By Sonja Feit Wang
It has been nearly 20 years since I attended my first Bedford Public School event as a parent, and then, and as most Bedford parents can attest going forward, I’ve seen the parking lots and side streets overflow with cars at the too many to count Back to School Nights, concerts, plays and games I’ve been to. Parents are extremely involved in our community and our kids really benefit from that. I have often said that is part of one of many privileges that our kids enjoy as a rule, as well as other extras that we are ready and willing to shell out to make sure that our offspring have all the advantages in succeeding at everything from sports to getting into the best college.
That being said, some of you may have surprised to receive Jon Sills’ two recent emails regarding racism in our schools, on varying levels, and many of you were not. My personal sense is that many people in Bedford like to think of us as a small town that is a great place to live. (Bedford is 75% White, 14.3% Asian, 4% Black and 5% Latino. The average household income in Bedford is $117,000, well over the average household income of $75,000 for the state of Massachusetts. https://www.neighborhoodscout.com/ma/bedford/demographics)
While that is certainly the case for many people and for many kids, I think we need to take an honest look at what is happening at our schools and what has been happening over a long period of time. As we all know, Bedford Public Schools do not provide an education for just children who live in Bedford. We have students from Boston in the METCO program in grades K-12; and at the high school, we integrate those in 9-12th grade from Hanscom Air Force Base. Though the racial diversity in Bedford, in terms of mainly the Asian population, has increased in recent years, we are mainly a White town and the majority African American and Latino students that we have in our schools come to us as METCO and/or Hanscom students. Just on the most basic levels, these kids go through a much different experience just to get to school. METCO students have 2 plus hour commutes both ways and if they participate in sports, may not get home until 9:00. Hanscom students live on a base that has a very enhanced security protocol, even on the school bus, every student must show their ID to enter. That is the tip of the iceberg in terms of some of the differences that they bring to the table from the kids that come from Bedford, a town that had a population of 11,0000 when my family moved here 20 years ago and is now over 14,000.
I cannot tell you what these students experience on a daily basis, because I am not one of them, nor am I one of their parents. I can say I have heard probably many of the same claims of racism and marginalization from some of these students (mainly of color) as many of you have, particularly on social media. Perhaps you have had the same reaction as I have, maybe you have not. I believe them. I believe that they also feel that they have felt unfairly profiled, for a number of reasons. To some degree, it probably is subconscious on the faculty’s [part]. However, you cannot take away the preconceived notions that certain kids are coming from the city, from places that are “rougher” than Bedford, could they perhaps have a weapon or drugs? On top of that, the reality is that there is a percentage of drug use (and I’m going to say marijuana) among every race at Bedford High. However, which population goes out to their car and smokes? Who has a car at school to keep it in, and which population is more likely to carry it on them? If a certain student was accused of carrying a weapon, would he know to call his parents before consenting to a search? Do you think that there might be a difference between how a parent from our community would react than someone who has a history of being from a community where they are used to being targeted by the police in a much different way than we would? Of course, we don’t want to think our kids would misbehave in any way, but the reality is that kids are smoking marijuana in and out of school. When my daughter was a freshman at BHS, 8 years ago, I recall lockdowns and drug dogs sniffing every locker because the problem was out of control. We have new problems now, with edibles and vaping. I wonder if all parents in Bedford would agree to random searches of ALL students on any given day by the Bedford PD, or would they feel that their student’s rights were being violated? Just food for thought.
When you look at me, you see a White woman, what do I know? I am also a Jew and married to a Chinese man and have 3 bi-racial children. My children were not raised in a religious household, due in part to the fact that I shunned the part of me that was Jewish. I grew up in an area that had very few Jews and I was ashamed of being Jewish and how it made me different. The fact that I wasn’t a very self-assured person and didn’t have a strong nuclear family to anchor a strong sense of pride in my faith probably had a lot to do with it. I don’t happen to “look” Jewish, and didn’t marry a Jewish man, so it was easy to fall into being a more “mainstream” and what I felt was “normal” person. I also didn’t want to give my kids two minorities to deal with. I take responsibility for my choices (and have been having my own personal adjustment of feelings in response to feelings that were brought up the Pittsburgh tragedy), I just wanted to give a context of where I was coming from. However, I received enough of a Jewish education and it was still inside of me to know what it meant to a Jew when Swastikas were on the walls of the high school and 2nd graders were playing “Jail the Jews.” Yes, we all know that a Swastika is a symbol of hate and that it’s wrong. But, for me, I felt that the schools missed the mark in not realizing how deep the pain is for a Jewish student, how as a Jew, the Holocaust didn’t happen just to your ancestors, it happened to you, it’s a personal pain so deep. So deep, that for me, I literally tried to pretend that I wasn’t somebody that could be so hated. The administration’s response last year, when we had another Swastika was that “It doesn’t represent Bedford,” and “Bedford Embraces Diversity.” I feel, we can’t keep addressing things that are so deep and have a history of hatred, whether it be a Swastika or the N-word, or calling a young gay man the F-word, or an Asian the C-word, et cetera, because they aren’t just words, and they don’t just “hurt” you. They come from histories of hatred and violence and killing, that the victim’s of these slurs literally carry in them when they hear them, especially children and teens, who developmentally take what their peers say and think of them into their identity and self-perception. No, the Swastika didn’t represent everyone from Bedford, but it did come from somebody in Bedford, and I’m willing to bet that most of our students, who mean no harm, don’t really understand what they mean to a Jew or how it feels to be racially profiled or called a N word to an African American or be told to kill yourself because you’re gay or be punched in the arm and called a “gook” every day in the hall like my son was or told you have sideways [female genitals] like my daughter was, but that also doesn’t translate into “Bedford loves diversity,” as a panacea to fix the problem.
It’s no accident that both of my older kids wrote their college essays about their experiences with racism in Bedford. One thing that surprised me the most was a line in my son’s essay that so many of his friends would tell him that his Dad was the “Whitest or most American Chinese guy they knew.” Because he doesn’t have an accent and coached most of them in sports. I thought, “you can’t be one or the other?” Then I thought back to his childhood as one of a very small handful of Asian kids in his town, where he moved at the age of 6. Different from Bedford is now, not because of type of kids, if anything, they were even richer kids, but, because as he tells me, he wasn’t asked if he ate dog or could see out of his eyes, he just saw the punches being thrown at him and he fought his way into being accepted. One of the most poignant things he ever said to me, with tears in his eyes, was, “they didn’t think I would use my fists.” Maybe they beat the American into him. Is it better today?? I agree with Mr. Sills, we live in a time where, as adults, in this nation we are very divided and racial tensions are very high, but these issues also existed before this. I also agree with him, that makes it more important than ever that we address these issues with our kids. I think we do that first, by listening to our kids, hear what is really happening in the schools. Spend more time and resources on addressing and educating our kids on what all of this means and the impact it has on them and their peers. Potlucks, festivals, and playdates are great and have their place, but we need to get more serious about what is going on and not just because a student called a news station.
We’ve seen so many examples of how much this town cares and we’ve seen the parents come out. My hope is that we can come out and share our experiences in a way that doesn’t degrade each other, but so that we can learn from them and set examples for our kids. Just as we all want our kids to get the best grades and SAT scores and parts in the play and spots on the team and dates for the prom, we also need to set a priority for them to gain an understanding of the experiences of people who are different from they are, and work towards not have any students hurt this way on any level.
*Disclaimer: This is in no way an attack against the group, Bedford Embraces Diversity, which I know has worked very hard for a number of years. These are my opinions on the phrase that was used as a response to an incident and also some of what I personally would like seen done in the schools.*