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Dealing With Closure

My mother was on the line, going on about the announcement that Detroit Public Schools emergency financial manager Robert Bobb will close 41 school buildings by summer. When I'd called her to chat about the news, she'd started by admitting that she hadn't followed all of the events closely but was in reluctant agreement that something drastic needed to happen to save the city's school system.

"I guess it's a business decision he's got to make," she said. "I don't like it, but the schools are in trouble. We've got to do something. I understand that people don't want this to happen, but you know, sometimes we get too emotional in Detroit. Sometimes, we let our emotions get in the way when we need to make tough choices. Nothing wrong with feelings, but we have to -- ."

"Ma," I interrupted softly. "They're closing Carstens."

There was the sharp sound of someone sucking in a short breath. Then a pause. Then, swiftly, an outpouring of shock and dismay and disappointment. Emotion.

"Oh Darrell, nooo," she said. "Carstens? But Carstens is a good school. Carstens has done some wonderful things. I can't believe that. I don't know if that's right."

And Hattie M. Carstens Elementary School is a good school, one of the best in Detroit and in the state. Last year, for instance, Carstens was named one of 25 "high performing" schools in Detroit by the Skillman Foundation, earning a $100,000 grant as part of the foundation's Making the Grade initiative. Still, it's one of the schools slated to close this year, the result, say school officials, of its location in a struggling east-side neighborhood that seems to be growing more desolate by the day. (Only about 235 students attend the school currently.)

But on the phone right then, it wasn't the awards or grants that weighed heaviest on my mother's heart. What mattered most to her was that Carstens Elementary used to be my school, the first place her baby started his educational journey, the first institution she had ever enlisted to help her with the task of teaching and nurturing and raising her only child. What mattered right then was that someone had made the hard decision to shutter a part of our lives.

As I listened to my mother's pained response, I imagined that all over metro Detroit, a place where people's ties to this side of town or that particular block still run hard and deep, many families were meeting news of the closures of some  schools with the same reactions — surprise, heartbreak, anxiety over what it all means and what comes next. And sadness over how it all got like this in the first place.

Located just up the block from my old house on Coplin Street, Carstens, with its loving teachers and smiling lunch aides and rambunctious children, wasn't just any school when I was coming up. It was an integral part of the 'hood, a beloved and permanent fixture in the backdrop of our collective upbringing. Like the corner stores and two-family flats all around us, the hulking brick building near the corner of Coplin and Charlevoix, with the sprawling playground and towering trees and net-less orange metal basketball hoops, was an extension of home.

Over the years, of course, the neighborhood morphed. The white families bolted. Many of the middle-class black families followed. The businesses that lined thoroughfares like Mack and East Jefferson and Gratiot avenues-- the drugstores and theaters, the pastry shops and travel agencies -- closed down or moved away. Manufacturing plants left. Crack cocaine came.

Carstens, though, never flinched. Through it all, that school taught whomever came through its doors, embracing us all with a warm optimism that openly defied the worsening conditions outside. I'm sure many of the teachers and administrators who taught us back in the '70s knew that what we were facing would only get worse. And I'm sure that some of them didn't expect us all to make it in life -- but they sure acted like they did.

I won't front like every memory is a fuzzy one. I can recall a big gang rumble between the Errol Flynns and BKs on the playground one afternoon after we'd all left school. I can remember learning what the phrase "dope fiend" meant after I'd asked a friend why another classmate's mom had such large, puffy hands pocked with scars. (Of course, this was the same mom whom, whatever her addictions, was known to never miss a parent-teacher conference.) I remember learning the scary truth about mortality after being told in school that a classmate's sister had accidentally fallen into the Detroit River and drowned.

But Carstens laid the foundation for our growth as kids, too, from the first-grade teacher who used to send me home with free books because she sensed my love of reading, to the fifth-grade teacher who used to try to slip lessons about social consciousness in between lectures on math and writing. It was the place where I first heard someone other than a relative tell me that I could be anything I wanted. And it was the place where my mother first took her little boy into a room filled with new faces, let go of his hand and walked away.

Now, mothers throughout Detroit are wondering what comes next. Sure, the district needs an overhaul, but what of those who were already making strides? What happens to the successful programs at places like Carstens once the building is shuttered or sold? What becomes of those award-winning, dedicated teachers and administrators once they are scattered to the bureaucratic winds? What will our schools, our neighborhoods, look like then?

In her head, my mother, like many around the city, recognizes that spiraling conditions in the schools mean that there are some hard choices to be made. But in her heart, not unlike many Detroiters who have had long and rich relationships with the community institutions that most impact our lives, she's having a tough time with closure.

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