My Kindergarten Terrorists

Salaam: It means “peace”.

 My kids go to a Fulton County charter school. Their classmates are Egyptian, Senegalese, Korean and Indian. Their teachers are from Russian, Japan and Italy. They are the only public elementary school that studies environmental science for a grade. Every student in that school also receives instruction in a foreign language – one of the 12 languages spoken at the UN. That language is Arabic.

A flyer was circulated in North Fulton, labeling my kids’ school as an  “Islamic terrorist training camp”, populated by “ragheads” and “camel jockeys”. If you’ve made any sort of assumptions about what manner of person would ASSume such a thing, you’re probably dead on. As of this post, their probably sitting on their front porch sippin’ sweet tea and humming the refrain of ‘Old Dixie’ beneath the shade of their 6 foot confederate flag.

I daresay that very few people in the city of Alpharetta cared much for Amana Academy before the beginning of this year, or had even heard of it. For the first 4 years of its existence it was housed in a converted trailer, and now leases space in what used to be a grocery store. It is a windowless structure, devoid of natural light and barely has enough space for the 475 students who are currently in attendance at the school. Despite the wanting accommodations, Amana consistently outperforms other schools in the State, and has become a model of excellence that public schools in Georgia look to. Coke-a-Cola just named Amana the Charter School of the Year…two years in a row. It’s a great school, and my kids are happy there. But even when things are going great, there is always room for improvement…and it was that desire to improve that had certain the citizens of Alpharetta up in arms. There would be no “terrorist training camp” in their backyard. Not on their watch! They began the process of spreading fear and sowing hate into every citizen in the Windward area, politicians and laymen alike. For some, those seeds took deep root, and very quickly.

Our school’s board has been scouting a new location for our school for about a year now, and they found one on Windward Parkway. The building has sat vacant for the last 4 years. In the past it has been home to a gym, a karate dojo and a private Christian school. Suddenly, when my kids’ school, Amana Academy put in a bid to purchase the property, it was not suitable for use as an educational facility/school. The matter went up for a vote in August and again last night.

My 5 year old was excited to join me to witness the meeting.

“We’re going to Hall City!” she said with much bravado.

“Yes. We’re going to City Hall tonight, to be a part of a public hearing.”

“We’re going because I’m getting a new school,” she said matter-of-factly.

“We’re going to see IF you can move to a new school,” I said in correction.

She frowned, and looked at me hard.

“No Mommy. We’re going because we’re getting a new school.”

I simply nodded my head. Now was not the time to discuss the workings of city government in a state that has an abysmal record regarding human rights and civility.

 The main chamber was already full when we arrived, and we were directed to the annex to participate in the hearing. It was a cold brick structure with no windows, a peeling wood floor and two speakers. We would not be able to watch the hearing – only listen.  Scores of Amana parents showed up, huddling with their children  in the cold Georgia air. Some were hopeful, and some like mine, were too young to understand what this meeting really meant. My daughter quickly set about making friends with another 5 year old who was sitting in front of her. They played rock-paper-scissors and talked about what they were getting for Christmas.

 I looked around the room, analyzing all who had assembled there. There was a single mom, still in her UPS uniform who had rushed in from work to show her support for her school. There was stay-at-home moms clad in sensible flats and head scarves. Fathers with furrowed brows listening intently to every word that was being said by the unseen council members, as they greeted each other with accolades.

“Council woman Cheryl Oakes has contributed this city with hard work and conviction, and thanks to her conservative values, we are thriving now,” I heard a male voice gush.

Ugh. “Conservative values.” Every time I hear that phrase, my skin crawls. It has, sadly, become a synonym for “myopic and closed minded.” I tried to keep courage, to keep home alive, but I could already guess the caliber of individual who was voting on our school’s future. My sentiments were probably skewed, given that I had just watched “The Help” for the first time that afternoon. I was in no mood for Southern snobbery.

The Amana case was the last on the scheduled to be heard, as there were 4 other matters before the council to consider. Our case was (apparently) very controversial.  Joining us in the annex were members of the opposition. Some were your usual suspects, like the hard faced blonde in riding boots and Brighton jewelry who refused to make eye contact with anyone. Accompanying her was a greying brunette and her husband, also unsmiling and looking around the room as if someone had used it to store items so vulgar that it offended their “fine sensibilities”. A teacher who had been standing behind them heard the blonde angrily address a city hall official.

“We’ve been standing in the back for so long. Is there no way to move into the front so we can get seated?”

“No,” he reportedly replied. “Everyone has to line up and wait their turn.”

“Well why can’t we have two separate lines?” she rebuffed. “One for the ones who are “For” and one for those who are “Opposed”?

“Everyone has to come through the same door,” the official replied.

Finally around 9 pm, the Amana case was heard. Noting the bad publicity that Alpharetta was garnering for calling little children names, those who were opposed came up with another tactic – they were assert that putting a school there would greatly hamper traffic. To be fair, I’ve been on Windward parkway at peak times and I only made that mistake once. That exit at 4:30 – 6:30 pm is a nightmare. Fortunately, none of us parents would be picking up our children during those hours; school lets out at 3 o’clock.

We had an engineer testify concerning the traffic study he’d conducted and lay out the impact it would have. After debunking the myth that 475 students, many of whom carpool and ride the bus, would add strain to already bad traffic, the opposition moved on to several other scenarios, each one more absurd than the next.

“What if a Fortune 500 company comes by Windward and sees a school there? They would pass us by and decide not to invest in our community,” said some guy who identified himself as a lawyer.

Hadn’t happened yet in the 4 years the building has been vacant, but that’s just a minor detail.

“Why would we put a school right in the bulls-eye of traffic!” cried another.

This gave me pause. Did I hear him right? What’d you say? “Bulls-eye”? Poor choice in words, buddy. My kids are not your target.

“I’m sure Amana is a good school,” said one woman  said,” but we have 3 other good schools in Alpharetta. I think we’re good on schools.”

Oh? Suddenly there’s a cap on how many good schools you need in an area? No matter America is failing at – I dunno – EVERYTHING!

“I’m a mom, and I’m concerned for these children,” another woman objected. “There’s only one way in and out of that building. If there’s a tornado, there’s no way EMS and firefighters can reach them! It’s just not safe.”

Well damn. I guess everyone who lives in EVERY subdivision in America is screwed. Most of us only have one way in and out of our communities as well!

“My name is Bob Whatever, and I do risk management for a large corporation,” said a man with an intolerable drawl. “There are some things we call manageable risks, and others we call unacceptable risks. And I’ve done a brief risk analysis of this building. (Sure you did.) There are sprinkler systems and hallways in the building (he blithers on like this for 2 minutes) and this building isn’t even safe for computers. How are we going to put children in a building that’s not even safe for computers?”

Wait. So now this building is a death trap? Was it a death trap when the church was operating out of it a few years ago? Or did God miraculously keep them safe? You need your job taken from you.

In between each opposing view, our students, teachers and business partners rebutted valiantly, eloquently and respectfully. I wish I could say the same for the opposition. One of the final comments I heard was from a man who introduced himself as moving to Alpharetta from Alaska 14 years before, and having worked in city council AND as a volunteer with a private school, had “unique insight” to our situation. As he spoke, I imagined what he might look like.

“Mr. Mayor, I just want to thank you for even considering to take this matter up for vote,” he began. “That you would even allow THESE people, who don’t live in or pay taxes for Alpharetta to come here in speak in OUR city hall really speaks to your character. The truth is, Amana School has failed. It has failed to find suitable accommodations for its students and that these people have sent their children in here to speak on their behalf and SIT THERE quietly while they do it, is totally reprehensible to me!”

He probably smelled like fish.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I walked out of the annex and into the main hall. I wanted to at least SEE what these people looked like. As I crept into the door, a mother was imploring the council.

“I have one compelling reason,” she said earnestly. “He’s 5 years old, wants to be an astronaut and always live with mommy.  Please give him a building with windows so that he can look at the sky.”

I scanned the council members and my heart sank. They all looked “conservative”. I knew that we weren’t going to make it. At 11:50 pm I buckled my slumbering child into my car and drove home. There was school the next morning, and we would not be late.

I laid in bed all night, wondering what the decision would be. Did any of these community leaders consider the economic impact that this school would have? The job of renovating it alone would bring employment for a year at least, not to mention the projected boost in sales for surrounding businesses. Were our kids to be so abysmally scorned because they are descendants of people from over 30 nations around the world, and may speak a second language, but are American by birth nonetheless?

At 2:30 am we got our answer. We learned via email that the council had voted “no”. Fear and prejudice had won out.

Salaam. It’s Arabic for peace. And that’s all my kids want. That’s all any child wants – a safe, peaceful place to study and develop.  If it’s not to be had in Alpharetta, we will certainly find it somewhere else.

The fact is, no matter who moves into that building, there is going to be added traffic. Those in opposition to the sale of this property to Amana Academy could care less about traffic than they would about the price of potatoes in China at New Years. This hearing was about sending a message – and that message was heard loud and clear. I hope you’re proud of yourselves Alpharetta…though you have no cause to be.