Dumb Kids, Smart Kids, and Social Class

Memories of sixth grade are reflected in today's realities

By Bill Bigelow

Jeff Denney and I were sixth grade classmates at Bel-Aire Elementary School in Tiburon, Calif. His dad worked as a warehouseman for Coca-Cola. My dad worked as a market researcher with the McCann-Erikson advertising agency, one of whose accounts was CocaCola. One day when Jeff and I were talking about what our fathers did, he said, “Hey, both our dads work for Coke.” I smiled and responded politely, but inside I recoiled at his comparison. My dad worked with his head, Jeff’s dad worked with his muscles; my dad wore a tie, Jeff’s dad wore a big Coca-Cola sign on his back; my dad made decisions, Jeff’s dad followed orders.

Somewhere, and not just from my parents, I had learned contempt for working class people. In sixth grade, as we studied South America, fractions, a little Spanish, and diagramming sentences, a parallel curriculum legitimated a social hierarchy and indicated which trajectory toward that hierarchy each of us was on. This curriculum implicitly praised my father as it belittled Jeff’s father.

At the core of the parallel or hidden curriculum, as many call it, was tracking. While homeroom in sixth grade was heterogeneously grouped, teachers divided subjects like reading and math into three tiers based, allegedly, on ability. Predictably, the Jeff Denneys tended to be in the lowest groups. Although this was not a hard rule: Lynn Guyton from the flatlands Belveron Gardens neighborhood was consistently in high groups; while Larry Alton who lived on acres of high priced bayfront Paradise Drive land never made it out of the bottom groups. But, by and large, the more money your parents had, the higher the group you were in.

What triggered these memories of sixth grade was an article I read recently by Ellen Brantlinger, “Social Class in School: Students’ Perspectives,” in the fall 1995 edition of Phi Delta Kappa’s Research Bulletin. Brantlinger conducted a study of kids in a high school in a midwestern town of about 60,000 people. She found that “[h]igh and low income students were segregated in virtually all aspects of daily life,” including in tracked classes, and that students developed stereotyped attitudes about each other.  In interviews with Brantlinger, students sorted each other on the basis of social class and academic ability: “haves and have nots,” “rich and poor,” “grits and preps,” “smart and dumb,” “good and bad kids.” Their categories describing supposed intelligence and economic status were interchangeable. According to Brantlinger, students were aware that upper track classes were for kids whose parents had more money, and vice versa. As one high income student remarked, “It’s pretty predictable who’s going to be in which group. They might as well just ask what your parents do and make the placements.”

I was struck by the continuity between Brantlinger’s findings and my experiences of over thirty years ago. I clearly remember the tracking system in sixth grade because it malfunctioned for me that year. I began the 1962 school year euphorically, in the top math group, up with the “smart” kids. It was actually my first taste of top-group pride. When I told people I was in Mr. Cowan’s class, I felt as if my words were golden. Even the walk to Cowan’s room at the end of the hall felt special: 50 yards of feel-good time.

But since I rarely completed my homework I was cut from the top group. Years of membership in the “average” group had taught me that this was my proper place, so I don’t recall terrible disappointment or even embarrassment at my return to the middle. But after a few more weeks of failing to produce homework, my new math teacher, Mrs. Pierovich, without warning demoted me to the lowest group. I considered this a flagrant contract violation; if you understood the mum of completed homework. They could give you a bad grade, but they couldn’t drop you into the bottom group. I recall the instant Mrs. Pierovich gave me the news. It was a moment of pure humiliation and terror: I was to be stuck in the hated Mr. Mercer’s class with the likes of Jeff Denney, and the other dummies — kids who’d flunked whole grades and couldn’t do anything right. Would my best friend and top math student, Tom McCallister — his father owned a small manufacturing firm — still play with me after school? Would other kids look on me as I looked on Jeff Denney? Somewhere deep down I sensed that I was being told I was worthless, good only for menial labor. Part of me accepted that evaluation, and part of me rebelled. As usual, when things became desperate, I faked illness, went to the nurse’s office, waited for my mother to come get me, and plotted a way out of my predicament.

Of course, it wasn’t just the fact of tracking that taught me to accept as natural the inequities of social class. Each track had its own hidden curriculum which anticipated a different social outcome. The upper track offered more independent work, opportunities for creativity and a camaraderie missing in the lower tracks. There was a certain electricity of high expectation and promise at the top which contrasted sharply with the lethargy and ennui I found at the bottom, with its assembly line of multiplication and division worksheets. Fortunately, I remained there only a few days until I — and my mother — could win my rightful place back in the middle group.

Sixth grade held other lessons about social class, some school-determined, some not. Who did the principal appoint as captains of intra-mural baseball teams; who owned real Pendleton shirts and who wore inexpensive plaids; who were invited to join after-school French classes; who read the newspaper; who had the best tans, because their families owned boats on the Belvedere Lagoon and were members of the Belvedere Tennis Club: all taught us who was valued and who wasn’t.

As these examples indicate, schools aren’t responsible for social inequities, forced and given legitimacy. At school, we learned about social class — we also learned which features of social reality we were allowed to question; we learned what is play and what is work; we learned which decisions we could make and which were reserved for powerful others; we learned which behaviors were rewarded and which were punished or criticized; we learned a concept of time and how our society divides it. In short, schools taught us what we could expect from life.

By omission, sixth grade, and every grade, also taught me about race. BelAire school had no African-American students, and to the best of my recollection, no Latinos. There were a handful of Asian Americans: the Kuwitani sisters; Claudia Huang, her father was a doctor; Hazel Fontenot, whose mother was Japanese; Ursula York, who was a dark-skinned girl from a wealthy Indonesian family. I don’t recall thinking of them as all that different, and certainly not less than — for one thing, they were better students than I was — though I also don’t recall any in-school acknowledgment that some of us had cultural backgrounds that weren’t European, that we didn’t all share a common cultural heritage, that the phrase, “When our ancestors came over from Europe,” didn’t make equal sense to everyone in the classroom. It especially never occurred to me to question why there were no Blacks in the school. Blacks were an other. They lived in Marin City, a South African-like township several miles away that functioned as the county’s cheap labor reserve. A big part of the school’s hidden curriculum consisted of silences, questions we were not encouraged to ask. If everyone were equal, as my liberal Kennedy-Democrat parents always told me, then why didn’t Blacks live in our neighborhood, why didn’t they go to my school, why did “they” clean our houses but “we” didn’t clean theirs? We could support civil rights in Mississippi at the same time we lived comfortably in apartheid California.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of these messages imparted inside and outside of school was that they were all tacit. There was this enormous subterranean river of socialization that constantly washed over us, and we were barely aware of it. Needless to say, no part of the school curriculum asked us to think critically about the school curriculum. Like the students in Ellen Brantlinger’s study, we came to see kids as smart or dumb, good or bad, but not to understand how school was stratified in ways that created, or at least reinforced, these categories for us, and simultaneously injected them with a social class dimension.

But maybe it was only those of us toward the top of the hierarchy who were unaware. At my 20th high school reunion in 1989, I had a glass of wine with Lynn Guyton — Belveron Gardens Lynn Guyton — and talked about the inequities that I had only become aware of later in life. I asked her if she had been conscious of the hill-flatland social class dynamics woven into our schooling and upbringing. She reacted in a way that told me, “Old news, Bill. How long did it take you to figure that one out?” I suppose the privileged are always the last to recognize their privileges — if indeed recognition comes at all. Scholastically, as well as geographically, kids from Reedlands were perched on hillsides and gazed down on view-less residents of Belveron Gardens. Lynn said she had felt judged and found to be inferior by her more well-to-do peers from first grade on.

It may be that thirty plus years after sixth grade, my class and race analysis falls a bit too heavily on that era. Best friends, little league team mates, and even partners in the same math or reading groups were sometimes drawn from different and unequal neighborhoods. And subsequent years of scholarships, drug busts, successful or failed marriages, good or bad luck, and hard work, have resulted in some shuffling of the cards of privilege we were dealt at birth. I’ve lost track of Jeff Denney. But Tom McCallister is a successful attorney, Nancy Barton is a doctor, and John Everett is a millionaire many times over who owns his own real estate company. (All were in Mr. Cowan’s top sixth grade math class.) In the land of the free and the home of the brave, the apples still don’t fall that far from the family tree. And the character of our schooling is part of that tree.

Ultimately, schools by themselves cannot erase social class inequities. But teachers are not powerless, either. Certainly, we can organize against so-called ability grouping, which reinforces and legitimates class hierarchies. In middle and high schools, we can also engage our students in analyzing the history and consequences of tracking to uncover aspects of the hidden curriculum that normalize inequality. And teachers at all levels can work to become more conscious of how we form and act on judgments about our students. In part, this could mean digging back into our own school histories to recall how class dynamics played out beneath the surface. We can ask ourselves who we define as “good” and “bad” kids at our schools, and how the structure of school itself may create these categories. In sixth grade, my teachers didn’t create the class gulf between Jeff Denney and me. But there was much they could have done to influence how we interpreted our differences and how we treated one another.