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.