I am not much of a son, so Mother’s Day doesn’t move me. My mother and I are estranged. We both struggled to get what we needed out of life. Her road put her in the arms of a man who despised me, and drove me from the home they built when I was still in high school. I carry a grudge about that still. But my mother is on my mind this year. That’s because of Tanya McDowell. She and my mother have a lot in common.
Ms. McDowell is accused of larceny. You see, she sent her son to the Brookside elementary school in Norwalk, Connecticut. She did so even though it appears as though she does not live in Norwalk. Her crime? Stealing an education for her son.
I know a little about that crime. For several years, I was a willing co-conspirator in such a theft. Indeed, I was the beneficiary of the theft.
For several crazy years, my mother and I lived a peripatetic kind of life. We lived in Detroit. We moved most years. One year we rented rooms from a crazy old lady named Alice who never ventured out of the house. She sat glued to the police radio. Another year we rented the unfinished attic from a couple named Dick and Jean; it got plenty hot up there in the summer. We traded up to an apartment after that, and so it went for several years. My mother was doing her best to raise me after my father up and left. She struggled.
But she knew she wanted a good education for me. So one year, when my grandfather became superintendent of an apartment building across the street from the Goodale elementary school, I rode the city buses to and from our apartment to my grandmother’s basement apartment. I wasn’t living with my grandmother, although I did eat lunch there every day. (I learned later that my grandmother charged my mother for the lunches each week, a fact that even now fills me with sadness.) Another year, the year I started high school, my mother proudly announced she’d found an apartment within the school boundaries. I cried I saw the place: we were still a half mile out of the Denby High School district. But I went anyway. I am not sure whose address we used that year. We moved into the Denby district the next year, when my mother hooked up with a hard-drinking construction worker: I would have preferred a longer commute.
I never gave these migrations a thought. It is just what we did. I suppose it wasn’t theft of the sort Ms. McDowell is accused of as we did not cross municipal lines: I got a Detroit public school education. I just didn’t live where the school thought I lived.
It amazes me that prosecutors in Connecticut think Ms. McDowell’s conduct a crime. She is a mother, a reportedly homeless mother, doing the best she can for her child. Since when did that become a crime worthy of prosecution? Her son is an urban nomad, doing what we wanderers always do: gleaning a living from the remains others take for granted.
I read this morning that Norwalk school officials have zeroed in on as many as a score of other kids surreptitiously attending city schools. These children, too, will be bounced from the classroom for conspiring to steal an education. Will their parents also be prosecuted?
Yeah, I understand Norwalk’s point. City residents support the schools with their taxes. In tough times, those taxes are stretched thin: it is all the city can do to educate children of those who actually live in the city. So go ahead and remove the kids from a school; send them to the city in which they live to get their schooling.
But prosecuting a mother desperate to do the best she can for her son? This is simply obscene, and fails to promote respect for the law.
It’s Mother’s Day and Tanya McDowell is looking at a felony conviction. There’s something hideous about that. If I know a thing or two about women like Ms. McDowell, she’ll get through this new crisis, too. The life of a single mother is hard. Adding the state to the list of those who harry her is a burden, but she’s used to struggle. It’s what she does daily to make sure the love of her life gets the best she can provide – by fair means or foul.
Happy Mother’s Day.