Miss Etta was our neighbor and a dear family friend. I remember her as a small, wisp-thin old woman who called me “baby” in that deep Southern lilt so many of the black immigrants to my hometown had. She would often welcome me to step into the warmth of her arms and give her “a little sugar.”
Miss Etta was particularly close to my mom, and one evening I sat in her sparse, quiet house and watched as my mother helped her with some paperwork. At one point, my mother handed her a pen to sign a check.
I was used to my parents whipping out their signatures on checks and papers with an easy absent-mindedness as they laughed at a joke or held a conversation.
But Miss Etta took the pen with a kind of reverence. She held it like a foreign thing — a little too tightly and at an awkward angle. She leaned in with this intense focus and slowly looped the characters of her name.
When she was done she let out her breath, slid the checkbook to my mother and asked, “How’d I do?” My mom smiled back at her and said, “It looks good.” Miss Etta’s whole being washed in pride, and I understood.
Miss Etta had just learned to write her name.
She, like so many poor people and people of color of her era across America, had been denied a foundational education. By foundational education, I mean the basic education one needs to thrive in our society, to gain upward mobility not out of sheer luck or force of character, but as a regular course of bringing your skills to the table and participating in the American democracy.
If thriving in America were a race, a foundational education would mean that at the least, everyone started out with a good pair of shoes.
There was a time in our country when just knowing how to read, write and cipher numbers was foundation enough to compete in the economy. Certainly in the 20th century, completing high school meant one had achieved a foundational education and could go out into the world to thrive and earn a living wage.
Fifteen years into the fast-paced 21st century, we see the bar rising to include at least a couple of years of college beyond 12th grade.
The thing is, lack of a foundational education is the ugly twin brother to poverty. And arched together, they create the doorway through which walk nearly all our social ills. Fortunately, the simple act of educating a single person can change their life and ripple across generations of their family members.
I know. It happened to mine.
My great-great-grandmother Mary was enslaved to her biological family. But because of the complexities of family and the vagaries of American slavery, she was also taught to read and write alongside her father’s white children. Her education was like crumbs that fell from the plates of her white half-siblings.
But Mary snatched them up, and they nourished her. And she fed them to her children and her grandchildren. If you were to look at the census records of her offspring, they stand apart from their neighbors by the two strokes that say “can read” and “can write.”
It meant that my great-grandfather John exited slavery literate and owning land. It meant that as storm clouds gathered for the start of World War II, neighbors, black and white, could gather every day in my grandfather Lamar’s living room while he read the newspaper out loud and they could understand what was happening to their country.
Thomas Jefferson saw public education as the diffusion of light necessary to sustain a new and hard-won democracy. A participatory democracy is premised on the bet that all the participants have the wherewithal to play.
A foundational education should be every American’s birthright. Not because it benefits him or her, or even me — but because it benefits us! Frankly, we don’t have the depth of bench to throw people away because they have not achieved the basics by age 18, or to deny them the chance to regain those skills if they’ve been lost.
There’s no deadline for learning. People can continue to make educational attainments deep into their lives, just like a poor, old black woman I once knew who learned to write her name.