Tag Archives: ACT UP

In my house, remember last Saturday, September 8– Integrity.

Before another Saturday goes by I want to mark something about this time and last Saturday.  My daughter has started middle school.  Officially.  It’s a big change; a big transition for all of us in so many ways.  I’m going to spend this school year delighting and marveling at certain things, shaking my head in despair at others, and trying to wrap my mind around 11 years old and middle school.  I don’t know exactly what all of you, who send your children to school in cities or suburbs or more rural or more uniformly middle class neighborhoods, or  more urban or impoverished neighborhoods are seeing.  Some of you went to middle school or junior high school a long time ago– some more recently– and I’d love to hear about your experiences– about your children’s experiences.

As we enter into this year there are new reminders to me, that though our school is considered one of the gems of our urban public school system — this is an inner city school with a slightly “lite” version of America’s “get tough” approach to young people and young people of color in particular.  Maybe this is going on everywhere.  I don’t like it much.  I am glad that our school doesn’t face certain of the harshest difficulties.   I love this school and I love many of the teachers and administrators, many parents and young people.  Still, the harshness toward young people as they become older young people, and the particular slant on this for young females (boys get a different and equally crummy version)– is more evident than ever.  It’s all right up in her face and in our faces– as her moms.

Despite all the good things there is an undertone and also not undertone, but such blatant  mistrust and constant disrespect of young people in schools, even the best of them.   There is less room, as your child gets older, to “opt out” or find individual solutions (“I don’t want my child kept in at recess for x, y or z behavior” doesn’t fly so much anymore.).  You can’t opt out, you can just resign yourself or … or organize for change in whatever ways you go about it.  Last Saturday my daughter reminded me of the strength we have in each other.

In the first week of school and into the second my daughter stopped eating to some extent.  She is nervous.  Her stomach is upset.  It happens to me too when I face something new and scary.  That in itself is ok– to take on a big new challenge, a big step in life and to face big feelings, nervous, scared feelings.

One night I was talking to her over dinner about what else she wanted to eat and about what she had or hadn’t eaten and then about school.  She started to talk about the new detention system.  I’d heard a bit about it already.  I’d heard that rather than start the year with a talk about the joy to be found in poetry, Spanish literature, the amazing worlds of science and exploration, math– they were getting a lecture from every teacher about the rules and the detention system.  Three “points” in one week and you get detention.

On this particular night I learned that they rack up points toward detention if they have to go to the bathroom during class.  And if they forget the right books to bring to class.  And if they bring their backpacks into class rather than leave them in their locker, and if they go to their lockers too often and…  I learned these things first from her, and then later that week from the 14- page booklet they sent home.  As a culture, we are increasingly harsh and punitive toward young people– as if teenagers are responsible for our problems in the world, as opposed to our bearing responsibility for theirs.  It’s among the more misguided things– a deep confusion–in our world– the idea of “fixing” our failed schools and our failures with young people through increased inflexibility, harshness, punishment, disrespect.  I decided to and did write to the principal talking about a number of concerns about the detention policy and though the policy hasn’t been changed, for a number of reasons I think my ideas and my letter were taken seriously and fairly well-received.  But I keep grappling with the fact that protests or suggestions from my partner and me alone are not really the stuff of change.  You need a bigger group to fight for something.

Fast forward several more days to this small but meaningful conversation that made me proud.  Made me want to kvell— (Yiddish for swelling, gushing with pride).  My daughter’s friend A. from kindergarten and the intervening years, has become a new best friend to my daughter.  Since the very end of the school year last year, their friendship has blossomed and it has been a joy for many reasons.  Last Saturday  A., was at our house for dinner after spending the day with us.  The twosome makes quite a duo.  One of the most hopeful, appealing things about them and their friendship, is their laughter.  They laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh.  Loudly. Uncontrollably. Hilariously.  Happily.   You never know what they are laughing about and often if you ask them, they don’t know either.  It’s so good.  So healthy.  Such fun.  They seem so much on the right track with each other and the laughter seems to grease the wheels for closeness and support and solidarity as two young female friends.

At dinner, they were telling us more about the all-present detention system– and they were telling us that A. had racked up a couple of points toward detention– for laughing in a class they are in together.  She was laughing while they were all playing scrabble– a fun and assigned activity in their literacy class.   For those of you of a certain age and life experience I’ll say I feel a little Arlo Guthrie-ish, a little Alice’s Restaurant coming on here.  I mean we wouldn’t want a bunch of 11 year olds walking into class and enjoying themselves so much they start laughing would we?  It’s terrible, dangerous–downright nasty– all that laughter.

But here is the real story.  As we were talking about this over dinner, my daughter’s mood shifted for a moment and got serious.  She said very seriously  “I was laughing too.  And I didn’t know what to do.  It wasn’t fair that A. got the detention point and I didn’t.  So I wondered, should I ask for a point?”  I shook my head no, very quickly.  Too quickly– and it interrupted her own thought process.   And besides interrupting, I was wrong.  Then my brain caught up with hers, kicked in and overtook my protective side.

I said it was an interesting idea to go ask for a detention point for yourself if someone else got in trouble.  I spoke to them about how brave it is to back each other and to not leave alone someone who is being treated unfairly.  We talked about how banding together when things are unfair is usually the best way to change things.  We talked again about the ACT UP documentary– United in Anger that she had seen with me earlier this summer.

We talked for a minute about the idea of organizing all the young people in their class to ask for detention point anytime anyone gets one.  The idea passed quickly and the conversation shifted quickly– but I felt hope and pride about my daughter’s mind, her big heart and her integrity all week long.

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United in Anger– ACT UP for all ages

I don’t actually write about it all that much.  Not because it doesn’t matter, it so very much does matter.  But with race and adoption and Jewishness and the general state of things for young people in the mix– I just barely get to it.  But let’s talk.  I am a lesbian mom.  It’s a big deal– even if I wish it weren’t.  In many ways, if I’m honest– life is harder because of this.  I don’t mean at all that it’s worse– it isn’t.  Not in the slightest.  But many things are harder.  And some things are just plain unbelievably amazing.

All of this next paragraph is full of important things about which I could write many words, but for today, these things are just important backdrop.  AIDS 2012, the first international AIDS conference hosted in the US because of our previously terrible immigration restrictions for people with HIV, was here until Friday.  In my town, blocks away.  I did AIDS law work for a very long time and I miss that work and the community of people with whom I did that work a great deal.  At times acutely.  I did not attend the conference at all, but I did get invited to an event honoring many HIV lawyers and HIV legal programs including the program I led for many years.  At that event, I reconnected with two women, from very different parts of my life– neither of whom I had seen in a very long time.  Both of whom are special to me.  And since I am going for candor here– one is an ex-girlfriend and it had been an exceptionally long time since she and I had seen or spoken to one another.  My heart swelled and expanded to see her, talk to her, reconnect.  It did my heart good.  Like me, she has an 11-year-old, two months younger than my daughter– a boy I’ve not met.   She and I had written but until last week had never spoken since we became mothers in our respective cities.  But this too, is another story.  It was she who told me I should come to see the screening of the documentary film, United in Anger.

So last Wednesday after work, I headed to United in Anger, a documentary about New York ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).  Earlier, as my partner and I were making all our week’s childcare plans, I decided that for reasons logistical and for reasons not logistical , I wanted to bring my daughter with me to the film.  I wanted her there for reasons both educational and familial.  Like in any family and not because we are a lesbian family– there are so many things she doesn’t know about me.  My life is full of many experiences, cultural references, things that happened with great emotional resonance, that are not part of her experience or point of reference.  But perhaps because we are a lesbian family some of these things are more hidden and certainly less commonly shared.  My experience is not hers because she is a different generation.  But my experience is also not the experience of most of her friends’ parents.  Because I am lesbian.

To be very clear, I was never an ACT UP member but I was a supporter.  And I was a witness.  I told her only a little bit beforehand– about AIDS and about the fact that people didn’t get what they needed and so people were scared and they were angry and sad; they organized.  That was about it. We were late and there were no seats left when we got there– except for one lone seat in the front row.  I headed down the dark aisle for that seat and pulled her onto my lap– but a guy sitting next to me gave up his seat, over my objection, and she sat next to me.  Scared or thrilled, or air-conditioning cold– I don’t know, but she curled into me and wrapped her arms around me like a very young child and she held onto me and I held onto her throughout.  And we watched.  There were demonstrations, crowds, talking heads, meetings planning demonstrations, discussions of the terror of that time, anger and outrage, humor and silliness and the great, enthusiastic, brilliant, shining, creative, courageous energy of ACT UP.  There was plenty of courage to go around, and that shines through in all that footage.

In the dark with the film rolling, the questions came.  She wanted to know — what is civil disobedience, why were the police carrying people away?  Were they getting hurt?  Why did they have (fake) “blood on their hands”?  What were they doing now?  Why did they “practice” their civil disobedience, were they scared?  What was he saying?  What did that sign mean?  What is that woman talking about?  What is a condom?  Where was that bus taking them?  Why were they protesting in a Catholic church?  Look, that guy is wearing a Jewish star, he’s Jewish, like us!  That was funny, and that seemed scary.  Why are they yelling?  Where did they buy that casket or how did they make that prop? And on and on and on.

I answered dozens of questions– as many as I thought I could, given that people around us were watching the film.  There were many more to which I said– that is such a good and interesting question– but it’s too long, I’ll talk to you about it later.   More than once I said simply– I was there, I was at that demonstration.  She was so alive and lively watching and it carried over into the next day.

Next day, next scene, dinnertime at our lesbian household.  Around the table my daughter and my partner were eating dinner and I urged her to tell my partner– who wasn’t there the night before, about anything she wanted to tell about the film, what she thought about and what was interesting.  And she did.  Her eyes shining and her beautiful smile breaking across her face as she told things funny, poignant.  And then because she has the heart of humanity– because she knows important things without any lecture or being “taught”– she asked the big question.  She was just about ready to end this conversation and get up from the table and she asked– such an important question– of my partner and me.  Did we win?  I loved the question and I loved the clarity of her understanding of who she is in this world.  She didn’t ask, did they win.  She asked did we win.  In that moment, I understood many things I had not understood on many fronts.  Yes, I said, we haven’t yet won everything we need for people, but yes, yes– we did.  We won.