ve all seen the appointment of Betsy DeVos as an embodiment of many of the deeply embedded inequities in our educational system (and the very fabric of society, as no minor aside). Some may argue that having a “good attitude” in life will help in succeeding, which really all depends on how good and success are defined, and who is defining these terms. But mainly in response, I would say that statements like the district theme are the exact type of coded language that gives so many the platform to advocate for and implement incredibly dangerous practices and policies while avoiding the outright label of “oppressor” in whatever form that oppression takes: racism, sexism, transphobia, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, and/or ableism.
I don’t think that whoever came up with this theme, whether it was an individual or group of people, intended for it to be problematic. But I worry in that focusing so much on intent, we are forgetting the very real impact this has on those both inside and outside of our community. We are a community. That includes teachers, parents, students, and school board members. It falls on our shoulders to better ourselves, to recognize the importance of the language we use, and to act upon this recognition to do better and be better each and every day. We have a lot of healing to do in our district that goes far beyond the most recent superintendent debacle.
I have always said that in my opinion, the hard work began the day the superintendent resigned. Getting him out of the district was the easy part. Rebuilding and reimagining education and schooling in South Brunswick School District is the hard part. We are called to do the work, to engage in difficult conversation, and to confront the realities of education that have existed since the beginning of compulsory schooling but are only now coming into focus for many who haven’t been and still may not be impacted by the outward violence and hate at the core of this new administration. Let’s begin.