A couple of weeks ago, a high school pal added me to a new Facebook group made up of people from my home town of Mexico, Missouri. I checked it out and found a couple dozen folks who'd graduated from Mexico High School in the 1960s and 1970s chatting about school, former teachers, sports, local businesses, etc. It was oddly addictive, and within two weeks, there were more than 300 people involved. It was an online flash-mob reunion.
I found myself chatting online with people I hadn't thought of in 40 years and unearthing memories I'd forgotten I had. And I was struck by how diverse the group was. We'd been children of blue-collar workers, executives, doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, gas station owners, factory workers, black and white, Catholic and protestant. But we all had similar childhood memories of our school and of the town.
The big economic drivers for the area were two large plants that made "fire-brick" that was used in kilns to make steel. The plants paid well, had hundreds of blue-collar and white-collar jobs, and made it possible for the many small local businesses to thrive.
On the square in my hometown were three locally owned drugstores, a "department" store, two or three clothing shops, restaurants, a JC Penney, a couple of banks, a music store, a bakery, a hardware store, a shoe store, doctors' offices, you name it. It was a bustling little town.
And most of us, no matter our income, religion, or race, attended the same schools, not charter schools, optional schools, private schools, black schools, white schools — just the public school system, the great homogenizer.
Memphis, of course, is no small town. The city and the county systems both have a number of excellent schools, but too many of our children are still segregrated by income levels, race, and religion. I don't think the answer lies in combining our two large systems into an even larger one. The opposite direction is a better way to go, I suspect: well-funded smaller sub-districts throughout the county, tailored to the needs of each's constituency.
The other side of that coin is the growing income inequality in the U.S. Our middle-class is shrinking as more and more money is concentrated in the hands of the upper 5 percent. Good public schools and a large, healthy middle-class are the solid bricks we used to build this country. That's a lesson we ignore at our peril.