Ghosts in the Schoolyard by Eve Ewing

“Failing schools. Underprivileged schools. Just plain bad schools. The fodder of tsk tsk, it’s so sad, and that’s why send our kids to private school and we’re so lucky. They’re the stuff of legend, material for inspirational movies and shocking prime-time news exposes. In Chicago they were once famously called the worst in the nation by William Bennett, secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan. More recently, Illinois governor Bruce Rauner called them “inadequate,” “woeful,” “just tragic,” and “basically almost crumbling prisons.” Chicago’s public schools have been positioned in the nation’s imagination as, at best, charity cases deserving our sympathy; at worst they are a malignant force to be ignored if you can or snuffed out altogether if you can come up with something better. In this sense Chicago is like many other urban school districts that primarily serve students of color, viewed with pity and contempt.”

That’s the first paragraph of Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side by Eve Ewing. I’m Quinn Rose, and this is Recently Read.

Ghosts in the Schoolyard is a sociology book about a deeply personal topic. Ewing starts with that narrative that we’ve all heard before about school closings: the schools are bad. They can’t be helped. In order to help our children, we have to close them and put the kids in different schools. Ewing herself grew up in Chicago and used to teach at one of the schools that was closed in a massive wave of school closings announced in 2013. After that announcement, she turned her doctoral research into a study of why schools were being closed and how the community reacted.

As you can already tell, Ghosts in the Schoolyard makes no attempt to be unbiased. It’s made clear from the very beginning that it exists as an investigation of a deeply personal event. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t vigorously researched with thorough investigations of history and present day. There is an insidious idea in today’s world that you have to be “objective” to have any worth. I would have less of a problem with that line of thinking if it was at all possible to be objective in any situation without your own personal life and biases changing how you perceive an issue. Ewing acknowledges and leans into this fact of existence, counting on her extensive study to validate itself without pretending to be an unbiased observer.

Ghosts in the Schoolyard is not a very long book and I highly recommend picking it up to learn about school closings, Chicago, racism, and community. While it is a highly specific story about the predominantly African-American Chicago neighborhood Bronzeville, the patterns and history don’t exist in a vacuum in one city. It’s an eye-opening account about why and how these schools became “bad schools” and what the effects of school closings actually are. You should read the book, but here’s a spoiler: it happened because of racism, and the effects are nowhere near as simple or accurate as “kids will do better in other schools.”

I picked up Ghosts in the Schoolyard firstly because I really like Eve Ewing’s work and wanted to read her full-length sociology research, since I’m also a sociologist and thus a giant nerd about this kind of thing. I also wanted to read it because I moved to Chicago last year knowing virtually nothing about this city. I had visited it one time before I moved here from a state 20 hours away, so I was walking in without any of the history or the culture of this place. One thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that Chicago is huge. It’s a very spread out city with hundreds of neighborhoods. I live on the North Side of Chicago, which means that South Side neighborhoods like Bronzeville might as well be in another country for how much they affect my life.

And yet, of course they affects my life, because they affects my city in ways that are invisible to me because I don’t see them or think about them every day. Recently I’ve started wondering, what is someone’s individual responsibility to understand about the place they live? To keep up with local politics? To know the history? What does “being a good citizen” mean? Specifically in my case, what does it mean to grapple with the racist history of my new city as a white person?

And now you’re wondering what the hell I’m talking about and what it has to do with a book I read, but seriously, these are the kind of thoughts I have surrounding this book. It’s encouraged me to keep expanding my knowledge of my adopted home. So this episode comes with two one recommendations: one, read Ghosts in the Schoolyard, but two, to look up what books have been written about the history of your community and see what you get out of those.

I’m Quinn Rose, and this has been Recently Read.