Helena Andrews is a regular contributor to The Root.
Start typing "mother arrested" into Google, and the Internet wastes no time filling in the rest: "for lying about her address." Not "for selling her daughters on Craigslist," "for feeding her sons drywall" or "for locking her kids in the basement like Boo Radley," but for trying to educate them beyond the borders of their block. In the United States of America, educating your children by any means necessary is a punishable offense.
Henry David Thoreau, the American father of civil disobedience philosophy, said, "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison." How many of the schools in "low income" (fewer tax dollars) communities look like prisons? So when the government is imprisoning poor children unjustly, it might make sense that mothers seeking justice end up in jail. If you live in crazy town.
Since January, two African-American women have been publicly shamed for sending their children to a school district that was better than the one in which they lived. Both Ohio mom Kelley Williams-Bolar and Connecticut's Tonya McDowell have been charged with larceny for fudging official school documents. "I did this for them, so there it is," said Williams-Bolar, who used her father's address to get her two daughters into a better public school. Together, Williams-Bolar and McDowell owe more than $45,000 in back tuition, according to court documents.
The Ohio school district where Williams-Bolar illegally sent her two daughters used taxpayers' money to hire a private investigator to see how far the mother would go to ensure that her daughters didn't end up in somebody's drop-out factory. In the end, she was sentenced to 10 days in jail, three years' probation and community service. Apparently, parenting classes these days should include a workshop on what to do when your state punishes you for actually parenting.
According to the Stamford Advocate, Tonya McDowell is being charged with stealing $15,686 in funds from the Norwalk, Conn., school district, because the homeless mother lied about her permanent address so that her 6-year-old son could attend a school outside the district of the minivan in which she was living.
"I know so many people who enroll in other school districts where the kids go home on the weekend to visit their parents so they can have a better education," said McDowell in an interview with a local newspaper.
Connecticut prosecutors claim that the more than $15,000 price tag equals the value of the education that McDowell's son received at Brookside Elementary School between September and January. OK, English was my major, so as the saying goes, I'm no mathematician, but I also attended a pretty prestigious private high school, and Connecticut's numbers just don't add up to me. The state would have us believe that four months of public school is equivalent to a full year's scholarship for an elementary school student at my alma mater.
McDowell and her son were splitting time between a homeless shelter and a friend's apartment in a Bridgeport public housing complex. After McDowell's arrest for first-degree larceny on April 14, the friend, who baby-sat for McDowell, was evicted. So now her support system has shrunk even further.
"Remember when we were homeless?" asked my mother in inappropriately casual conversation a few years ago. Um, no. In my memory we were just "in between" people — in between jobs, schools, towns. According to my mother, there was a time when our constant traveling wasn't a hippie child-rearing experiment but a necessity. Because I was probably around 6 at the time, the same age as McDowell's son, all I really knew was that my mother was a hustler and my job was to be along for the ride.
There's a scene in The Pursuit of Happyness that always gets me. Will Smith, playing the real-life success story Chris Gardner, is forced to spend the night in a public bathroom, which might not be so terrible, if his tiny son weren't dozing on the contaminated floor next to him.
Gardner tries so hard to keep it together after every possible thing that can go wrong does. His wife is fed up; the great internship he wants — the one that will get him a career, as opposed to a job — doesn't pay; he owes back taxes and gets evicted; the shelter closes too early ... and the bathroom is open.
Watching that scene, when Gardner tries to make a game out of sleeping in a stinking stall and then cries silent tears once his son has finally fallen asleep, always reminds me of what my mother probably went through. What McDowell, Williams-Bolar and countless other women and men who have bigger dreams for their children than their paychecks can cash go through.
Yes, school districts exist for a reason. According to America's idiotic public education system, tax dollars determine how decent an education your kid gets. So Beverly Hills High will always be better than Compton High. To leap over the gaps left by a broken system, parents can either send their kids to a magnet school (of which there are few), a free public charter school (with its limited number of open spots) or pay for private school. Stealing, as defined by Ohio and Connecticut, is in some ways not so much the easy way out as it is the only way out.