Interstate 78 is a highway corridor that shoots straight west from Newark, slashing deep into the heart of suburban New Jersey. This is prime Philip Roth territory, where upwardly mobile Jews like the Patimkins in Goodbye, Columbus left their tenement origins for the tony streets of Short Hills. I've come here too, fresh from a cramped apartment in Manhattan, only to discover that the route to success has forked. Get off at exit 50B and depending on which way our family turns --to the left for Millburn or the right for Maplewood--we're entering two very different Americas, with two distinct visions of education and our children's futures.
Millburn is the competitive, global version, a consumer model, where mostly white, East and South Asian, and foreign-born middle-class parents buy their way into one of the best school systems in the country. Millburn High School consistently ranks high in the U.S. Newsweek list and has the highest SAT scores in the state. This is the modern-day Lake Wobegone, where all the children are above-average--around half the students score at an advanced level on standardized tests, and the other half are proficient--results that would make any school district proud. Millburn is a community that is all about accumulated advantages--access to the better Mommy and Me class, to the Princeton Review SAT Prep, to the summer program at Harvard - and to affluent futures.
Maplewood-South Orange, on the other hand, is a utopian, participatory, democratic model, straight out of the turbulent sixties and its civil rights ideals, a school district that is proudly 50 percent black and where parents balance the admirable goals of diversity with academic achievement. There's a wonderful spirit of creativity there--in its careworn halls, computer animation portraits adorn the walls, students have gone on to send their indie films to festivals, and star reporters earn journalism awards. Given that eighteen percent of the school district receives free or subsidized lunch, Columbia's 92 percent college acceptance rate is hardly something to be embarrassed about. Maplewood-South Orange is the noisy, Town Hall vision of America where people mouth off on the local listserv, a lively Coalition on Race hosts book readings and lectures, and parents banded together to create an alternative school, where minority boys, in particular, have fared very well.
The conversations you hear in coffee shops in the two towns could not be more different. In Millburn's Starbuck's, parents love to kvetch and crow about their great schools. In South Orange's Dancing Goat cafe, black women gather on the soft couches and talk about the bible and fiction; recent city transplant mothers hang out in the stage area, which doubles as a jazz venue at night. Millburnites think of Maplewood-South Orange as a quaint and shabby throw-back, where residents pay shocking taxes for mediocre returns in school performance. Maplewood residents think of Millburn as "cold" and proudly talk about their town as "diverse" and "the real world."
So which is the "real world?" Today's global workplace or the American world of economic and racial diversity?
To me, both towns are partial answers: Maplewood-South Orange seems mired in a rhetoric that doesn't fully reflect today's realities, while Millburn feels eerily artificial, sealed off from the messy complications of our country. And as divergent as the two town cultures are, they both are both half-solutions to a racial wound that was never solved in America. These divisions are especially painful, because I grew up in a time and a place where these two versions of America were not so starkly divided, but were part of a larger vision.
My community--Parkway Village, in Queens, New York--was a harbinger of both these towns, a grand experiment in inter-racial living. Built for U.N. families after World War II, more than two-thirds of my neighbors were foreign-born; the rest were liberal whites, blacks, and mixed-race families, like my own, who had come to Parkway not only for its idealism, but because, simply, it was where we felt comfortable. My own parents had fled a mostly-white Queens neighborhood where my dark-skinned Indian father was stopped by the cops for walking up his own lawn, and my Jewish mother didn't want anyone asking us whether we belonged to a synagogue. We crossed borders all the time--my white mother took me for shopping in mostly-black Jamaica, and thrived teaching in a high school serving mostly immigrants; my father taught at a high school largely of black and West Indian students.
For Parkway kids, integration was bred into our bones; Roy Wilkins of the NAACP was a neighbor; next door were Palestinian and Egyptian friends with whom we tearfully watched on TV Sadat's historic visit to Israel. We were the We Are the World poster children for the World's Fair a half mile away; we had international food festivals on the village green, rattled our orange Unicef boxes at Halloween, and marched for integration and peace. We were Millburn and Maplewood both--middle class foreign-born parents living side by side in a global community; sixties liberals, mixed families, American blacks, Asians, whites, trying to create their little bit of homegrown utopia in the flat reaches of Queens. We were race, democracy, and globalism all in one.
No one could have imagined that opening the doors to new immigrants would feed a divided future, in which some soar ahead into a global workplace, while others agonize over the black achievement gap or educating children so damaged by poverty. Yet, though we could not see it then, there was a hint of these same splits in the future of Parkway. There always came a time when my Japanese friends disappeared--back to their country, where the schools were more rigorous. And in 1969, when the New York City teacher's strike hit, pitting Jewish teachers against black communities, Parkway was sorely tested. Parents banded together and created alternative schools in their dining rooms, but our liberal dream began to crack.
Soon after, many white parents fled Queens for suburban safety. My best friend, whose parents loudly marched for integration, sent her to private school for middle school. My family, staunch supporters of the public schools and fearful of the white suburbs, weathered it out. I can't say their choice was a good experience--in junior high I floated with the other "college-bound" kids in a nervous bubble of gifted classes, surrounded by inner-city bedlam. I was threatened and bullied by black girls from South Jamaica, because I had a black boyfriend (which meant, mostly, us innocently talking on the phone at night). I was taught by mediocre teachers who were so exhausted from keeping order in chaotic classrooms, they treated me like a discipline problem when I wanted to debate ideas. Little did I know, the personal agony for me - either bad public school or exclusive private - was, in fact, being played out throughout country--and eventually would force me to choose for my children, too.
Here in New Jersey, the 1967 Newark riots seared a visible scar in neighborhoods: right after, the "For Sale" signs began cropping up in the corridor of towns that run west of the increasingly black city and ethnic whites began heading west. I-78, with its high-flanking walls, became a literal corridor of white flight. This was a perfect illustration of the America of the Kerner Commission, where the country was splitting in two along the lines of color. But two years earlier, a momentous change in immigration law began to shade that picture. "Color" turned out to have many more meanings. Today, not only do we have more people of foreign, and mostly Third World descent, living within our borders, but in an era of globalization, we, as a country, are training our children to compete with the foreign middle class abroad.
Immigration, white and middle-class black flight, occluded whatever progress was made towards integration. Indeed the gap only became deeper and more entrenched over the next few decades. By the nineties, another wave of immigrants arrived --- poorer and less educated - and their children entered segregated America, and became locked into the same under-performing , dysfunctional districts. By now, it's almost too late--the chasm cannot be bridged. One part of our country is joining 21st century, global America, while the other remained stuck in the unresolved racial legacy of the 20th century.
After the Newark riots, Maplewood-South Orange tried to be both; it hovered as the in-between community, its beautiful, spacious homes attracting upper and middle-class black families, and developing as a town with a remarkable balance of minority and white families. More recently, it has attracted liberal urbanites from New York wanting to live out this vision of racial harmony while giving their children a cozy, all-American suburban childhood. Voted as one of the best places in the country to live by Money Magazine, Maplewood is a remarkable success story, the town that refused to let race divide it. And yet, there is an underlying anxiety around the perhaps-too-insistently-repeated refrain of "harmony": a jittery sense among many of those urban transplants that the kids one town over, in Millburn, are ahead in the race to the Ivies.
Millburn is hardly an all-white, all-American enclave; it's the new world of global business. In the playgrounds Russian fathers call to their children and Indian engineers are purchasing the smaller starter homes. White students struggle to catch up to the Asians who dominate the hardest classes. Millburn is also a community with incredible wealth--McMansions and multi-million-dollar estates, and where a donor gave hundreds of thousands of dollars for new computers. This is a killer combination: can-do wealth is wedded to the fierce, competitive power of immigrants, freshly arrived from countries where education is prized and the parents themselves went through rigorous systems. This is global power at work. This, too, is the "real world."
And yet, while Millburn may pride itself on wealth and being results-oriented, there is no black achievement gap or poverty statistics because there are, literally, not enough minorities or poor children in the district to measure. Millburn--like all the communities in America with the exact same demographics -- is a new kind of bubble in which nearby Newark, Irvington, Hillside - nearly all of black, Hispanic and poor America - are whizzed past on the global middle-class superhighway.
In today's divided America, towns like Millburn can carry on, insulated from the struggles of a district like South Orange-Maplewood, which must educate children on subsidized lunches along with super-wealthy kids who could just as easily be growing up in the town next door. It's as if these two worlds have nothing to do with one another--they don't even speak the same language about education.
When I'm on the streets of Millburn I see more people who look like me, but in Maplewood I find more who think like me. And yet even I--a city transplant forged in civil right ideals -- will admit idealism is not always easy to live by; all the cheery sloganeering about diversity doesn't help our children compete in a global marketplace. Scratch the surface of Maplewood-South Orange, and there's a lot of anxiety about race and academics. The Maplewood-South Orange district is roiling with the volatile issues of the black achievement gap and "leveling" -whereby white students dominate the higher level tracked classes, and black students cluster in the lower. Black families are furious at their children having less expected of them. White parents are made uneasy by talk of any elimination of advanced classes. I've heard about families that leave for Millburn where they discover their child is a year behind in math. And it's not just white parents who talk this way; South Orange is distinguished by the fact that per capita income among its black residents is higher than its white residents. If Maplewood has a problem with flight--it's black middle class flight, as these parents, fearful that their children are not getting the best, demoralized by teachers who peg their children for lower tracking, send their children to private academies.
After my own public-school experience in the seventies, I swore I would never let my kids go through that "real world" experience--I can say honestly that there's nothing to be gained by surviving hoodlum-culture and race tensions. On the other hand, here I am, solidly landed in one vision of America--the sixties, utopian version--and paying hefty taxes for these ideals, too. The truth is, I'm not as comfortable in groomed, affluent streets. My parents chose not to go to the suburbs and in the end, I'm a Parkway and city kid, through and through. I need shabby couches, people who make something of less; I look for signs of individuality, not corporate branding or "buying" achievement. I still believe in that slightly tarnished ideal of a civic community that reaches all. But I'm also like every other middle-class parent: I want my kids to get the best of everything and go to the best schools. For I also grew up among children who went on to attend the Sorbonne and Cambridge; whose parents found comfortable and important places on the global stage.
Unfortunately there's no place holding up both visions. In today's divided America, we purchase our SAT prep classes or engage in countless discussions about testing and achievement gaps. We seal ourselves into separate communities, allowing either consumer power or social ideology to determine the shape of our children's futures. We rush after our separate solutions, allowing the go-it-alone-local taxes vision to supplant a greater, universal vision. Places like Maplewood hold up the cherished ideal that education is for all, poor and rich, weak and strong alike--that we are E Pluribus Unum--out of many, one. Millburn is holding up the ideal of competitiveness, individualism and choice -the very open-ended focus on excellence that allows immigrants to thrive here.
Each town is limited by what it lacks. For all of its globalism, Millburn is an enclave in Essex County, New Jersey. For all of its focus on communication along lines of race, South Orange Maplewood, by not acknowledging that the "real world" is also fiercely competitive and global, is in danger of losing ground. This cannot be healthy. Both are a crucial to the pursuit of the American dream. In fact countries such as the "Asian Tigers" or cities like Bangalore, which have invested in human potential--in true, universal education -are now competing globally. I yearn for a civic vision, a new Parkway, to bring the two towns - and the two visions of America - back together. When I get of I-78, I don't want to choose. I want a community that has one vision that embraces both, for everyone. After all, that's the true American way.