School Nightmares

For some reason, my husband and I lucked out with our kids in the sleep department.  They’ve always been great sleepers; typically they’ll sleep a good twelve hours no matter what time we put them to bed, and they rarely wake up with bad dreams (although our son had several sleepless nights after seeing Cats; Mr. Mistoffelees was just too much for him to handle…or maybe it was the hackneyed music).  In the past few months though, our daughter has woken up in the middle of the night with school-related nightmares.

A month or two ago, I had a trying day at school.  My kids will likely go to the school where I’m currently teaching, and feeling downtrodden on that particular day, I sarcastically broached a touchy subject over dinner.

“How would you guys feel if we moved?  You could go to a new school!”  The kids gave me a double take, and my husband rolled his eyes.  “Whatever…it was just a thought.”

Later that night, our daughter woke up inconsolably crying, and when my husband went to check on her, she told him through her sobs that she had a nightmare about going to a new school and missing all of her friends.  I’m sure he was really happy with me at that moment, but I can’t know for sure because I had already gone back to sleep.

Last night, she woke up from another nightmare, this one not quite as powerful but enough to produce some saddened moans that stirred me when I went in to turn off her night light.  I rubbed her back, and she slowly opened her eyes.

“Daddy, I had a nightmare.”

“What happened honey?”

“I dreamed that I was at school and every class I went to I was the only black kid.”

This is of course nearly a reality for her living in our mostly white suburban town.  Our daughter just turned eight, and she’s been showing more and more interest in her racial identity, which couldn’t make me prouder while at the same time making me very nervous.  I want to make sure we’re providing a sound foundation for her, and I’m constantly worrying that what we’re doing isn’t enough.

“That’s unfortunately going to be pretty close to what your experience will have to be going to school in this town because there aren’t very many black people who live here.”  Had this been a daytime conversation, I certainly would have given her a little age-appropriate lesson on redlining, but it was late and I was just about to head to bed myself.  “You know that because we live where we do, Daddy and Poppy try hard to make sure you have black people in your life.”  I named a few key individuals, including two friends who had attended her birthday party who are kids of color and also have gay parents.

“But they don’t have skin as dark as me.”  Another teachable moment on the realities of colorism, but again, it was late.

“No, but black people come in all different shades, and they’re still going to be identified as black; they’ll be great friends that you can turn to as you all grow up because you’ll each know what it’s like to be in a different kind of family like ours.”  I could tell she was starting to come around; I decided to remind her of last year’s classroom teacher.  “And you know what?  I’m sure Ms. H. would be happy to talk to you any time.  You know she’s the only black teacher in your school, so she knows kind of what you’re going through.  I’m sure if you just stopped by before school, she’d find time to talk to you.”  She smiled a bit remembering that connection.  “And as you get older, there will be a few more black kids that join you.  When you get to middle school, there will be a few from each of the elementary schools in town that will all go to school together, and then more when you get to high school.  And then for college, you might decide you want to go to an all-black college.”

“They have those?” she asked, her eyes widening.

“Yup, and that’s why learning everything you can in school is important because it will give you options down the road.”

“I want to go to one of those schools.”  I was suddenly reminded of a video I show in professional development courses I teach where a black Boston student attending school in the white suburbs describes her impending shift to a historic black college.  She says that she had felt like an exchange student her whole life, and she was excited about finally getting the chance to relax that aspect of herself in college.

“Well that’s totally up to you.  If at some point before college, you decide that being around other people that look like you is important, then we’ll talk about you going to a different school, but right now, I think you’d rather stay with your friends right?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, but if that ever changes, you let us know.”

I kissed her good night, and as she drifted back to sleep, I did what every great parent does: I questioned every decision we’ve ever made on behalf of our kids and hoped for the thousandth time that it would all turn out alright.

We’re Doin’ Fine, Oklahomo

We’re doing fine!

My husband is music directing his school’s production of Oklahoma next weekend, which means that I’ve been a single parent for about two weeks, and I will continue to be one for at least one more.  (And before all the contemporary musical theater showmo snobs roll their eyes that there is yet another high school production of Oklahoma out there, know that this is their first “classic” musical after producing The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Urinetown, and Working the past three years!  Also, a young student of color is playing Curley.  So there.)

In spite of completely stressing out at the prospect of my husband leaving the house three hours before the kids wake up in the morning and him coming home three hours after they go to bed each night, I tend to do pretty well on these solo ventures.  Without the crutch of relying on a second parent, I know that I need to structure the time with my kids to keep both them and me happy and busy.  When my husband is home during times like this, things tend to fall apart.  He was home one night this past week, and knowing that the entirety of parenting didn’t fall on my shoulders, I expected him to carry more than his share, which was clearly a recipe for disaster.  Each of us ended up banished to separate rooms within minutes.

Yesterday was Saturday, and I found myself having to–good heavens–parent my children for an entire day all by myself.  I initially thought we’d get away with some time at home and then a quick lunch out, but then I realized we all needed to get out of the house if we were going to make it through the day without tears.  We headed to the movies, and then enjoyed lunch at our favorite sushi spot at the mall.

Our sushi spot

The sushi restaurant is one of those gimmicky ones where the plates come by on a conveyer belt and you lift off the items you want.  The kids love the schtick and we all love the food.  The restaurant is in the middle of the mall with no walls surrounding it and no roof directly above.  At one point, my daughter saw a woman pointing from the second balcony of the mall and she immediately turned sour.  “That lady is pointing at me.  I don’t like it when people do that.”  I looked up and saw the woman smiling and chatting with her friend, not even noticing our little colorful family.

“I think she’s just pointing at the sushi conveyor belt, honey,” I told her.  “This place is kind of funny looking from the outside isn’t it?”  My daughter realized I must be right, changed her expression to one of amusement, and clicked away with her chopsticks.

I was reminded in that moment of a girls’ day out my daughter had with friends of ours a few months ago.  Two good friends, a married same-sex couple of women, one white and one black, came to take our daughter out for some girl time.  They got their nails done, had lunch, and talked about the things six-year-old girls want to talk about.  One of those things was apparently the fact that in towns like ours, sometimes people point and stare, especially at people like my daughter and our dark-skinned friend.  The latter asked our daughter if people ever stared and pointed at her in town, and she said, “Yes, and I don’t like it.”  Our adult friend told her that it happens to her too, and that she certainly doesn’t like it.  She said that she just stares right back and usually the person feels silly and turns away.

I’m sure a lot of the time, these pointing fingers and ogling stares aren’t necessarily directed at us, and at the same time the reality for my family and others like us is that the questions always hover there: Are they really physically acknowledging our differences?  Does it make a difference to them?  Do they know how it feels?

A colleague mentioned to me at school that a local family of color once asked her if teachers didn’t make direct contact with her because she was Latina and spoke Spanish.  My white colleague assured her that teachers typically don’t have time to make direct contact with any parents unless there is a problem.  The reality though is that for some families of color, the absence of that contact often makes us wonder if there is some unspoken problem.  The absence of a negative doesn’t always mean a positive for us.  I try to keep this in mind with my own students who live on the margins, and I hope that others keep this in mind with us.

Anticipating Her Realization

Start Drilling!

My daughter came home today with a ring full of math flashcards and a set of instructions about how we could help her memorize these sets of the simple formulas.  According to state frameworks, she has to be able to answer these basic equations (9+0=9, 1+6=7, etc.) immediately without thinking or else she receives some kind of failing score on a report somewhere.  I’m not sure how I feel about this.  She’s in first grade and she loves school, and at the same time, I can see that she’s already sensing what a struggle learning is for her.  Given her history of in utero substance abuse, we’ve always known that she would likely have some learning disabilities, or at the very least some significant delays.  She spent all of her first few years in Early Intervention before getting transferred to a Special Eduction Individualized Education Plan (IEP) at age three.  The IEP is supposed to provide her greater access to the curriculum and development, and I wonder how it works in tandem with her race.  At what point will the stigma of being labeled a Special Education student coincide with what study after study shows are the lowered expectations of her race?

She has an amazing teachers this year; whenever neighbors hear her name, they ask, “Who do you know that you ended up with the best of the best?”  The teacher is also black, and she’s doing wonderful things with our daughter, following suit with a white teacher last year who did just about everything an educator can do to show a young black girl that she is worthy of the same expectations and education as the white kids that surround her.  And I still wonder if it will be enough.

We do what we can at home.  I insist that my husband and I follow Carol S. Dweck’s work on “The Perils and Promises of Praise,” cheering our daughter’s effort in relation to achievement rather than the achievement alone.  In the past two months, she’s made tremendous strides in her reading, and I am constantly telling her, “You’ve been working so hard with your reading, and look at how it’s paid off!”  She often beams with joy, and I’m hopeful that she’s making the connection between hard work and success, even if the latter doesn’t necessarily mean “the best.”  Of course these gains have come as part of educational interventions.  She gets pulled out of her classroom environment for 30 minutes a day to build up these skills.  Our son is almost surpassing her at sixteen months her junior, and I can see her getting frustrated when he sounds out complicated words with ease.  I wonder how often this happens at school for her.  How often does she see the other children, the other white children, expending limited effort to reach a point that requires tremendous concentration and effort on her part?  Not that there aren’t white children who struggle right along with her of course; they are just one of many though so they fade into individuality in a way my daughter never will in this school system.

We do our best to convey to her that she is perfect just as she is, no matter how hard she has to work at certain things.  We tell her that some kids can’t immediately identify a key change in a Broadway ballad like she can, but when the ring full of dozens of equations shows up in an envelope, and I’m making a daily reminder on my phone to spend ten minutes on math, it all sometimes feels so insurmountable.  It feels so inevitable that she will become disheartened with the systems that are working against her.  I suppose that I too know it’s inevitable that that will happen, and I’m just hopeful that I’m doing the most I can to prepare her for that realization.  We all reach that point where we understand that life is inherently unfair; I just hope she doesn’t reach that point too soon.

The Intersection of Gender and Race

Harmless Hobby or Manhood Magnet?

This week, my son starts soccer.  And dance class.  This is what the right fears, isn’t it?  Confused little boys exploring hobbies without any adherence to prescribed gender roles.  He has been in ballet for two years now, and he absolutely loves it.  We take him to enough theater that he gets super excited at the end of the season when he gets to be in a real “show” (dance recital).  He has also done gymnastics for nearly three years.  He’s incredibly agile and strong, so he’s just as fantastic on the gymnastics floor as he is at the ballet bar.  I’ve steered him away from team sports mostly because of the risk of injury.  He’s very excitable, and that makes for a tough combination with his natural talent for athletics.  I picture him zooming down the field, kicking soccer balls into other kids’ heads, laughing as they fall to the ground in pain, and then scoring a goal before zipping over the playground where he’ll run up the slide.

My husband grew up playing team sports, and he is eager for our son to hone that natural ability.  Now that he’s in Kindergarten, I relented and we signed him up for the soccer season this fall.  I am nervous that he’ll fall in love with it and not want to do any of the other things he’s really good at…any of the safer things we’ve pushed him toward.  I know that’s all part of parenting; we expose them to different things and let them decide what they want to do.  And I also know that any parent will tell you that it’s impossible to know where the fine line lies between pushing your kid too hard to do something that you want him to do far more than he does and letting them give up too easily so that they never fully commit to anything.  I played the saxophone in elementary school, and when a scheduling glitch kept me from being enrolled in band when I went to middle school, I just shrugged my shoulders and thought that this might be an easy way to avoid practicing.  My parents didn’t push me; they returned my saxophone and I never played again.  Soon after, I regretted my decision, and now more than 25 years later I wish they had made me stick with it just a little longer.  I know now my parents must have struggled with the same issues I’m dealing.

In any event, our son has decided he wants to try soccer, he is graduating to the ballet/tap combo class that his sister is in, and he is taking an all boys dance class.  In the recital two years ago, the boys class simply stole the show, and I’m hopeful he knows that he will bring the house down if he sticks with it until May for this year’s recital.  For right now, he appears to be both embracing and bucking the gender roles that society assigns him.  We’ve had the talk with him that there might be some kids who say that dance is only for girls, and he very earnestly mimics back what we’ve taught him to say: “That’s not true.  I’m a boy, and I’m in dance class, so it can’t just be for girls.”

Obviously he won’t have the same problem with soccer, but what I worry about on that end is that he will slowly begin to fulfill people’s stereotypes of what boys with brown skin are good at.  He’s dark-skinned?  Of course he’s good at sports!  There is lots of research out there that these assumptions lead to lower academic expectations for boys of color, and my son is far too smart to be cheated out of his education simply because he is also very athletic.

Our daughter is another story.  Girls are fed such different lines in our world about what is acceptable for them and what isn’t.  Their options are far more limited than boys, and to combat that harsh truth requires a lot of prevention and intervention.  We struggle with this with our African American daughter.  On the one hand, we don’t want her growing up equating her worth with beauty.  There are all those articles out now about the ways to talk to girls, how we should avoid commenting on their looks when we speak to them.  I wholeheartedly agree with that, and at the same time, the absence of those comments to a black girl only reinforces the subtle negative elements at work in the media telling her she’s not beautiful.  I wonder if it’s better to comment on her beauty consistently in order to combat the implicit messages she receives from our society.  Obviously, this isn’t the only thing that we complement; we stress with both our kids how great it is when their hard work leads to terrific outcomes, how they’ve become good at something by making many mistakes and learning from them, and how their intelligence grows when their brains are exercised regularly.

Princess Equivalent to a Gateway Drug

When our daughter was three, Disney released The Princess and the Frog, featuring the first ever African American Disney princess.  We were torn.  Do we embrace this important moment in popular culture and at the same time immerse our daughter in the commercialized, sexualized vapidity of the Disney Princesses?  Or do we shun it completely, forbid her to take part, and deprive her of a certain social capital when she started hanging out with friends whose parents let them watch all the Disney movies at birth?  We opted for the former, and we went nuts for Princess Tiana.  We keep the dialogue open about all the movies she watches: “Isn’t it silly how Ariel’s waist is so small?  That’s not realistic at all!” and “Why does Belle feel she should be nice to the beast when he’s treating her so badly?  She should probably just walk right out of there unless he’s going to treat her right.”  We still let her get dressed up as Tiana at Disney World.  We try to walk the line with her: we let her feel beautiful because she is and because there will be a time when she feels the world is telling her she’s not.  I know that’s something that all girls deal with, and then there’s an added layer for women of color who can rarely look at the celebrity world of beauty to see images that look like them.  Certainly we can hold up the Westernized versions of black beauty–Halle Berry and Beyone–but why are the naturally kinky haired beauties like Jill Scott and Erykah Badu relegated to something less than sex symbol.  Do you see why this whole thing drives me nuts?  I’m upset that certain women aren’t being objectified!  That’s insane!

Of course our daughter is also doing soccer, so perhaps I should just rest on my laurels and be content that while she’s tapping her troubles away on Mondays, she’ll be shredding the turf with her cleats on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  The kids will be what they’re going to be, and luckily they are growing up in a house where we cannot divide the labor along traditional gender roles.  Maybe that will be enough to counterbalance all they see in the world around them.  I guess it will have to be.