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I was recently struck by all those photos of hundreds (if not thousands) of kids in New York wearing bright yellow T-shirts, holding signs that read “save our schools.” As you probably know, Mayor Bill de Blasio has been attempting to render three successful charter schools homeless. Why? It’s for the kids, of course. As his office tweeted out, they want to make “sure that all our kids get a great education.” I wonder what those kids in their yellow T-shirts are learning from all this. I wonder if it’s anything like what I learned as a kid.
I was eight years old the first summer that my family went to pick fruit in Washington state. It was the ’80s. It could’ve been around the time when President Reagan was quipping about the nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” I’d never heard those words, but in the coming years I would learn what he meant.
I suppose sociologists would’ve called us migrant farm laborers, but to us and everyone in the Tri-cities and Yakima valley we were simply cherry pickers. Our first summer, a family we knew helped us find work at the orchards they’d picked in years past. Their youngest daughter was my age and we became fast friends. Being little, I don’t remember much about that first summer. But I do remember I had my sights set on a purple bicycle with pink tassels on the handlebars that I’d seen at Toys “R” Us. I needed to pick $80 worth of cherries to buy it. And I did. Best bike I’ve ever owned.
We went back several summers thereafter. My parents required that my brothers and I pay for our own clothes and school supplies for the year, but all money we earned beyond that was ours. Though I liked making money, it was the after-work hours I enjoyed the most. At one orchard, my brothers and I would spend our late afternoons playing wiffle ball with a family from Oklahoma whose kids had such thick southern accents that I doubted they were speaking English at all. I recall another family we hung out with in several orchards. They had it tough. The mom was from Mexico and didn’t speak a word of English. Her husband had run off and left her with their two sons, who were close to my age. Along with her uncle, she and her sons picked cherries like their lives depended on it. In a way, I guess they did.
And then the government came to help.
I was probably around 14 years old when we were picking in an orchard where the foreman told us to leave. State law had changed, and my brothers and I were now not old enough to work. I suppose lawmakers didn’t like the idea of “child labor”—and wasn’t it awful that we were around tractors, ladders, and other things that grade-school kids think are cool? Fortunately, we had gotten to know a few growers who were willing to make an exception for us. But we agreed to always keep an eye out for anyone who came strolling into the orchard looking like they might be from some government agency.
In the summers that followed, we were the only family. The crews became uniformly single men or men away from their families. I wondered whatever happened to the family from Oklahoma, the Mexican mom with her sons, and the family who showed us the ropes that first year. I remember thinking that it was all so stupid. Families needed to earn a living. Why wouldn’t the government let them? Did politicians really have nothing better to do than try to save kids from earning money for pink-tasseled bicycles?
Apparently, not much has changed. Bureaucrats are now trying to save children from attending the charter schools they love. Politicians are here to help you, kids. They want to make sure you get a good education by closing down the schools where you’re getting a good education. Thanks for the help, government.