Shovel Your Sidewalk

I walk to school. It’s one of the many things that make me kind of less than a real adult in the eyes of the 17 year olds that I teach each day. I also dance awkwardly when I hear trap music, and can’t wear a tie particularly well. Adults are supposed to be able to wear ties without feeling “extra,” refrain from dancing at inopportune times, and, apparently, drive their car to work each day.

Walking is one of those things that gets me so much love in the yupster crowd, but buys me absolutely no credibility in the classroom. Real adults buy cars and drive them everywhere. Walking, especially when the weather is anything other than perfect which is every day in Pittsburgh, is just the kind of thing that should make one of those “shit white people do” lists.

Anyway, walking to school is actually one of my favorite pastimes and it allows me time to think about all the important things in life. I think about my wife and my kids, my classes as I run through lessons in my head, and reflect on all the happenings (and sometimes trauma) of the school day.

I also end up thinking a lot about sidewalks.

Pittsburgh is an old city with lots of trees and pretty drastic weather changes. As a result, it has some pretty roller-coaster-ish sidewalks. Even on a beautiful summer day, they can roll the healthiest of ankles. But those roller coaster sidewalks become even more frightening with frequent snow and sub-zero temperatures.

There are some sidewalks, like the one outside the old Catholic Seminary, that is plowed from edge to edge. They even double-down with a liberal layer of salt, ensuring that their 100 yards of sidewalk is lawsuit-proof.

Seriously, whatever the seminary is paying their sidewalk guy, they should double it immediately. That is a damn good sidewalk, and I am something of a connoisseur.

That place knows how to invest in sidewalks. The church across the street, however, can get kind of hazardous. The Presbyterians may be great people, but they clearly don’t care about their sidewalks as much as the folks at the seminary.

My whole 1-mile walk to work each morning is a quick study on the result of investment.

There are people who buy the salt, the nice shovel, and they use all of it each time snow falls to ensure a clean walk. Then, there are others who don’t touch their walks at all. Walking past their house requires skill and strong knees. I dance through the footsteps that have gone before me to try to keep my shoes from getting wet at the start of the day. I jump onto the road when there is no traffic, and hop back onto the sidewalk when the bus passes.

It’s a real shitshow. Some people invest the time and energy to clean their walks, and others simply leave them alone.

I can’t help but think about what happens when people care about their walks. I also have to think about what happens when people care about their schools. In general, when we care about things, they work well. Unfortunately, I think my neighborhood treats the high school a lot like some of those unshoveled sidewalks.

I probably pass about 200 houses on my walk to school each day. None of those houses have students that go to my high school. And each day at about 5:50am, I could tell you all the students I see waiting for a city bus to go somewhere else to school. I pass about 4 bus stops, and each of them has a daily convening of students getting a bus across town. Then, when I walk home in the afternoon, I see school busses full of children dropping kids off at every intersection. It’s not their fault, and I don’t want to write a rambling complaint about the rise of school choice and the correlating death of neighborhood schools. I’ve written that before.

But I think our neighborhood schools are starting to look like those sidewalks that we ignore. And this has a lot to do with divestment. In other words, when we cheat our neighborhood schools out of students, concern, and activism, we are creating buildings that become traps for failure. We’ve spent years letting snow and ice pile up on our schools and on many of our students, so we shouldn’t be surprised when the school down the street is basically impassable.

I’m not just talking about money. Just spending money on our schools, but ignoring them otherwise, is the equivalent of throwing some salt on a covered sidewalk and walking away with our fingers crossed. Our state governments, our local school systems, and our local communities have been really good at passing by and throwing some salt at the sidewalks. It is easy to point to funding and test scores and say we are doing all that we can do, but when entire segments of each neighborhood are avoiding the schools that they are supposed to feed into, are we really doing enough shoveling? Shoveling means political advocacy and fighting the policies that foster divestment, it means asking questions about volunteering and time, and it means supporting non-profit work and the community school movement. Lastly, and this one is much more complicated and nuanced, it means that some of us with choices have to choose to send our children to neighborhood schools. This last one requires another blog post. Some day.

Suffice to say that there are plenty of questions here that have the potential to convict any good hearted person.

In this country, we have allowed for the existence of failing schools and tried to find ways to ignore the problem, while entire generations of students, largely students of color, are slipping on our ignored sidewalks. The result is much more disastrous than my sprained ankle.

Let’s go get our shovels.