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?”
“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.