When I wrote the entry, Girls, Undefeated, I wrote about the lovely mom of the fierce little point guard (she really is little) on our school’s 4th-5th grade girls basketball team and how that mom sat down next to me and said warmly, almost admiringly, “you’re the coach’s partner aren’t you?” I enjoyed that game and that mom that day. I remember thinking that no one at the school had ever talked to me in that tone about my partner– although years ago when my partner was doing the public, important feminist/literary/community work she did earlier in our relationship, people spoke of her to me in that admiring, warm way often. And they did again when later when she had an important role in a national lesbian and gay civil rights organization.
I had never met that mom before that day, but I have seen her several times since, and a very wonderful thing happened last week. The girls won their division championship and the season is almost over. They are still undefeated. It was an exciting game; a real game with a score of 19-10 at the end of the game and when it was over, I got to watch the girls unabashed joy and excitement. Hugging. Each other. Their trophy. Their moms. Their dads.
When the buzzer sounded and the game was over, in my mind I could hear the music rise in the closing scene of a wonderful documentary we have watched over and over at home about another triumph of young inner city competitors in another city, another context as they prevailed in something they worked hard for and they win the championship trophy at the end of the documentary. Like in that movie, my mind slowed things down at the end of the game– the girls were moving in slightly slow motion and I savored the good ending to a perfect season.
There was so much warm, heartfelt appreciation for my partner and the other coach– from the mothers of the girls. Hugs, high fives, laughter and many kind words. I was touched by the warm feeling and some of it spilled over onto me. They wanted to pull me aside and tell me how much they appreciated the fine work of my partner and her love and support of their girls. I told each one who spoke to me how much she loves coaching, how her contact with their daughters makes her life better, our lives better. It was such a good, nice afternoon and I was glad to be there to be a part of it.
But later, mulling it over that night, it brought some bitter, sad tears to my eyes. Not so much the tears of triumph, but a sadness about the things we hardly think about, yet live with every day. For one thing, though I didn’t know most of the basketball moms before my partner started coaching, my mind slid to the group of women we do know and not all of the women we do know at school have always been kind to us. Never unkind overtly, but we are a slightly older, lesbian couple. For the most part they don’t invite us to dinner or coffee, to brunch on Sunday or to whatever else they do together. In almost four years with our daughter at school our track record with so many of the parents– (though not all), for social contact that we didn’t initiate is never. Never. Why this fact and its meaning has taken so very long to dawn on me is the real mystery. Why I have so often made excuses about why it would be that way is a mystery.
There is another story too. It also took me awhile to register. Weeks or longer. Actually if I recall, it was my partner who first talked about it with me. Before I fully came to be aware of it. Last year my daughter made a close friendship with two girls; one white, one black. They played together often at our house, and at the homes of the other two girls as well. The white girl comes from a fine family, affluent and active in the school. Friendly with everyone. Involved and generous with their time. The school year ended and our daughter had a busy summer schedule. She was in an interesting summer reading program, attended an interesting science camp for a couple weeks and an arts camp that was beyond wonderful. We went on vacation and before we knew it, the school year was starting again.
This year neither girl was in my daughter’s class. My daughter was sad that they wouldn’t be in the same class, but she was ready to resume her close friendships with both girls as soon as they were back in school together again. But with the white girl — well here is where it gets murky. Though maybe only to me. My daughter started reporting that her friend wouldn’t speak to her at school. Wouldn’t really speak to her at all. Not angry– the girls are still an age where they show it when they are really angry with each other. But her friend was just quiet, wouldn’t speak or engage. As though maybe she was told that they couldn’t be friends anymore. I have seen it myself as well as heard my daughter’s puzzled reports.
Early in the school year my partner said that amidst the noisy excitement of dismissal and the children careening around, she started to notice that the after school plans for my daughter’s friend, the girl who came home with us many times last year, seemed always to be planned by her mother; one girl going home with them, or little groups of girls going home with them. Never my daughter. All white girls. No daughters of lesbians.
I want to say, “I don’t know what to think.” But I am sure if this were you, someone else other than me, and your family looked like our family and you told me this story with as puzzled a tone as I feel about all this– I would not say “I don’t know what to think.” I would probably say quietly, “you know what that is. I know what that is.”
These are the things we don’t often speak about. We speak about racist violence. We speak of teenagers put out by parents who learned they were lesbian or gay. Or the town or the school that drove a child or a family out– because they were black or the child was gay or the mother HIV-positive. We speak about astounding rates of poverty and unfathomable rates of incarceration of people of color. And well we should, we should be screaming from the rooftops about these things and many more. But some of these things, so subtle you think it is you–so quiet and slow you think you must have imagined something– we don’t talk about easily, or at least I don’t. And there is some feeling of shame that these things have happened to you. Or that they got under your skin. They confuse you about who you are, or undermine your confidence. You were the kind of someone who would work on these issues, but you were bigger than these things, they were the things that happened to other people in other less enlightened places.
I am reminded of a brilliant black woman I have had the pleasure of meeting who has done a great deal of leadership work with groups of black people but with white people also, on ending racism. Many years ago, in the organization where I met her, she had started a campaign directed at white people who explicitly wanted to work to end racism. It was the simplest program you can imagine, at least in terms of the length of the to-do list.
Her instruction to white people was simply this: Make friends with people of color. Build close life-long friendships with black people, the people descended from people brought to this country as slave labor, and with other people of color. Just do that. Face what you need to and make the mistakes you will make, then clean them up if you need to, apologize. Pursue friendships with people and face it if they seem not to want a friendship back. Then try again. With the same person or with someone else. Show people that they are wanted. Welcome. But make friendships. Real friendships. Persist. She often talked about who you had at your table for a meal, and whose home you went to. That kind of friends. There was a lot to it, and I understood instantly when she spoke of it; she was talking about the gap between the theoretical and the real. The resolutions about diversity in our schools and our organizations vs. who we could each actually reach for to sit down to eat lunch with. Dinner. Who could you really count as friend and love and listen to? Whom will you trust to tell your troubles to?
I am also reminded of the commandment in Judaism to love the stranger, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In Eastern Europe this meant that a traveling Jew could always find a home to be invited into, a table at which to be welcomed for a Shabbos meal or for Passover seder. The tradition was not that you will say hello to the stranger and set up affirming policies about strangers, diversity training. But you will open your home and your table and welcome the stranger.
I don’t worry that much about the loss of this one friend of my daughter’s or that family’s friendship. And we do have some wonderful friends at the school, and often it is ok if we do the inviting. But I do want to face the why of the loss of that one friendship, and the why of the many times we do the inviting and reaching out, rather than the other way around. I think I have to honestly understand these things for myself and my partner and for my daughter.
And I do get hungry every single day and I often like to share a meal with people whose daughters and sons are growing up in our neighborhoods, figuring out all the complicated things like science fairs, friendship, ending racism, basketball, reading, swimming and ending homophobia and sexism. I like a group around my own table at home. But I also love it when we three– two adult women who love each other and our brown daughter who loves so generously and wholeheartedly, are gathered, laughing, talking around someone else’s table. Welcome, wanted, at home.