Tag Archives: school

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun…

I’ve been occupied with trying to address, sometimes elegantly and often less elegantly, several unrelated issues that have cropped up in my daughter’s life at her public school and at religious school. A career of mostly public interest law advocating for people living with HIV, gay men and people living with the effects of poverty, immigrants and people with disabilities– for much of my adult working life has only barely prepared me for the advocacy I’ve needed to pull off as a parent. My parental advocacy has been much harder for me, more fraught and brought only mixed results– because of course the solutions to most of the tough things aren’t really individual solutions– the solutions would require much deeper reorganization of priorities and ways of doing things. But I digress. Things come up that need to be responded to now, or often yesterday– whether I have the time and slack to deal with a particular issue or not. And I get upset—really upset about some things which only makes the job more complicated.

There’s something unfolding at my daughter’s school right now. My close friends (mostly, but not all women, some parents, some not) in whom I confide these things— seem to fall into two camps—some are outraged themselves or laugh hysterically or shout or curse along with me about the stupidities, indignities or mistakes toward our children— the things that get under my skin. Sometimes friends listen and get very quiet in that way that lets you know that they think you are off base but they aren’t going to cross you.

Here’s the issue du jour. If I sound a bit defensive, well, I’ll be honest, I am. I am still not certain that there is any consensus on sexism as a real thing or that there is any agreement that certain “small” things—have a profound effect and matter. I think this issue really is a great big deal and I think internalized sexism has something to do with all the ways I second guess myself.

My daughter played on a girls’ school volleyball team last year and joined the team again this year. It’s a big deal for her to play. She isn’t driven to play sports and her skills are such that she doesn’t get a ton of accolades. I remember when she was a toddler and woke up wanting nothing more than to play actively at our park. Every day. She would wake us and ask to go to the park starting at 6 a.m. and once we got there (at 8:00 if she was lucky, for a toddler this was like a month from when she had started asking) she didn’t want to stop playing. I can’t ever remember a time in those days, when she initiated our leaving and coming home.

When my partner and I both went back to regular jobs our parental limits caused us to offer her the cartoon “Caillou” in the mornings when she was about 2—so we could get ready for work—and therein we, ourselves, offered up an addiction to sitting in front of a television rather than getting outside and running and climbing. Huge mistake. I have cursed myself ever since.

We kept her in a preschool that kept all the young people very active for as long as we could, but then kindergarten and ensuing years of being forced to sit for so damn long took care of the rest. She isn’t as driven to be active and we have had to push her to join a team. There was a two-year basketball career—with her other mom, M, coaching (M still coaches the 4th and 5th grade girls teams) but the male coach of the middle school girls team was harsh in such a way that she lost interest. Then she joined the volleyball team. These are middle school girls. Some/ many have never played volleyball before.

Our school’s teams—basketball, cross-country and others have had a firm and unquestioned policy since the inception of the middle school program—a policy of welcoming every young person who signs up for the team and shows up to practice. There have never been tryouts. They’re all on the team. M has coached basketball teams of 25 with skills ranging from unbelievable to learning to dribble a ball. This year, there’s a new volleyball coach who is perhaps rather old school. I’ve not met her. My daughter started making noises that some girls would get cut from the team a few weeks ago. Then M’s 89 year old mother fell and broke her hip and M left town (twice) and we didn’t investigate. (M’s mother’s health is a major thing happening in our family, which deserves more attention than I offer here.)

Two Friday afternoons ago we parents and the girls themselves got an email saying that the volleyball team is too big. They would be dividing the team of 25 middle school girls into two groups. Fifteen would be designated “Varsity” and 10 would be designated “Junior Varsity”. I was not pleased but ok, whatever. But the email went on. The Junior Varsity team, it said, will only be allowed to participate in one of the three team practices a week and will not be permitted to play at all.

I have absolutely no first-hand experience being on any Varsity or Junior Varsity team ever in my life (and for this reason precisely, I have wanted my daughter to have something better). But I know enough to say– this isn’t the definition of any Junior Varsity team. This is a dishonest name for something else called being removed from the team. For the record, it was unclear to me at that point whether my own daughter would be designated Varsity or Junior Varsity and whether, if designated Junior Varsity, she would care. But I knew this was very wrong, regardless of the outcome for my own daughter.

As a woman in my 50s who didn’t play sports for a number of reasons, and has struggled to stay fit and to stay active, (and I am still fighting but far from winning) I have a certain kind of expertise. Here’s what I know. This is 2013. Title 9 passed a long time ago. Girls and boys should all participate in being active and should be part of sports at their schools and elsewhere. This should happen more and more and more not less and less. Girls, in particular, still need to be part of organized teams and groups to stay active.

In 22 years in my neighborhood with a nice, safe park a block away, I have walked through the park and seen boys and men playing pick-up basketball thousands of times. I have literally never seen a group of girls out playing. Grown women suffer heart disease at very high rates. It’s still tough for us females to stay active and to push our bodies hard. As a young female, especially if you’re not exceptionally talented, it’s easy to give up. Most everything still pulls many of us females, to give up on being active. Exercise, the habit and enjoyment of it matters. Not giving up matters. You know all this.

Being outraged about the composition of a sports team, for those of you who know me well, is perhaps the last thing you’d expect of me—but here I am. The more I reflected on this particular decision, the more, not less, outrageous it seemed. The more I reflect on a lot of things involving my daughter and her friends, the more I realize that it’s the seemingly little things that get you. There are things that to many of us would not be even really recognizable as sexism or racism that become the turning point (for the worse) in the lives of young people. I think these “minor” issues, the ones where we all settle for things being just kind of crummy or sort of unfair are often the places where the trajectory is set.

It’s almost 100% true that when I listen to adult women talk about when they gave up on something important, something that set them in a tough direction for the rest of their lives, it was always a small moment like this. The good coach left and they never played again. They played something for a couple years and then the team got competitive and someone said something crummy and they never played again… you get the picture. Since we don’t live in an open, legal apartheid system, it is almost always, 100% a moment like this when the sexism (or racism or some other ism) takes hold and no one has to oppress you anymore, you just do the dirty work of limiting yourself and your options all on your own.

Anyway, I kicked off a lot of drama-rama in the past few days—with a private email from me to the (generally wonderful and dedicated woman who is the athletic director) and to the school principal. I used dreaded words like—sexism. I also sent the email to three of the other moms who I trust as allies. My daughter learned that she was on the Jr. Varsity team and cried a very little bit. She was so disappointed but also clear-headed. She ranted with a certain deep logic. She said, why would the girls who have the least skills get less practice? We should get to practice four times a week!

There have been other not private emails from three other parents—one of whom has a child who the mother described as having been overweight and bullied for this for much of her school life. The mother says she has been witnessing a miraculous transformation in her daughter’s desire and will to be active and to work hard– after someone (well, ahem, the someone is my own daughter) relentlessly encouraged her to join the volleyball team and encouraged her that it was a fine place to be and to learn—regardless of skill and that other girls would help and support you there. She said she felt fearful that if the message is that trying hard and being willing to work isn’t, indeed, enough– that her daughter would never take a risk to put herself out there to be active, again.

There was a difficult email from a parent whose daughter is a very accomplished athlete —who basically said we should all stop our complaining. And there was the letter of a mom who I’ve always liked a lot and who doesn’t mince words saying, this is a horrible decision and it sends a terrible message. The message is—the most important thing is winning. There have been many conversations, private and public about the wisdom, fairness, dangers or lack thereof, of this decision. A predictable, ok, and semi-crummy compromise has been reached. The athletic director and a father whose daughter is on the varsity team will coach a Friday practice for the jr. varsity once a week and my own dear M (with help from the mom whose daughter took the big risk to play) will coach a Wednesday practice.

And all of this is just the roughest outline of all that has happened and says nothing of the emotional roller coaster I rode for several days. I am learning and re-learning a lot, but there are a few things that I need to hold on to. One is that when 25 girls ages 11-13 want to play together and they say there is only room for 15 of them– sexism is alive and well and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. I call on the phrase that I learned a long, long time ago—if you were a feminist of my era. “The personal is political” and what happens to one small girls’ sports team is not trivial because this is real life for those girls.

There’s no place else to go, nothing else but what happens in school and on the playground this year and the next and the next after that. These really are the things that shape their lives and their hopes and their sense of what is possible or impossible. These are also the things that shape their bodies and their health and their heart disease or diabetes or osteoporosis or lack thereof in the years ahead. For me there are many contradictions, one of which is that it is always hard to get myself to the gym and the recent angsting and writing of all these letters and emails was just one more time when I got too busy to go. But now my daughter has a Wednesday and Friday practice again—so maybe I should make a date with myself and go work up a sweat.

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My beautiful girl; Last day of summer vacation at our friends’ new farm, first day if 7th grade

I am full/overflowing with emotion as this slower summertime schedule comes to an end and we get ready for the school year. As I write, right now, my daughter makes her way through her first day of school. She has been especially brave this past week and a half. Last year four of her closest girlfriends– friends since before kindergarten– chose to leave for a different middle school. She was sad and upset, but when asked was absolutely clear that she wanted to stay at her school. By the time last summer rolled around she had jumped in and gotten very close– best friends close– to a girl she has known since kindergarten. Then a week ago Saturday after almost two weeks away she called her friend, A, as we were leaving Lassen Volcanic Park, and A told her that she is not returning to their school. At the last minute her mom and she had made the decision for her to go to a different school.

I know N was heartbroken and also felt like the rug had been pulled out from under her– the two girls talked a lot last year about going to the same high school and to college together. But I heard her saying into the phone to her friend– “The main thing is I want you to be happy.” I don’t completely feel that way (not that I don’t want A to be happy, and I’m not mad about it, but I can tell my heart is not as open and generous as my daughter’s is)– and she is way too transparent and not shut down enough to think or say such a thing without really meaning it. I cried a little to myself for her– I was sheltered in the back seat of the car as she sat in the front and had this conversation. But here she is– gorgeous, big, growing up and brave.

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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.

On Public Schools, race and class

I wrote a long post to a parents discussion list that I participate in recently– in response to a question posed by a smart and very thoughtful mother (someone I’ve met very, very briefly but don’t really know) as she was trying to think through the variety of values, concerns and goals she has in choosing a school for her son who is just getting ready to start school in another city.

It is such a big moment for a parent as well as for a child– when a child starts school.  All parents send our children off with all our love and all our hopes and all our worries.  It is such a big part of our lives; participating in an institution like a school, with all the hustle and hurry, with all the lively, good and interesting things that go on and all the challenges, upsets, and real deficits that every school operates with– though some schools operate on deficit of resources to address the real needs of their students to a greater extent than others.  Wherever we send our children to school we all do so with a desire that they will do right by one’s own particular child.

I remember well the fears and the intense focus of the year or so before my daughter started school as we, along with many other parents we knew with a child in our daughter’s age cohort, tried to figure out what was important to us, what our options were, what the different options honestly looked like and what really mattered to us about schooling.  Looking back, it was a clarifying time.  I had a little cohort of mothers who were also doing the same looking and evaluating.  I got to notice what we had in common and I got to notice our differences in values and also in approach.

As I set out to write a bit to the list, what came out was a piece in which I tried to reflect and speak honestly about our decision to send our daughter to a public school and my thoughts about public school now that we are five and a half years in.  I have edited it to take out some references to things either personal to the writer to whom I was responding or things that don’t fit here.  I’ve also added to it to reflect some shared assumptions that had already been established in the correspondence.  But although I have alluded to these ideas, this is the first and only “whole cloth” piece I have written to date about my thinking about why public schools.  I thought I would share it with you.

Dear T,

I love your question and I loved the chance to sit and work on writing some of our experiences.  This is one of those topics that makes me remember how much I want deep connections with other parents as I figure things out in my own family, and how much I love to listen to other parents as they work to figure things out in theirs, how valuable it is to be listened to well by other parents and how valuable it is when I can listen well.  The questions about school for our children are informed by our ideas and informed by our feelings and it’s good to be able to work on both thinking and feelings.

My very short, shorthand, general view of why stick with public schools is this.  I identify as someone with mixed class background– working class and middle class– but raised primarily middle class and currently middle class.  And I’m white and Jewish.  In the context of those identities (mine) the reason I think that sending a child to public school is important is that for all the deep failings and failures of public schools (but there are deep failings and failures of all schools in the world as it is)– public schooling is a very important foundation/demand in the society.  In my mind it (public schools for all) really is a foundation for a certain kind of democracy and equalizing of people in a society that is deeply stratified.  Pursuing public schooling puts us up against the need to eliminate racism and classism.  Public schools currently reflect all the racism and classism we face as a society, but they also seem to me to be the correct outcome –the right goal– good public schools for all–where young people build community with those around them to learn.

Participating in public schooling offers us and our children the chance to push ourselves to share in the many good things that are happening around us and in our communities and to not separate ourselves from others in our communities.   And public schools offer us the chance to face honestly and together– the difficult challenges we face as a society.   And they offer us the opportunity to work together with parents and with teachers to reach for change as quickly and effectively as we can figure out how to do so.

I think that for middle class people, participating in the public school system is an opportunity to take an important stand against individualism and the capitalist (and particularly middle class) notion that there are individual solutions to our difficulties or that we can somehow buy or even organize our individual ways out of the messes we face as a society, rather than make the whole system right.  I think about this in much more nuanced terms and I think there are good reasons at times– given the options– to make very different choices.

Those ideas were the overall thrust of my partner’s and my decision to lean toward and ultimately to participate in the public school system.  Looking back at our five and a half years of our daughter’s participation in our public school, it seems clear that this has been a particularly important stand for us as a middle class family.  That to have made a different choice would have had profound ramifications in terms of not just her schooling, but in the position it would put us in– in the world– as apart from others in our community.  These separations have effects both in terms of who we get to know, and how we come to understand ourselves.  I think that these are separations that aren’t the cause of, but do perpetuate the deep and unjust class and race divisions of our society.

My daughter is 10, in the 5th grade and has attended public school since she started school in kindergarten.  We live in a diverse neighborhood (both race-wise and to some extent still class-wise– though gentrification has made this neighborhood much less diverse than it was even 10 years ago when my daughter was born).  We are fairly centrally located (as opposed to some of the outer edges of our city which have a more suburban feel to them) in an urban neighborhood in a major US city.  Like you, we were very committed to public education for our daughter, but we wondered if it would be good for her, and if we should reach for something else.

Early on we looked at and applied to one progressive private school.  She was accepted there, but we couldn’t afford it– but more importantly we decided that the benefits it seemed to offer– which were quite a few– didn’t outweigh the sense we had of that school as a place “apart” from the mainstream of our city and in the end the benefits didn’t outweigh our desire to have her in a truly diverse, not a selective– environment.  So we didn’t explore options for financial aid or other ways of raising the money to send her there.

Both my partner and I are white, and my daughter is Chicana.  Knowing that she already faced, at age five, and would continue to face racism kept us focused on our desire to take a meaningful stand against racism/ classism in our decisions about schooling.  Though I don’t mean to imply that this would have been any less important to our own well-being had our daughter been white.

Looking back I would describe our decision for ourselves and for our daughter as a decision to cast our lot with the working class people of our city in the particular way that public schooling provides.   I want to be honest here.  There were public schools in our neighborhood, including the school we were zoned for, that seemed too harsh and like places that it didn’t make sense to send her to– so we “cast our lot” to the extent we could, while also holding onto our thinking about what we thought did or didn’t make sense for her as a young girl, to face in her school on a daily basis.  Some of the schools we completely rejected served predominantly working class people of color.  And some of the schools we rejected out of hand, were deemed “good public schools” and were dominated by middle class white families but also seemed harsh and unworkable.

We ended up sending her to a public school here that is walking distance from us– though we, like you, were just a block on the wrong side of the school zone line.  She got her spot at the school she attends through a lottery system that is available to any resident of our city who wants to send a child to a public school outside of their school zone.   Because her school is considered one of the several “good” schools in our school system, many working class and poor families apply to it through the lottery, as we did and many who attend this school come from outside the school zone and outside of this neighborhood.  This school is a dual immersion, Spanish English bilingual school which is heavy on Latino/a staff, leadership and families, a fact that was very important to us.

You also asked about people’s perspectives on the importance (or lack thereof) of choosing a school that is in close proximity to home.  I will say that for us, school has had some big ups and downs and having the school be convenient has been very helpful.

I have always worked– and we live — not terribly far from school, so I have had the chance to pop over there when she’s having a hard day, when I wanted a better sense of what the heck was going on, when I have wanted to increase my connection to the school or to her when things have been hard.  It has helped that I can get there easily.  But there are other things about the school that probably would have made it a great choice even if we hadn’t had the convenience of the location.  Also, because this school is considered a “desirable” public school– although we live nearby– many, many of her fellow students are young people from families who live all over the city and long distances from school.  And because our family, and my daughter, in particular– has been successful in building friendships with many young people across race and class lines– we have many relationships that involve a fair amount of commuting to different parts of the city– some not very close at all.

A couple of other observations.  We have had our share of good and not-so-good and many somewhere- in-between teachers.  We share your perspective that there is a need for a profound change in the culture overall to afford deep and full respect to young people and their minds, your perspective on the value of big opportunities for young people to show rather than stifle emotion– including heavy tears, laughter during lessons etc. and your perspective about the importance of lots of play and deep connection as integral to any learning environment.  So with all that as our baseline and with all the conditions of capitalism and in particular with teachers and teachers’ unions under increasing attack and criticism and the increasingly difficult conditions in classrooms (testing and all that stuff that you know well)– we’ve had our ups and downs.

We’ve tackled difficulties one at a time, some very successfully and some not as successfully.  Like any young person, my daughter has her struggles in school and out of school, but she has not been squashed by her schooling even though it leaves much to be desired.  She is a wonderful, inspiring person and she definitely has her own mind intact.  We’ve done lots of special time, and wrestling and staying home from school when things just feel too hard, talking and many other things to make it so that she feels our support and backing and can tackle the challenges as they come along.

I think there has been great, great value for my daughter in being part of a truly public school and in casting our lot with our neighbors– close in and throughout the city.  And I know it has been very good for me to be part of this institution even though it has challenged me in many ways.  I think that in our particular mixed race family– our love of the school and our relationship to it has been an important stand for us white adults to take against racism.  It appears to me that her seeing us take this stand has made a huge difference to her.  And her being part of such an amazing and diverse group, with all its strengths and naked difficulties– has also been great for her and for us.

She has had some incredible teachers– in kindergarten and the next year a first grade teacher who were Latinas and were both so incredibly loving and tender and reassuring and enthusiastic, and relatively welcoming of tears and feelings, I couldn’t have found anyone better if I been left to hire the teacher myself.  Last year her teacher was a young black man who is an amazing guy.  She adored him and chose (over my offers to move her) to endure a Spanish teacher who was unfairly very, very harsh with her, so that she could be with Mr. R.  My partner and I also  adore and have the deepest respect for, Mr. R.

Mr. R. was a great teacher and offered her some valuable perspectives on herself and on the world, that I know will stay with her forever.  Over the course of her difficulties with her Spanish teacher, Mr. R. became our ally and her ally in some remarkable ways and our chance to get to know him so well was one of the big gifts of that school year.  Mr. R. would not be found in a school other than a public school.

Having a young person in school and reaching to make it work in the biggest sense for the child is a project, for sure.  We adults have thrown all we have at the project of making this education work well.  My partner coaches the 4th and 5th grade girls basketball team with another parent, and I have volunteered in the classroom a lot and taken on some projects to make us visible as Jews and to address racism and “diversity” issues in the school.  We spend a lot of time getting to know the teachers and we have fought hard for good relationships with everyone from the security guard, to the lunchroom folks, the principal, the librarian, the janitorial staff, the front office staff and with many other parents.  (My partner is especially good at this kind of relationship building, one at a time, from security guard to principal.)   And we have succeeded in many of our efforts.

One other thing I love about public schooling that I think would be different in a different setting is that there is a certain lack of pretense.  The administration isn’t trying to “sell” the school, so that to some extent when we’ve had complaints the teachers or the principal have been more free than I think they would be in a different setting to say something along the lines of “yeah– that is really a problem but we don’t have the resource or don’t know exactly what to do about it”.    And the lack of pretense has been helpful even when the situation wasn’t good.

Those are some of my many thoughts.  I’d love to hear more of yours as you navigate these waters.

With love,

Laura

Columbus sailed the wide ocean and my daughter’s big mind.

I don’t like to face it in certain ways, but we are just a little tiny– I mean teeny, bit out– from my daughter turning 10– which seems like a big milestone in the life of a young person and certainly in the life of this mother.  I don’t know exactly how this post will work (as in well or poorly) but I am trying to write some about the mind and perspective of my daughter as she gets older.

This is also my call to those of you with children who are no longer very young children, to do the same.  Sarah— more, more about your older children!  Mama C. get ready, and tell us more as Sam gets a little older and then later, Marcel!  Others of you blogging about young people 10 and up, more about their ideas and the things you are discussing with them, wrestling with– and watching them wrestle with– not just how problematic it is (and no longer cute) to pick up their laundry, and not just about the feelings we have as they turn their attention away from us.  But I want to hear more, and learn more about issues of identity, perspective, ideas– theirs.  I want more about what is on their minds and then what is on yours as you listen.

I almost never write about going through elementary school again which is, in a certain way, what one does as one’s child goes through elementary school.  For sure I am not going through it again in that I am not subject to all the arbitrary and harsh and often unfair rules, I am not subject to the oppression of being a young person, and I don’t get out there and do great things like run around and use my body every day the way many (mine among them) elementary school students do each day until they are made to stop.  I don’t learn new things at the drop of a hat, as my daughter has taken up Latin Dancing with barely even a nod from me. (Really, she learned about, went to one Latin Dance class after school, and then decided to rearrange a standing tutoring session so she could attend Latin Dance– who knew?)

But I did stand at the counter, making dinner the other night, and asked my daughter to pull out her homework and work on it in the little table in the kitchen with me.  I learned that she was doing a segment on Columbus.  Oy, I sighed silently to myself, and silently, inside of me said, “another instance of mother-needing-to-pull-against-the-grain to teach her something real.”

I began mentally trying to figure out where on the shelves did I put the book I bought many years ago, the Rethinking Schools publication called Rethinking Columbus.  I mean this was a big moment.  My Chicana daughter learning about Columbus.  What and whose perspective was she going to learn?  I said to her, testing the water, “what have you learned so far?”  She answered matter of factly.

And these were, I think, her exact words, “that he slaughtered a lot of people.”  I said something like “well that’s a useful thing to know” and I asked (because she works with several teachers in her bilingual school) who was teaching this unit?  It was Mr. R.

This year she has a young, African American man as her teacher– Mr. R. (also Coach R. because he coaches the 4th and 5th grade boys basketball team)  and he is great.  He is the essence of “cool” and she and other young people love that– but that isn’t what I love about him and actually, when I think a little more deeply, I don’t think that is really, really at the heart of what she or they all love about him.

What I love about him is quite simply, his perspective.  For one thing, he likes them.  He likes the boys who are always in trouble.  He likes my daughter.  He gets her, as far as I can tell, in a way few of her teachers have really understood who she is.  And besides liking and getting her, his whole perspective, as far as I can tell, is quite different from any she has encountered yet in school.  Actively anti-racist, actively pro-young people in a very profound sort of way.  Much later, that evening, when I talked to my partner–and told her what my daughter said to me about Columbus, she just said, “think about who is teaching her this.”  I did and I do.

I could see her mind, as she wrestled with this material, was really at work, in very fine form, engaged in thinking about the “discoverer” and the so-called “discovered”.  I won’t go on about the writing she did about Columbus with me listening and helping a little, but I am tempted to publish the short piece she wrote and if she gives me permission I may yet do so.

On the “it takes a village” chain of things.

Thirteen years ago, I  was (well actually we were) trying to adopt and it was spring.  I was talking to everyone who would talk to me and who knew anything about adoption.

That spring I would often walk from my car to the apartment building after work, and often I would see a woman, a white woman, with the most beautiful, alive, smiling little baby girl–sometimes sitting on their stoop, sometimes walking around the neighborhood.  Her daughter was not white– and I assumed single mom and adoption.  Eventually I found a way to start a conversation and we got to know each other.  I was only half wrong– she was a single mother by choice, of a biracial, African American daughter– born to her, J.

Back then our two families added up to four and we all turned out to be pretty crazy about each other and got to be friends.  We went to some birthday parties, got together sometimes, and for a year we took J. to preschool once a week, when her mom, a school teacher, had to be at work early.  When my daughter was born and came to us, J. was four.  She and J. adored each other from the start.  Ours was the doorbell they rang years ago at 3 a.m. when their apartment building caught fire and was completely gutted.  Now J. is about 5’8″– taller than I am by several inches– and in eighth grade at the same K-8 school where my daughter goes to school. Sometimes she babysits.  I like her a lot.

I’m having a relatively minor health problem but am feeling more than a little punk.  The big bear of standardized testing is going on this week at school, so timeliness is essential (not always our strong suit), and there was a driving rain going when it was time to leave for school.  On top of that I wrongly accused my daughter of getting glue all over a favorite backpack of mine that she borrowed– just as we were leaving.  All this to say that very grouchy, rushed and crabby was the flavor-of-the-day as we left for school.  We got into the car.

When we came around the corner in the driving rain, we saw J. who walks to school on her own, on her way.  Walking with a friend of indeterminate gender.  Both in hooded cotton sweatshirts (not great in a rainstorm) and J. towering in height above her friend.  J. was also carrying an umbrella which was inside out from the wind.  I said to my daughter, roll down your window and call to J. to come ride with us.    It took us two tries for me to position the car and for my daughter to summon a loud enough voice, but we got her attention and offered a ride.

J. hesitated– then said, well, can my friend come too?  Of course, come, come get in the car.  They sloshed into the car, my daughter moved over and the smaller person turned out to be the son of my partner’s wonderful co-coach of the 4th an 5th grade girls’ basketball team.

We drove the next six blocks, made our way around the fleet of SUV’s and minivans and other huge vehicles dropping children at school and I found a spot to pull over.  J. and her friend got out and took off running before the hard “g” in g’bye” made it out of my mouth.  My grouchy daughter and cranky me looked at them flying through the rain, looked at each other and cracked up.  She leaned over and kissed me (not an always thing these days) and ran into school.

This white mom; talking racism.

I haven’t written directly about race and racism in a while.  I notice it all the time, all around me in all kinds of ways.  It is more striking and takes-my-breath-away–  not the in the good way, but more like having the wind knocked out of you, as my daughter gets older.  In other ways it is less startling and just more grinding as she gets older.  There is some way you always hope, when your child is very young, that she will somehow be the person who escapes the effects of the things you haven’t been able to change in the world.  I surely signed on for the job of mothering a daughter of color with my eyes open about racism and with the expectation that I would only learn more as I went.  I have definitely learned and seen more.  And more.

If I reflect on why, I think I have stepped back from writing about racism for a bit because I notice how defensive white people (of which I am one) generally feel when the subject is even mentioned.  It isn’t exactly that I want to save us from those hard feelings, I think we will not be able to end racism without feeling some very hard feelings.  But it is true that I keep trying to figure out a way to talk about these issues– and the racism that is all around us, before our very eyes–  in a way that my fellow white people will actually engage with and can actually hear.  Or sometimes I give up and retreat, but eventually someone asks me innocently, what I think of something– like how school or religious school or something is going for my daughter.  Then I go and open my mouth.

I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to do enough emotional work on the subject that I don’t feel quite so, so badly about myself.  And not feeling so, so terrible about oneself (as a white person) seems to be one key to being a halfway decent ally as a white person to people of color.  Knowing solidly enough that you are a good person, despite racism (around you and your own) seems to be key to honestly facing what goes on and how you are a part of it.  And it does go on around me and I am a part of it– as well as a part of the work of the world to end racism.

There are things I can look at without going under emotionally.  I can face the fact that racism is not “out there” but right here– in all the institutions in which I participate, in the life I live.  It’s just braided right into the life I lead as well as out there in places I don’t ever go (also as a result of racism).  The world is still very heavily stacked against the flourishing and full humanity, dreams, self-determination and entitlement of people of color.  Like, for example, my daughter.  I don’t mean to sound hopeless here– or like she is a victim– neither is true in any way.  She is great and amazing and she is flourishing in so many, many ways.  But there is something about facing the fact that being adopted into a middle class white family doesn’t solve the racism she faces.  In a variety of ways it makes matters worse.

I have been fortunate to have a number of close friends of color who have been willing to forgive me my mistakes in the area of racism (mine).  I am certain there have been even more mistakes than I know and yet these friends and colleagues have hung in with me, talked openly (or at least I think somewhat openly with me), listened to my ideas and continued to tell me what they really think about various important things.

But on the home front with other white people, I’ve had quite a string of conversations over many months with white women who are parents in my daughter’s school, other white adoptive parents of young people of color, white women at our synagogue, and with good, progressive lesbian friends who are not parents and others.  We talk about issues I see in our school, our synagogue and elsewhere–and then the actual dialogue comes to a halt and the person I am speaking to starts to argue that what I see isn’t really there or isn’t racism.  They ask for specific evidence, they argue that my (admittedly often inept) descriptions of what I see that is so clearly the result of racism– is really something else– or that I have to offer proof that someone’s intent must be consciously racist for the effect to be racism, or they want me to be able to outline the plan of what should be happening differently.

My daughter has not escaped the piece of racism that is manifest in the fact that children of color struggle academically in school in numbers disproportionate to white children.  They call this the achievement gap.  The achievement gap doesn’t apply to someone else– she is in a catch- up reading program this year.  It’s a big intervention– she is pulled out of her regular classroom with a small group of other 4th graders for 75-90 minutes each day.  The independent data on the success of this program is quite underwhelming but schools have been buying and using it for over 10 years now.

Progressive educators have written about a wide array of concerns about the program– from ineffectiveness to racism resulting from the fact that to allow time in the schedule they pull kids from their “specials”; art, music gym– and in many schools, like ours– it isn’t the white kids who miss out on these opportunities; it’s a group of young people of color.  When we were told she was slated to participate we went through a lot of angst.  How we arrived at the reluctant conclusion to allow my daughter to try this out for one semester is another story that I may never write, though you can write me privately if you want to know it for some reason.

I do know a few things about the program first hand.  If my daughter was going to be in it, I wanted to observe it.  As a 4th grader, my daughter who loves to be with me, said it was too embarrassing to have me come to her class– so I have been helping out regularly in the 5th grade class.  In my daughter’s reading class there is one white child.  In the 5th grade reading class there are none. The young people are wonderful, lively, funny, very hard-working and often, I think, bored.  It has been– not surprising– a deep experience for me to be with this whole group of 5th grade young people of color.  I have put my own mind to the task of trying to think and learn about what it would mean to have this urban school really meet their needs.  And what is needed for no one to give up on them and more importantly for them to not give up on themselves or each other as brilliant learners and thinkers.

So why am I writing all this?  Well for one thing it is just always on my mind– as much as basketball and sadness at the turn of the year; as much as poems and reflections about writing and blogging.  I had gone silent out of the fear that someone would say, “Can she ever stop talking about that?”   I debated about whether to write this because it hauls a struggle that my daughter and sometimes I, would probably prefer to keep quiet about– right out into the light.  But I don’t actually think this is just a personal struggle of hers.  It’s our struggle;  our collective racism and effects of racism, our collective problem to solve– for my daughter and for all young people– especially young people of color.  So I just decided it was time to speak up again.  That’s what I call getting the new year off to a good start.