Our lives were horror stories, but we didn’t know it.
We were the figures that stalked the nightmares of middle- and upper-middle-class parents. Some of us were the brave young black men first eaten by the monster; others, the virginal Final Girls pure enough to survive until the end. We were the big-haired bombshells who paid for their voracity, and the squirrelly love interests who abandoned them at the first opportunity.
We were the children the professional classes fled from. Parents who abandoned Chicago in favor of Evanston and Winnetka felt comforted by the knowledge that their offspring wouldn’t be forced to brush shoulders with us; middle-aged teachers defended their resignations by insisting they’d been broken by us; but we made the mistake of considering ourselves average.
We didn’t know that an entire world of People Who Knew Better, sociologists and economists and politicians and scientists, had determined that our parents could not be trusted to think of our best interests, and that we would run headlong towards a litany of prisons (poverty, pregnancy, and actual incarceration, to name an immediate few) if left to our own devices. We didn’t know there was a national debate about how many of us could be saved. We didn’t even know that we needed saving. We were kids. Back then, we still played.
It was the spring of 1995, and I was six years old. This was when standardized testing began. Shortly before I took my first Iowa Test of Basic Skills, I was ushered into the auditorium for what can only be described as a rally. As the youngest of us squirmed eagerly in the front, and the oldest slouched sullenly in the back, our principal hectored us from the stage. “There are people in this county,” he informed us, “who don’t think that city kids are capable of achieving much. Every day, in your classrooms, you prove them wrong. And next week, when you take those tests, you’ll prove them wrong again.”
When I first heard this, it never occurred to me that the principal might be mistaken. At six, I already knew that I tested well. The only reason that I attended that school, which was five miles from my house, and well outside the district in which I was zoned, was because I’d passed an admissions exam. I’d done so well, in fact, that the guidance counselor had seen no point in admitting me as a kindergartener, and bumped me ahead to the first grade. Tests were the waters I swam in. This would be easy.
It would be nice if I could tell you that I also considered those who would not do well. Given that working-class children are usually treated as experiments in the United States, it would’ve been comforting if we’d been able to perceive one another as actual people. But if I did tell you such a thing, it would be a lie. We would soon become acutely aware of what it meant to be products of the Chicago Public School system, and what would it would take to be seen as anything other than a casualty in society. What scientists and scholars and politicians did to us, we’d soon do to one another.
Over the course of the 1980s, the Chicago Public Schools deteriorated so badly that many banks point-blank refused to loan the district any money. Ronald Reagan’s education secretary declared it the worst district in the country. The stakes couldn’t have been any higher. It wasn’t just students and teachers who had to prove their mettle: the entire district had to give the country undeniable evidence that city schools could produce intelligent children who would eventually become functioning adults. Testing well was practically a civic duty.
This was the reason that the second Mayor Richard Daley wrested control away from the board of education in 1994. He felt that history had already proven they couldn’t be trusted in moments of crisis. Because the start of my education coincided with the onset of his reign, I can’t say for certain how many of the things I consider unique about the CPS were the results of his influence. I don’t know how things could’ve been different, or what alternatives he dismissed in his rush to the city’s redemption. But I was never encouraged to care, either. It was wartime. Everyone was supposed to deploy all weaponry.
Virtually no one from my neighborhood (ninety-five-percent Black) who came from a two-parent family went to the local school. If the family could afford it, and wanted to spare their children the pressure of passing an admissions exam, they sent them to a private school; and if the family could not, they told themselves that tenacity was a virtue, and took their children from magnet to magnet until they earned a spot somewhere. Charters, with their lottery system, did not yet exist.
No one that I knew mentioned the local school as anything other than a threat. If you didn’t mind your grades and your manners and run with the right people, that’s where you were liable to end up. And if you did, you would deserve it. Stewardship, responsibility, the common good: terms like these never really entered the conversation.
In a perfunctory gesture towards community, my elementary school wasn’t a pure magnet. A certain number of seats were set aside for high-performers, but most of the student body consisted of kids from the neighborhood (majority White, by dint of being located in Belmont Cragin, the first stop for fresh-off-the-boat European immigrants), and plenty of them didn’t perform well on tests.
As time went on, the differences between the high-performers and the others became more apparent. We had no sense of discretion when it came to test scores, and would begin speechifying about our results the second they were announced. In fact, I remember standing in the doorway of my third-grade classroom and partaking in a very solemn discussion of our IOWA scores, and what they said about our college prospects. Anyone who wasn’t already reading at a high-school level, we decided, wasn’t likely to make it.
I was not a likable child. I had long black hair that hung past my waist in tatters, and was easily the least-athletic person in school. My pallor lent itself naturally to Wednesday Addams comparisons, and my affinity for Holocaust literature did nothing to make me seem less morbid. I lacked enough social awareness to realize that Chrono Trigger and the Stephen King novels I shouldn’t have been reading did not make for compelling conversation topics, and I stammered. Badly. (This was a big part of the reason why I liked IT so much. The willingness of Bill Denbrough’s friends to listen as he stumbled his way through a sentence struck me as more fantastical than the interdimensional abomination from beyond the stars.)
In the utopia populated by well-intentioned children that optimists are asked to imagine, I could’ve been better. I could’ve taught my less test-adept classmates how to diagram a sentence, and they could’ve taught me how to navigate a conversation. According to such a worldview, there was nothing wrong with us: it was all the system. But my inner child is a cynic. She’s a city kid, and believes that cynicism and hardness are her birthright. To this day, she’s convinced that she knows better.
If you asked someone who believes in children, she would tell you that this story does not have a happy ending. It ended in the only way that such a story set on the Northside of Chicago can, with Northside College Prep and Walter Payton College Prep and Jones College Prep and Lane Tech College Prep. Of the ten Chicago selective-enrollment high schools, these were the four closest to us. Gaining entry was no easy thing. It wasn’t enough to do well on the admissions exam; you also needed to have high state scores, and a healthy GPA. Some schools had more exacting standards than others, but there wasn’t a one that had an admissions rate higher than ten percent.
In the seventh and eighth grades, we did stupid things and treated one another badly, because we were preteens: it was our prerogative. There were the requisite rumors spread about the Ukrainian girl who’d worn a thong to gym class, and the white-trash kid who started a gang despite the fact that he did not have a gun, nor any way of getting one. There were house parties to which I was not invited, and people who ran head-first into trees at them. But in the backs of our minds, we knew this semblance of community was only temporary. We knew that, at the end of our time there, we would be separated into groups of haves and have-nots, and that subsequently, our paths would have little reason to cross. This didn’t bother us. In general, there wasn’t much that bothered us, which was a point of pride amongst my classmates. Those accepted by the selective-enrollment schools never expressed any guilt, and those forced to go to the local school never expressed any resentment. The prevailing sentiment was that it was all bullshit, and not too different from what adults did to one another on a daily basis.
When I describe this system, it’s usually followed by assurances that I wasn’t traumatized by any of it. Once, a professor of mine responded with: “Of course you weren’t. You got into Lane. You were presented with a game you could win.”
One day, towards the end of my time in elementary school, my history teacher came up behind me, wrapped her arms around my shoulders, and pulled me to her chest. Resting her chin on the crown of my skull, “You’re such a smart girl. Never, ever become a teacher.”
At the end of the day, for reasons that felt unrelated at the time, I pushed the front doors open a full two minutes before dismissal. For the past eight years, I’d been warned to do no such thing by every homeroom teacher I’d ever had, but on that particular day, I felt compelled to run and run and run. I dashed across the campus and towards Belmont Avenue with a feeling that I’d left something dreadful behind, and that the rest of the world lay ahead.
T. Rios is a writer of non-fiction and speculative fiction. She is a native of the West Side of Chicago, and earned an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her work has previously appeared in venues such as The Billfold, Rabbit Rabbit, and #thesideshow, and she is a First Reader for Strange Horizons. Follow her on Twitter at @InSetsofThree.
Header Image: Creative Commons, Public Domain.