Dear Principal

There is only one African American teacher at our daughter’s school, she teaches first grade, and she has a fabulous reputation as a teacher.  Last year, as our daughter neared the end of Kindergarten, I started beating the drum to secure her a spot in that first grade class.  I met with her then current teacher and the school psychologist, and I wrote a two-page letter citing some of the research on the benefits of children of color being taught by teachers of color.  I thought it might be a one-time thing, but a friend of mine mentioned that she’s done the same thing every year for every one of her five children, and her youngest are now in high school.  I realized then that I’ll be sending a version of last year’s letter to my kids’ principal every year for the next decade regardless of whether or not there are teachers of color in whose classes my children can be placed.  In the absence of qualified racial minority teachers, white teachers must be trained in the effects of race, power, and privilege in our educational system in order to be effective educators for my children.  And only by thoughtfully placing my children–and other children of color–in what the state now deems “culturally proficient” classrooms can my children reach their potential.

And so, here is this year’s letter, slightly edited only to ensure anonymity:

Dear Principal P:

Thank you so much for the invitation to write to you regarding our children’s classroom placement at our school this fall. Ms. H has provided a wonderful first grade experience for our daughter, and Ms. E has done terrific work with our son in Kindergarten.

Last fall, I wrote sent the former principal a similar letter to this one, and I am thankful that our comments were taken into account when placing both of our children this year. As you may remember, our children come from a fairly nontraditional family. In addition to coming from a home with two fathers, both of them were adopted through the Massachusetts Foster Care system. We are also a racially diverse family: our daughter is African American, our son is Latino, my husband is white, and I am Asian. We hope that you will take into account all of these aspects of our children’s identities when placing them into appropriate classes this fall. While we understand the need for declining to hear any parent’s requests for specific teachers, in the past, members of your staff have endorsed such requests in light of our children’s unique identities.

Last year, Ms. M and Ms. L supported the placement of our daughter in Ms. H’s first grade class, and I have spoken with Ms. E about a similar placement for our son. Although he is not African American, as a dark-skinned Latino boy with Afro-textured hair living and two fathers who do not share these traits, he needs Ms. H as a role model for his positive racial identity development. As we wrote last year regarding our daughter’s placement, we wholeheartedly understand that one does not need to be a person of color to be a successful teacher for students of color—Ms. M and Ms. E are living proof of this—but research shows that students of color who have effective teachers that look like them end up being more successful in school overall, especially when this happens at an early age. Specifically, Han, West-Olatunji, and Thomas’s findings published in their article “Use of Racial Identity Development Theory to Explore Cultural Competence among Early Childhood Educators” concluded that “African-American students performed better at school when taught by African-American teachers.” I’m sure you are aware of all of the evidence supporting these ideas, and we hope you will take this into account when placing our son for first grade this fall. For similar reasons, we feel strongly that you consider placing our daughter in Ms. W’s class for second grade since this is currently her last opportunity in elementary school to be instructed by a teacher of color, something we have discussed with Ms. H as well.

Further, we would like to echo some of the additional sentiments we’ve expressed each year regarding our children’s placement. We feel strongly that both of our children should always be placed with educators who have completed training in culturally responsive teaching practices and who recognize the importance of racial and cultural identity on academic achievement and engagement. As Willis D. Hawley and Sonia Nieto note in their article, “Another Inconvenient Truth: Race and Ethnicity Matter,” “most measures of good teaching do not deal explicitly with culturally relevant pedagogy, in spite of the fact that research has documented that this approach to teaching can be effective with all students,” and Pedro A. Noguera suggests in his article “How Racial Identity Affects Performance,” “teachers for whom race was never a salient piece of their identity development may fail to recognize the significance of race in their students’ lives.” We are so proud that our district attempts to alleviate these issues by actively encouraging teachers to continue to educate themselves on culturally proficient teaching practices. Since new hires to the district may not have had time to complete this important coursework however, we ask for your consideration in placing both of our children this year and in the future with educators who have.

Finally, we would appreciate your attention in placing our children with cohorts of other traditionally marginalized children, both those who are adopted and other children of color. The latter is even more important given that our school will likely have no new Boston students in attendance with the district’s plans for placing all new METCO students at another elementary school.

We appreciate you reaching out to families to share our concerns and ideas, and we look forward to more successful years for our children in our school system!

(Not So Happy) Mother’s Day!

The second Sunday in May has become progressively harder for our family in recent years.  Since my mother’s death six years ago, it’s been a hard day for me personally, and as the kids have grown older, their questions, thoughts, and fantasies surrounding their birthmothers have started to get a bit more complicated.  This is then all compounded by the many projects that the kids are expected to complete at school in honor of the upcoming holiday.

Sometimes, things go well.  Last year, our daughter’s kindergarten teacher and our son’s preschool teacher pulled us aside to ask how we thought they should approach Mother’s Day.  Our daughter has occasional contact with her mom, so she typically has made something mailable for her, and our son chose to honor his friend’s mom, mostly I think because was too young to truly care about the import of the celebration (although the mom he chose is pretty awesome).

This year, both our kids’ public school teachers contacted us to find out how they should approach the issue.  Our daughter again chose her mom, and her first grade teacher said they’d be doing some writing and she could mail this along with a small gift the class is making.  Last night, I sat our son down to remind him that we don’t know where his birthmom is and that if he made something for her, we wouldn’t be able to get it to her.  I reinforced the idea that she still loves him, as I’m sure she does, and then we started listing off all the moms in our life that love him that he could celebrate.  Finally, he said he’d like to choose his foster mom, a lovely woman who cared for him–along with her husband, their own three children, and a bevy of other foster children–for the first year of his life.  He has only seen this woman two or three times in the five years since he moved in with us, and it’s been a few years since her most recent visit.  For some reason though, she was on his mind, and he became settled on her.  His teacher welcomed the alternative and will work it into her plans.

Then today, both kids came home from their once-a-week after school care with potted plants that they were supposed to give to their mothers.  The two teachers who run this program are lovely, and they know full well that our kids don’t live with their moms.  When I pushed the kids to talk about how it all went down, they said there really wasn’t any talk of alternative recipients.  In fact, when I picked the kids up, the teacher said, “Oh, don’t forget the Mother’s Day plants the kids did!”  I decided to just brush it off, but then it all came to a head when I pulled in the driveway with the kids later tonight.

My husband is stuck at school late for the next few nights, so I’m solo parenting, and of course that’s when the really hard conversations come up with the kids for some reason.  When we got home tonight, the kids started talking about mailing their potted plants to their birthmoms.  We hadn’t even left the car yet, so I turned the engine off and reminded our son that we didn’t have an address for his birthmom.  He shrugged it off as though he had merely forgotten and moved on with whatever next thought was buzzing around his nearly six-year-old brain.

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Gifts of (in)sensitivity?

Then I told my daughter that we can’t really mail a potted plant.  She started to get really upset, nearing tears.  She said there was a second potted plant in her backpack with soil and seeds she’d planted for her mom that she put together in Girl Scouts today.  She started yelling at me, asking why her teachers had her make these pots if she couldn’t give them to her mom.  Her confusion broke my heart.  “It’s your fault.  You need to talk to my Girl Scout leader!”  She’s right to a certain extent.  I should have had the forethought to touch base with the mom who runs Girl Scouts and the after-school teaching team, but honestly, we’ve become such a fixture in this community that I really didn’t think anyone would do a Mother’s Day-specific activity without touching base with us first.  Obviously I was wrong.

I calmed my daughter down, and told her we should go inside to talk some more.  I threw my son in the shower, and sat down with my daughter on her bed.  I took a deep breath, and improved a bit:

“You know my mom is gone right?”

“She’s dead.  I know.”

“You know that my mom was really sick.  She was addicted to alcohol, and she couldn’t stop drinking it even though it’s the reason she died.”

“I know.”

“Sometimes I used to wonder if she really loved me.  I used to think if she really loved me she’d stop doing it because if she didn’t stop doing it she was going to die and that didn’t seem like something a mom who loved her son would do.”

“Did she love you?”

“She did.  I know that now.  It still hurts me to think about it though.  And your mom is in a kind of the same spot.  She is addicted to drugs.”

“What are drugs?”

“It’s like medicine that’s really bad for you, but some people take it and then they can’t stop.  That’s part of the reason your mom couldn’t take care of you and gave you to us.  And that’s also why we don’t really hear from her that often and why we don’t ever see her.”

“Why can’t we go walk the plant to her?”

“Because we don’t know her like that.  We know that she loves you and that she’s trying to take care of herself, but we’re not in a place right now where we can visit with each other.  I know that probably makes you feel sad; it makes me feel sad too.”

“I love my mom.”

“I know you do kiddo, and she loves you too.  Just because she’s not healthy enough to see you or be a part of your life doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you.”  I paused for a moment.  “Come with for a second.  I want to show you something.”

I led her by the hand to our guest room where my husband has been housing two massive agapanthus plants through the winter.

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Agapathus Remembrance

“Do you know why we have these?”

“Poppy waters them.”

“Right, but he planted them and grew them because they remind me of my mom.  She always loved agapanthus and even though they don’t really grow around here, Poppy did this so that I’d have something to remember her.  Whenever I look at them, I think of her and how much I love her and how much she loved me.  I was thinking we could do something like that with your plants.  How about if we plant them in the garden, and then you’ll have a place you go to think about your mom whenever you want to.  You could even write her a letter and tell her about it and send her a picture of it or something.”

“Can we do that?  This weekend?”

“We can.  Poppy will help us.  And your brother can even do one for his mom.”

“Can I go tell him about the plan?”

“Sure.”

And she ran off to tell her brother about the gardening extravaganza this weekend.