Public School Changed My Life, And That's Why I'm Scared Of Betsy DeVos
Alaina Leary
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In second grade, I spent almost every day in Mrs. S’s reading room. Tuesdays and Thursdays were our “official” days, but I’d find almost any reason I could to get out of class, walk down the twisting hallways of Ferryway Elementary, and be surrounded by my haven of books in Mrs.’s S’s room. There was a check-out list, but she’d let me take more books at a time than we were technically allowed, because she knew I’d read them all before the two weeks were up.

It wasn’t always like that. In fact, I started meeting with Mrs. S sometime around first grade, when my doctors and teachers were starting to use the word "learning disability." I struggled to learn to read, because of a combination of what I’d later learn was autism, sensory processing disorder, and ADHD. In addition to being a school librarian, Mrs. S worked one-on-one to tutor students, especially those of us who lacked other resources. I was a public school kid, and my single mom was disabled and low income; we didn’t have the kind of money that private tutors and fancy after-school programs typically cost.

It wasn’t always like that. In fact, I started meeting with Mrs. S sometime around first grade, when my doctors and teachers were starting to use the word "learning disability."

While working with Mrs. S, I learned that I loved reading — once I knew how to do it. If I was interested in a book, I could fly through it in an afternoon or a couple of hours, depending on length. But I didn’t just love reading; I loved everything about books. I would sit down in my room and recreate picture books by hand, illustrating every page. Mrs. S didn’t want to “fix” my learning disabilities. She wanted to work with them, and she understood that they were a part of who I am and what made me so enthusiastic about books. She recommended everything from Kate DiCamillo to Cam Jansen to Ramona Quimby, and I devoured every word.

Mrs. S didn’t want to “fix” my learning disabilities. She wanted to work with them.

In light of everything from Betsy DeVos to the Massachusetts vote on charter schools, I’ve been thinking about my experience in the public school system. Public schools are not perfect — far from it. Schools are underfunded and overcrowded, and a lot of teachers (and other professionals, like librarians and counselors) are overworked. But public schools made me who I am today, from the in-school occupational and physical therapy I got weekly in elementary school to the public state college professors who helped me apply for graduate programs.

I was a part of the special education program for my entire elementary school years, from kindergarten through fifth grade. Because of the public school system, it was easier for my mom and I to figure out what my learning disabilities were and how they affected me. I went to school-sponsored occupational and physical therapy regularly, and the school provided me with extra supports for classes that were more difficult, including an immersive special education class for third grade.

By the time fifth grade rolled around, I was a reader. But I found fifth grade English class impossibly hard, because I wasn’t able to learn grammar in the traditional way. Give me an essay, and I could pick out the typos, and tell you where commas should go. But if you asked me to diagram a sentence, I was completely blank-faced. My teacher, instead of scolding me, helped me work on projects that catered to my learning style. When we learned about the anatomy of a book, she had us create one as a class for a project. I took her aside and asked her if I could also create my own book. I was interested in the process and wanted to see what I could do on my own.

A week later, she gave me a blank hardcover book, which was the perfect canvas for me to craft a story, complete with illustrations. She knew how hard it would be for me to get these kinds of materials myself, given that my mom couldn’t drive and we relied on public transportation, so she helped out. All the books I’d made before were created with stock paper and didn’t hold up to the test of time.

A week later, she gave me a blank hardcover book, which was the perfect canvas for me to craft a story, complete with illustrations.

In seventh grade, I wrote a memoir after my mom passed away—the story of our life together and surviving losing her, which I called An Angel’s Wings. I signed up for a local public program sponsored by the library that allowed me to print the book out and bind it. When I had a completed copy, I brought it to school to show my teachers, and they encouraged me to send the book out for publication and to show it to people. A few months after I had the hard copy printed, I met the mayor, who gave me a citation for my work on the book. Sitting there, with a copy of my finished book in my hands (complete with a hand-illustrated cover, replica copyright page, and jacket copy), I thought for the first time: My dreams could become reality.

My English teachers, especially, encouraged me to continue to pursue my love of writing and reading, which led to me getting my bachelor’s degree at Westfield State University, a public college, where I studied English and spent most of my time focused on a career in editing or publishing. During that time, I really learned how my love of social justice and human rights could marry my love of publishing — and how I could shape my career toward the kind of intersectional activism that really motivates me and changes the world. If it weren’t for my public college education or my public college professors, I wouldn’t have applied for my MA in publishing and writing, which I’ll be finishing this May at Emerson College. I wouldn’t have volunteered for organizations like We Need Diverse Books or Habitat for Humanity, or used my writing to help get a veterans’ sanctuary built on my undergrad campus.

During that time, I really learned how my love of social justice and human rights could marry my love of publishing — and how I could shape my career toward the kind of intersectional activism that really motivates me and changes the world.

My public school education — everything from my teachers to the support systems in place to help marginalized students — changed my life. It helped me take my love of stories and writing and shaping it into a meaningful career. It's because my public school education was so crucial that I'm concerned about Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary. Every child deserves to have the opportunities that I had, and while my public school education wasn't perfect, it was also an incredibly accessible option for me. I was raised low income, and private schools and tutors weren't affordable, and our local charter school came with a waitlist that you'd be lucky to get off of.

I'm worried that the public school system, which already needs as much funding and TLC as it can get, will only see an increase of problems under DeVos. I was privileged in the fact that, as a disabled student, I had teachers who cared about me, a school system that supported me, and a mom who advocated for me. Not every child has that, which is why we need someone in power who cares even more about funding underfunded schools, who cares about hiring and retaining excellent public school teachers, who cares about accommodations and accessibility for all students, and who will make a commitment to making sure our most vulnerable students survive—and thrive.

I was privileged in the fact that, as a disabled student, I had teachers who cared about me, a school system that supported me, and a mom who advocated for me. Not every child has that, which is why we need someone in power who cares.

I'm where I am today because of my public school education (kindergarten through undergraduate college), and I still think about Mrs. S’s reading room every time I pick up a book.