Not Nothing

Somehow, I’ve found myself teaching a writing class to a handful of 9 and 10 year olds.

That’s weird in and of itself. I typically regard groups of kids the way I might regard, say, a murder of crows. Beautiful, but best to keep one’s distance.

I’m easily overwhelmed by the chaos, caw-CAWing, and furious flapping of wings.

Their unpredictability (groups of kids & crows) unnerves me. And my patience doesn’t near approach even backsliding saint level.

But, earlier this summer, I was clearly possessed by a benign, somewhat random spirit because I floated this idea for a summer writing camp. We could chalk the whole idea up to the fact that the bookstore needed an additional revenue stream. But, truthfully, it doesn’t feel that simple.

Deep down, way deep in my subconscious, I think I’m being pulled toward being the kind of adult that I needed in my world as a kid. One that would’ve encouraged my pull toward writing, pushed me to share and open up. I needed an adult to celebrate my creativity in all its quirkiness and to push me to color outside the lines. Hell, what I really needed was an adult to show me that you could obliterate the damn lines.

Before we started the writing class this week, it was a check box on my To-Do list. I wasn’t sure I’d be any good at teaching/facilitating a group of kids at all. But something happened to me when I saw their little faces pop up on my screen (it’s all virtual because it’s still all pandemic-y out there).

I saw them.

In all their weird, kid glory.

And it clicked for me, deep in my soul somewhere quiet and a little bit sacred, that what I also needed as a kid was other kids who would let me fly my weirdo flag without judgement. I needed a place to nerd out where I felt safe and valued.

Like magic, the murder of crows in my head flapped off in a flurry of feathers. And I was just left with these kids. Wide-open, quirky, sweet kids.

And seeing them made room for all my excitement about their stories–hell, about them in general–to come rushing out. It’s like someone rubbed off the dust of their kid coping mechanisms (muting the other kids, shrugging their shoulders, mumbling “I dunno…”) and let me see all their internal kid stuff that makes them pull back and want to close down.

Instead of becoming one giant sigh of exasperation, I suddenly find myself redirecting without any judgement. Because I see what their doing–and what they’re trying to hide from–so clearly. And I get it. But I also whole-heartedly believe that this togetherness, the vulnerable space they have to exist in to put themselves out there by writing and sharing, is greater than their fear.

And I’m kinda just wowed by their creativity and the scope of what some of them want to write. I’m sure as hell not going to stand in their way.

I don’t want to teach them to color outside the lines. I want to be the one who sets the paper ablaze, so we can all watch it burn.

But, grandiose Dead Poet’s Society dreams aside, at the very least, they’ll leave this little writing camp knowing that there’s one more adult out there in the world who thinks they’re awesome and believes in their creativity, who heard their story and their vision and celebrated it.

And that’s not nothing.

5 Things I’ve Learned Today

If you go on & on about how hot Florida is, Georgia’s gonna get all jealous and show off. It’s okay to change plans. Seven year olds are non-truth tellers. Everyone needs to own their part. Today is always a good day for a do-over.

  1. If you go on & on about how hot Florida is, Georgia’s gonna get all jealous and show off. That’s why today it was 87 degrees by 10:30 a.m. And why, on a 5K run, I thought I might simply evaporate into thin air. Or spontaneously combust. Which one is more likely under oppressive heat that sucks all the oxygen out of the air? Either way, hot as actual hell. Sorry, Georgia. You are hot, too. The whole South is hot. So there.

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    Wait! Am I actually in hell?! No, no… that’s just the Atlanta Zoo parking lot. Whew!
  2. It’s okay to change plans. Like if, say, you’d planned on taking a nice jaunt through the cemetery on your run. But then you realize that the cemetery doesn’t have much shade to speak of. Then you might just decided that–unless you want to make the cemetery your permanent home–you should run through the park, where shade abounds and you’re likely to be hot and tired but ALIVE at the end of your run. Maybe, if something like that happened, it’d be okay to change plans.

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    Ah, shade: so beautiful… and life sustaining. 
  3. Seven year olds are non-truth tellers. I discovered this 3 days ago, when I started excavating Jane’s room. Normally, she frowns upon me touching her stuff. But she’s vacationing in Florida right now… which meant I got to venture in to her room and discover that it was DIRTY. Like, real, real dirty. Holy shit. She was supposed to be straightening, dusting, and sweeping her room every week. But, I guess I was also supposed to be checking that she done that oh for, say, the past year. Oops.

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    Jane in Florida with her aunt & her cousin. Shhh… don’t tell her I touched her stuff.
  4. Everyone needs to own their part when shit goes wrong. I know Jane tried to clean her room. There’s just too much STUFF in there for her to clean anything. I let her accumulate all that stuff. Then I didn’t check if she was really cleaning–because I’m overwhelmed by the stuff. I was lazy and wanted to avoid a hard conversation about hanging on to and collecting things …. and I paid for it for the last 3 days.

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    Me, after cleaning Jane’s room.
  5. Today is always a good day for a do-over. I tell Jane we can start our day over any time (thanks A.A. for that little nugget). So, I’m calling a do-over on cleanliness and orderliness. Whatever I’ve been teaching Jane about either one of those so far is a load of horseshit. No one needs as much stuff as she has. And cleanliness is next to godliness–or something like that. I just know that if I ever go into her room again and it’s that dirty, all she’s going to get for the next gift-giving-holiday is a Wet Swiffer and some dust cloths. And maybe a hutch to keep the dust bunnies in.

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    The clean version. For a before shot, imagine if a tornado swept through here. A very dirty tornado.

     

 

 

 

Header Image by Franck V. on Unsplash

3 Ways Adults Ruin Everything

Being a kid is INTENSE. As adults, we have this bizarre tendency to reminisce over the simplicity of childhood. After two days of full immersion in elementary school culture (and three more days to go), I remember now–being a kid is hard as hell. And adults don’t always make it easier. 

Being a kid is INTENSE. As adults, we have this bizarre tendency to reminisce over the simplicity of childhood. After two days of full immersion in elementary school culture (and three more days to go), I remember now–being a kid is hard as hell. And adults don’t always make it easier.

3 Ways Adults Ruin Everything

Adults act like things are common sense–when they don’t make sense at all. This week is the  Scholastic Buy One, Get One Free Book Fair. It’s AMAZING. Kids can spend $5 and leave with two spellbinding stories. Books on dragons? Got ’em. Books featuring ass-kicking princesses? Got ’em. Graphic novels, historical fiction, picture books, bestsellers… the book fair can magically coax excitement into even the most reluctant reader.

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But buy one, get one free? Yeah, kids don’t get it. Invariably, every hour or so, a kid wants to argue with me about why they should be able to buy a book that costs $2.50 and get the $25 Chrystal Making Kit free. Why would they want to pay for the more expensive one?  It’s buy ONE, get ONE free… no one ever said which one they had to buy (even though we did. Over & over, we painstakingly explained that the more expensive book is the one they’ll have to buy. But capitalism is NOT common sense, it seems. Maybe we should call it “Buy the most expensive book, get another maybe-kinda-interesting-but-not-exactly-your-dream-book free.” But that doesn’t have a very good ring to it, I suppose).

And while they’re dealing with the frustration of not getting what they want, adults continue to walk around smugly like this all makes good sense. Like just because they explained it, it is fair. Kid verdict: UNFAIR.

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Adults act like it’s no big deal when kids get their feelings hurt. I try to teach Jane how to shake things off, how to bounce back from hurt feelings and squabbles with her friends. But just watching the ebb and flow of kid relationships over the course of a day is exhausting–and these aren’t even my relationships. Now wonder Jane comes home completely worn out after school.

Today, I wandered out on the playground and bumped into a friend of Jane’s. He was sweaty from running around–and he looked completely dejected. I knelt down, eye-to-eye with him, to figure out what was up. Jane, it seems, had kissed someone else. Then she told him they couldn’t have a playdate anymore. Man.

I totally shelved the mommy reaction to “Jane was kissing someone else” and asked if he & Jane had an argument. (He hung his head & and shook it almost imperceptibly) I assured him that he & Jane would work things out (I was right. He was the last kid Jane hugged before she left for the day). But, whoa, Jane’s kissing treachery tore this little guy up. The idea of losing that playdate with Jane devastated him.

So much hangs on one word, one interaction.

While all this was going on, one of Jane’s friends approached me, close to tears, because her Principal’s Award medal had fallen apart, and she’d lost the medal. I felt the little twinge in my stomach I used to get when I was a kid and something was very, very wrong. I helped her and Jane look for it. Then I promptly marched my full-grown self to  the powers that be to inquire about a replacement. There’s a time and a place for lessons to be learned. But nobody is trying to learn lessons on the last week of school–over a medal they worked for all year. Nobody that I know, at least.

Adults act like they know everything. Adults, we’re busy people. We try to connect with kids over things that are important to us, not to them. We talk over them. We can be really shitty listeners. Sometimes, I’m guilty of this, too. But at the book fair, my whole job is to help kids find books that they will love. My secret goal is to make enthusiastic readers out of all of them. Every one. So, I listen a lot. I ask questions, about their hobbies, their families, their interests. Then I get to work bringing them books. I’m always looking for that magic spark, that book that makes them light up. It doesn’t happen every time. But the times it does… whoa. Amazing.

But no matter if I find them the perfect book or not, they remember me. At school, I’m either The Book Fair Lady or Jane’s mom. Kids run up to me and tell me exciting things happening to them (and sometimes sad things, too). They give me hugs. One girl who I’d seen in book fair but don’t really know came skidding across the linoleum floor to show my the two books she’d finally chosen at book fair (both Diary of a Wimpy Kid). She was beaming. And looking for me to share her joy. I love that connection.

Kids know a lot more than we give them credit for. They know how to connect without overthinking it. Kids may be snarky, silly, germy, chatty, snotty, and squirmy–but they crave connection & love. And they return love so much more freely than adults. It’s humbling (and maybe a little life-giving) to be in the presence of that kind of love.

I admire the professionals who work day in and day out with kids–loving them, teaching them, guiding them. That dedication and commitment kind of takes a special type of person. (That’s TOTALLY not me) But I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to exist in the kids’ world for a bit, to alter my perspective, and to remember the truths I’ve forgotten about childhood.

I’m a much better adult when I remember what it’s like to be a kid.

 

Photo Cred: Lufti Gaos, Kiana Bosman, Wang Xi, and Patricia Prudent on Unsplash

4 Reasons I Took My Kid to March For Our Lives Atlanta

At 7 years old, my daughter, has already attended seven civil rights marches (if you count the five Pride parades she’s attended—and I do. Oh, I do.). I don’t come from a long line of activists. In fact, my parents always seem (not so secretly) appalled that I let Jane march through the streets holding signs, chanting, and generally being a rabble-rouser. But here’s the thing: Jane was born into activism.

At 7 years old, my daughter, has already attended seven civil rights marches (if you count the five Pride parades she’s attended—and I do. Oh, I do.). I don’t come from a long line of activists. In fact, my parents always seem (not so secretly) appalled that I let Jane march through the streets holding signs, chanting, and generally being a rabble-rouser. But here’s the thing: Jane was born into activism.

Jane’s the pride & joy of two queer parents. She popped out of the womb—fist raised in the air (literally)—into a family different than the traditional, hetero-normative nuclear family. We took Jane to her first Pride when she was 6 months old. I mean, how could we go wrong? Rainbows. Glitter. Messages of acceptance and love. But even more than that, in a world way too often homophobic and unwelcoming, Pride is a place where we can make the radical statement that LGBTQ+ folks matter. Unequivocably. Pride is still a radical, political act—an act of defiance against those who try to marginalize and “other” us. And Jane took the whole thing in wearing a fabulous pink tutu that was all the rage with the gay men who cheered every time they saw her.

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Jane getting ALL the attention (and beads) at St Pete Pride

But our social consciousness can’t just be limited to LGBTQ issues. The Summer of 2016 drove that home for me. That summer was notable for two reasons: we’d just moved to Atlanta from suburban Tampa, Florida and two black men died at the hands of the police in less than a week. I did the only thing I could do. I marched through the streets of Atlanta, holding a sign that read “Black Lives Matter,” wondering how in 2016 that could be a controversial statement. When she found out I was going to march, Jane wanted to go with me. But I was afraid. The night before the march, officers had been gunned down in Dallas. I didn’t know if the protests would turn violent—not at the hands of the protesters but at the hands of folks insisting that black lives don’t matter. But then I got to the march. Entire African American families had turned out to march. Together. Little kids on shoulders. Moms chanting with their kids. Those kids were there because their lives were on the line. Who was I to choose to shield my child from a reality that children of color face every day? That march transformed me.

Now, when I march, Jane marches, too. Here are the 4 reasons that I took my 7 year old to March for Our Lives Atlanta:

Jane needs to witness both the beauty and pain in the world. Yes, even at 7 years old. Celebrating beauty with kids is easy: smiling faces in Instagram photos, impromptu dance parties, birthday cupcakes at school. Talking about suffering is more difficult to navigate. White Americans have created a mythology of childhood innocence, which is based in our own privilege–and that works against children of color. But, if we stay present our surroundings, we’re presented with countless opportunities to talk with kids–in an age-appropriate way–about the hard stuff. Heck, Disney gives us an opportunity to talk about death after the opening of almost every animated feature.

During the Summer of 2016, I did some serious mental gymnastics trying to explain to Jane how black men died at the hands of police. I didn’t want her to fear police officers. I understand that there are good police officers. But I needed her to know that, for people of color, the police aren’t always helpers. That reality has to drive Jane’s choices when she’s with her friends of color. That need to be real, the knowledge that I can’t put a child of color at risk because I need to keep my child’s innocence intact, won out. Since then, we’ve talked about the hard things. Even school shootings. Knowledge hasn’t broken her spirit. But she is more aware of injustice. And she’s even more prone to compassion. We march so Jane can bear witness to loss and fear alongside the deep sense of hope and power that comes from marching with 30,000+ likeminded souls.

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Protect Kids, Not Guns

Jane deserves to find her own voice. My generation created a world in which lockdown drills are the norm—like tornado drills, except school shootings are a disaster of our own making. Shortly after the MSD shooting, I sat in a meeting where my daughter’s Principal explained active shooter protocol. Here’s the wrenching truth: during a lockdown, the classroom doors are locked. Teachers are instructed not to open the doors until the all clear is given. If a child is out of the classroom—in the bathroom, in the library, walking down the hallway—they will not be able to get back in. Let that sink in for a minute. In a lockdown, Jane could be left alone. Totally alone to fend for herself.

I sat in stunned silence during this meeting, trying to hold it together. Then the dread crept in. Because I knew that I couldn’t put off it off any longer: I had to talk to my 7 year old about active shooter protocol. It doesn’t matter that, statistically, it’s unlikely to happen in her school. That statistic didn’t protect the kids at Sandy Hook or Marjory Stoneman Douglas. But even if the worst never happens (and I pray, like every parent, that it doesn’t), I didn’t want her to be completely unprepared for her first active shooter drill and be alone and afraid. Even during a practice drill, that thought was more than I could bear.

Jane and I talked about what lockdown meant. I told her what to do if she was away from her classroom. She cried, while I tried valiantly not to. No matter how age-appropriate the conversation, the idea of a stranger coming into Jane’s school is just plain terrifying to her. I held her while she cried. We talked about the unlikelihood of a shooting ever happening at her school. We’re just being prepared, I reminded her. I also took the opportunity to praise her ability to feel things and let them go. Nothing was helping.

Then, out of sheer desperation, I offered: “You know, these kids from Parkland, they’re planning a march.” She perked up a bit. I continued, “They want to tell people that they don’t want guns to be easy to get anymore.”

“Like gun control?” she responded. I forget the kid is always listening.

“Yes, like gun control. And they’re going to march and tell the world that being scared at school isn’t okay.”

She looked me dead in the eye. “I want to go to that march, too.”

And, so, we did. We marched to give Jane a voice about the violence that impacts her world. We marched so that she could say, loudly, “Not One More.”

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Jane being Jane–wearing rainbows & speaking out for gun control

Jane should see first-hand the power of the people. Kids sometimes feel powerless. The world is big. They are small. And the systems that oppress people feel monolithic. Our government officials seem to be bought and sold by the likes of the NRA. Our president calls people names and bullies anyone who stands up against him. Truthfully, sometimes I feel powerless against this huge mess we’ve created.

But people in action have power. Together, all of us—kids, too–can fight our way towards justice. When people unite, big things can happen. After yet another school shooting, the kids from Parkland refused to let this be our norm. They organized with other gun control activists (namely, people of color who’ve been doing this work for years and years) to say #NeverAgain and #NotOneMore. And hundreds of thousands of people turned up all over the country. Even though they’d like to, politicians can’t ignore these kids anymore.

Together we can do big things. I wish I’d know that when I was 7. And I’m thankful that my daughter gets to witness the power of the people now. The leadership of the kids from Parkland and the myriad of black activists that are—and have been–speaking out against gun violence in communities all across the nation are awe-inspiring. They remind me what our democracy can look like. And, as we chanted “Tell me what democracy looks like. THIS is what democracy looks like” while we marched, Jane learned how powerful a people, united, can be.

Jane needs to know how many people care. She’s 7. What she knows is complex yet breath-takingly simple: 17 people went to school one day and never came back. She knows that she is afraid. She hears murmurs from other kids. She imagines what it would be like for a stranger to be in her school. And then she stops. She doesn’t know what to imagine next. For that, I’m grateful. Jane needs to see that adults—the people who are supposed to look out for her—do care that she is frightened. And we plan to do something about it. We will march. We will vote. We will not let up until things change. But most of all, what I want her to know is that other kids care enough to make sure that this never, ever happens in her school. That is powerful. For her and for me.

Grumpitude & Grace

We’ve entered the season of snark with Jane. And, dear God, it is wearing me down.

The morning light hadn’t quite made its way into my daughter’s room yet. Instead, her green bug nightlight cast a soft glow across her pink fuzzy rug. I stepped carefully, to avoid being impaled by a stray Lego or a doll earring that had escaped her tidying up efforts. I crept closer to her loft and whispered up to her. “Jane.” Only soft snores in reply. She lay hidden somewhere underneath her unicorn dream tent and her fluffy comforter. “Jane!” I stage whispered, gently touching what was likely her foot. Could have been a stuffed bunny, though. These things become difficult to decipher from 2 feet below the edge of her bed.

Finally, she stirred. A little groan escaped from underneath the covers. “Good morning,” I chirped, and immediately regretted my overt chiperness. Nobody needs to be bowled down by cheer on a Monday morning before they’ve even opened their eyes. I toned it down and tried again. “Morning, bear. It’s 6:30. Want to get up and make your lunch?”

My uncannily self-sufficient seven year old makes her own lunch every day. I’ve ceased being amazed by this (although I didn’t make my own lunch until high school). It’s just who she is. She enjoys independence. And she’s proven herself responsible enough that I don’t need to hover over her. Sure, occasionally she’s headed off to school without a fruit or a vegetable gracing her lunchbox. But that’s not the norm. Typically, she at least attempts nutritional balance. Her hatred of the cafeteria’s food fuels her motivation. But, if she doesn’t get up early enough to make lunch, well it’s cafeteria mystery food for her.

When I didn’t hear a response from the top of the loft, I started backing slowly out of her room. Typically, Jane pops out of bed. She loves mornings. She’s one of those kids that wakes up at 6 a.m. even on the weekend. But not the past week or so. Twice last week, she ran into school just as the tardy bell rang. Being late makes her grumpy. In this way, and so many others if I’m honest, she’s just like me. This child is incapable of being rushed. Truly, the faster I try to coax her to move, the more I swear time begins to move backward. It was an effort to avoid this unpleasantness that drove me into her room at 6:30 in the morning in the first place. But when she didn’t exclaim, “Mommy! Good morning!” first thing, I knew my morning was about to go really wrong.

I made it back out to the dining room table, sat down with my book, and was sipping coffee before Captain Gloom appeared in the doorway. My face almost melted off from the heat of her scowl.

“Hey, buddy. What’s up?”

More scowling. “WHY did someone turn off my white noise?”

I looked at my kid, hair looking like something might still be nesting in it, eyes narrowed to slits in a combination of sleepiness and grumpiness, and I knew I needed to tread lightly. In my most neutral, yet comforting voice—well, the best one I could muster before I’d even finished my first cup of coffee—I tried reason, “I don’t think anyone turned it off love, I think…”

Apparently, thinking was a big mistake. Because my thinking made her stomp past me and into the kitchen. Now it was my turn to practice some deep breathing. I looked down at my book, willing myself to concentrate. But all the yelling that I wanted to do about her bad attitude was bouncing around in my head, crowding out the words on the page.

We’ve entered the season of snark with Jane. And, dear God, it is wearing me down.

Jane usually feels things intensely and lets them go. She can be happy, sad, then happy again in the time it takes me to finish a latte. But lately she’s been broodier. She rolls her eyes so hard that I feel sure they’re going to get stuck somewhere up in her head. She stomps off. And she holds on to these moods for a while, picking at her feelings, crying about things that are over and done—or at least they would’ve been over and done a few weeks ago. But now, we brood.

As I tried to maintain my composure in the dining room, I heard muffled sobs coming from the kitchen. I walked over, accompanied by the dog who looked confused, too. “Buddy, what is wrong?” Through tears, she shared her exquisite agony over awaking to the absence of white noise.

Seriously?

Look, I try to be understanding. And I’m sure that her tears were not actually about white noise. Maybe she felt disrespected because she thought we’d touched her things. Maybe she felt out-of-control because her morning didn’t start precisely the way she thought it would. Kids are super-complex little beings. I totally get that. But I get that a lot more once I’ve had enough caffeine to function.

“Jane, you’re going to have to let go of the white noise thing. Okay?”

“Can I have a hug?” she responded, her voice small and muffled through tears and all that hair that was still a wild mess atop her head.

I pulled her into a hug. I felt her relax a little. “Can you come in here with me while I make my lunch?” she asked.

I felt my heart catch a little. “No,” I said, quietly. “I got up early to take care of some things. I’m going to do those things now.”

Even as I was claiming my right to my own personhood, to be able to control the outcome of my morning even in the face of her meltdown, I felt guilty. Maybe I should drop everything to be there for whatever it was she was struggling through. But that isn’t really love. That’s servitude. There are times my world stops for her. But part of my job as her mother is to teach her what she can reasonably expect from people she loves. She can expect grace. We’ve been known to completely call a do-over on our morning and start again from scratch. She can expect understanding. Everyone has a bad day. Everyone gets grumpy. But she can’t expect people she loves to be her emotional punching bag. Being Jane’s mom uniquely qualifies me to be her safe space. But for that to work, like any relationship, we have to have boundaries. By not rearranging my morning for her grumpitude, I set my boundaries. Clearly.

And the world did not end. She dried her tears. She made her lunch, just like always. She even found time to snuggle with the dog (in the dog’s crate—but that’s another story for another day). By the time we left to walk to school, Jane was talking and laughing, anticipating her day ahead.

Parenting is about love, boundaries, messy hair, and redeemed mornings. And about a helluva lot of grace.

 

 

Raising a Kid Who Sees (and Celebrates) Color

Our daughter’s start in the world was less than traditional–conceived with donor sperm and born to lesbian parents. Then, when Jane was 4, her Bobby (Jane’s non-biological parent), transitioned from female to male. Que the crash course in gender, acceptance, and celebrating who we are—even if who we are makes us a little different. 

 

Our daughter’s start in the world was less than traditional–conceived with donor sperm and born to lesbian parents. Then, when Jane was 4, her Bobby (Jane’s non-biological parent), transitioned from female to male. Que the crash course in genderacceptance, and celebrating who we are—even if who we are makes us a little different.

Teaching Jane about diversity hasn’t been without challenges. Take, for instance, the day we were walking through our neighborhood, admiring the pride flags fluttering in the breeze. “Do we know anyone that’s gay?” she asked earnestly. Um…

So, we started back at square one about what being gay means, what being trans means, and what it means to identify as queer. Just a typical, everyday conversation with the 7 year old. As laborious as it can be to explain concepts like gender and sexual orientation to a very curious and analytical kid, I’m grateful that she asks questions (and asks, and asks, and asks…) until I offer up a nugget of truth that resonates with her. I want to help her understand and connect with the world whenever I can. Even if that means I’m stuck in a never-ending round of 21 Questions.

Moving into a Broader World-View

The open, frank way that we dealt with her Bobby’s transition has bled into the way our family discusses almost everything. No question is off limits. Which is good, because our move from suburban Tampa, Florida, to intown Atlanta during Jane’s fifth year of life led to A LOT of questions.

Moving from the suburbs to a markedly more urban area looks and feels different. We no longer have to take the car everywhere. Transit is an option. So is walking (which I do a lot more of than Jane would prefer). We can see the Atlanta skyline from our neighborhood. And, perhaps most notably, we left an almost entirely white suburb and moved to Atlanta, which has a rich Civil Rights history and a vibrant black population.

We live in Southeast Atlanta; it’s not uncommon for us to walk into a restaurant and be one of only a handful of white people. This is different—for us and for her. And we never hesitated to say so.

We also identified that feeling of “differentness” as something black people experience more often, as they navigate predominantly white spaces that insist on assimilation. I mean, that was the idea, but the actual wording was more like: “How would you feel if people looked at you funny because you looked different than they do?”

Her empathy radar went off. “Bad,” she said, looking puzzled and a bit put out.

“And what if they felt that way just because you had brown skin?”

Now she was mad: “That’s stupid,” she sputtered.

I saved the lecture about calling things stupid for another day. Because racism is stupid. Sometimes you just have to call it like you see it.

Living Life in Vivid Colorand Picking Your Battles

My generation often likes to claim “colorblindness.” But studies show that kids notice racial differences early on. They also quickly identify things we refuse to talk about or name as “bad.” When we wanted to avoid negative, shameful feelings around her Bobby’s transition, we gave Jane the language to discuss it. When we enrolled Jane in our local public school, which is both racially and economically diverse, we took a similar approach. We wanted her to celebrate the diversity of her school, not ignore it. So we never shied away from her copious observations about, well, everything.

For example, Jane’s always been quick to notice and admire different hairstyles, especially if they include braids, bright hair bows or beads that clickity-clack. She noticed and started talking about other kids’ hair long before she seemed to notice their skin color. In Kindergarten, she asked me to buy hair ties to go in the top and bottom of her two braids, like her black friends. While we picked out new hair ties with brightly colored, interlocking balls, she chattered on about who has super-cool braids and pretty beads.

Next came the most obvious request ever: she wanted braids like her friends at school. I felt panicked for a minute—because cultural appropriation. But I circumvented that whole conversation by reminding her that she becomes a teary mess in the time it takes me to pull her hair back into ONE ponytail. Which, incidentally, takes no longer than 120 seconds. Cool braids take intense fortitude and patience, I informed her. One day, she and I will talk about cultural appropriation and the problem with being white and “borrowing” bits of black culture while systemic racism and white supremacy run rampant. But, right now, she’s 7. Cultural appropriation is a bit nuanced. Instead, we celebrate the joyous noise hair beads make when they clickity-clack together—and how amazingly cool it is to enjoy that at school every day.

Confronting Racism Wherever It Crops Up

Raising a kid to think critically sometimes means even the easy things aren’t so easy anymore. Take, for example, reading Little House on the Prairie. I figured Jane and I would read the books together, then watch the television show –a nostalgic passing on of tradition between mother and daughter.

But these things so rarely go as planned.

Seems I’d forgotten a little bit of the story. Like when Laura and her family move to “Indian country.” When I ran across the reference to Indian country, I stopped, reminded Jane that while people used to refer to Native Americans as Indians, we know better and do better now. Because Jane’s a curious kid, I anticipated she’d have more questions.

She did not disappoint: “Why did they go into the country if it was Indian Country?”

Ah, yes. The perfect late afternoon conversation: manifest destiny. But, because we’d already talked about judging people on the color of their skin—and about some white people thinking they are better simply because they are white—it was relatively easy to explain that, white people thought they deserved the land the Indians were on.

“But why?”

I won’t lie—I wondered whether it wouldn’t just be easier to dismiss the book as racist and move on. But if I did that, wouldn’t that be teaching her to just ignore racism instead of confronting it?

I kept reading Jane Little House on the Prairie because I don’t want her to think that when she encounters ideas that run counter to her own, she should dismiss them without critical thought. Turns out, scholars support the need for critical inquiry (even in kids’ lit): “…racism exists in the world. Children are going to encounter it, and a safer way to learn how to encounter it is via fiction. If you’re reading a racist children’s book with a child, you can help them read it critically, you can help them learn that it’s okay to be angry at a book.”

Topics like white supremacy and manifest destiny are big topics. But the principles that underlie them are accessible to kids. They see injustice unfold around them. But they often don’t have the words to give voice to what they see. Talking about racism and injustice is hard work. But it’s work worth doing.

 

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

My Kid’s Complicated Relationship with Black Panther

We took Jane to see Black Panther on Sunday. (Trust me…This is just another in a string of questionable parenting choices.) In our house, we are all about REPRESENTATION and EMPOWERMENT (and, yeah, I get excited enough when I talk about these things to warrant all caps). I wanted her to see a black superhero on the big screen–because it’s epic and groundbreaking (although it shouldn’t be. This is 2018, after all). Jane left her viewing of Wonder Woman feeling empowered and proud (see what I told you about questionable parenting choices… she was 6 when she saw Wonder Woman). I know that, for a lot of black folks, Black Panther is more significant than that. It’s a celebration of black culture, black talent, and, well, blackness…

Truth be told, I wanted to give her a narrative that competes the with story she already knows–slavery, systemic racism, oppression. She gets the gift of being witness to black joy often–at school, at church, around Atlanta–but Black Panther is a story (mostly) devoid of white people. It’s black utopia. Very few colonizers, you see. So, yeah, I totally wanted my kid to see Wakanda.

Here’s where the questionable parenting comes in: I took my 7 year old to see Black Panther without knowing a damn thing about it. I was all starry eyed about Wakanda. Know what Jane was? Terrified of the guns.

Because, in our house, we are just as anti-gun as we are anti-racism. And, in Black Panther, lots of people get shot. With guns. Damn.

Truth? She was real, real scared. Harder truth? She had nightmares.

BUT…

This morning on the way to school, Jane said, “Remember how funny it was when the girl in Black Panther said, “‘Great! Another broken white boy for us to fix!’” YES! I totally remember! And then we got to talking. Talking how, because the history she gets in school was mostly written by white people, black contributions to science, medicine, and technology are downplayed. I started chattering on about Katherine Johnson’s contributions to NASA –and how most folks didn’t even know she was part of the team until Hidden Figures came out–and Jane lit up. She’d heard about that! In school! Hooray for teachers dedicated to Black History all school year–not just in February.

Representation DOES matter. A lot. When I asked Jane what her favorite part of Black Panther was, you know what she said? The science. Know who was in charge of the science? Shuri. The princess of Wakanda. A teenager with kick-ass braids and a wit that won’t quit. Shuri is the one sent to California to liberate the people–not with guns, but with science and knowledge. That’s a message worth hearing.

Black Panther didn’t mean to my kid what it means to lots of black kids in America. But it was an opportunity for her to see black brilliance at work. And I’m not sorry about that. Black Panther also powerfully drove home a message that I hold close to my heart: only light can cast out darkness. The answer to guns, violence, and oppression isn’t more guns. It’s more knowledge, more opportunity, more goodness. It’s leadership and activism and love.

That’s a message I firmly support.

Pocket Sized

“Ooff,” I muttered, rubbing my head. I batted away the pink fluff that hung over my face and called for Yelpi. Where was she anyway? “Yelp….” I trailed off mid-yell. I had found Yelpi alright. Except something was up. Either Yelpi was really, really big… or I was really, really small. Either way, our experiment seemed to have gone exponentially wrong.

Maybe I should give you some background, to keep you from being completely lost. Yelpi is my best friend. I met her in second grade. She had braces on her legs to help her walk, and she wore glasses. My family has a rule about being kind to other people—especially people who might be left out or lonely—and this girl looked like she was going to need a friend. So, I introduced myself, “I’m Persephone. But you can call me Persi. Everyone does.”

I don’t know if I expected her to be shy or what. But I definitely didn’t expect her to laugh. At my NAME. I mean, your name’s your mark in the world, you know? I was going to be mad. But there was something amazing about her laugh that made me feel… good. Peaceful. “Persi,” she said, still giggling. “Well, my name’s Yolanda. But, maybe you should call me Yelpi or something.”

If Yelpi had been anyone else, I would have lectured her on how my name marked me as something special. Persephone was the daughter of two Greek gods, after all. And she was the bringer of Spring—new life, rebirth… The way I figured it, my name made me kind of a big deal. But right away I knew two things about Yelpi: 1) she already knew this stuff about the Greek gods without me telling her, and 2) she was going to treat me like I was sort of a big deal no matter what my name was. That’s just the kind of person she is.

Turns out I was right. Yelpi was the smartest kid I’d ever met. She was always reading something. She loved stories about far off places. And she read book after book about science—lightning, grasshoppers, chemistry. Yelpi was unapologetically a nerd. Even in the second grade. And she was also the most amazing person ever. I totally didn’t need to feel sorry for her. The braces on her legs slowed her down a little. And she kind of bounced when she walked. But it didn’t matter. She’d take on any challenge, even if it took her ten times more effort than most of the kids. Like the time we had to run a mile in PE. Coach was gonna give Yelpi a pass on that. But she insisted that she could do it. It took her the whole PE class—45 minutes!—to go the whole mile. But she never gave up. Kids respect that kind of stuff. So, one by one, as kids finished running their mile, they went back to walk with Yelpi. Coach acted like it was a big deal that we all “supported Yelpi”—whatever that means. We were just being her friend. Adults can get so weird about stuff.

Anyway, basically from the day we met, Yelpi & I have been inseparable. My mom says we’re attached at the hip. That’s silly. I mean, how could we even get around to play aliens bodysnatchers or to look for fairies in the backyard if we were attached at the hip? See? Adults = weird. But, if we actually were attached at the hip, we’d probably get in a lot less trouble. And for sure I wouldn’t be three inches tall right now.

Oh, man… I got ahead of myself again. Okay, okay. Remember how I said Yelpi is a total science nerd? Well, she got me into science, too. And our favorite thing to do on a Saturday is to look up experiments and preform them in my room. Usually, we just go to a few science websites for kids and find experiments there. But today Yelpi showed up at my house with a dusty old book that she’d found in a big steamer trunk in her attic. Bet you want to know how she even got up into the attic with those braces on her legs? I knew you were paying attention. She got them off a few months ago. Over the summer. She still bounces when she walks, but she’s gotten a lot faster. And, honestly, I spend so much time with Yelpi that I bounce when I walk, too. It’s kind of just a habit. But it is more fun to walk like that. You should try it.

So, Yelpi has this strange, big book that she’s all excited over. It’s got old, loopy script handwriting in it instead of printed words. It looks like someone spent a lot of time putting together all kinds of potions—potions for love, for curing illnesses, for getting rich. Now, Yelpi and I are in fourth grade. I don’t give a fig about love, at least not the kind of love that makes Aiden Smith always try to kiss me on the playground. And Yelpi and I are real lucky that we don’t know anyone that’s sick. So, we figured we’d try to get rich. Seemed like a reasonable way to spend our Saturday afternoon.

We gathered all kinds of stuff for the potion. Some of the stuff we had to kind of guess on—neither of us could exactly get our hands on an eye of newt or on a fragment of turtle shell stewed in sage. Maybe it was our improvising that was the problem. Because by late Saturday afternoon, we were no richer. But I certainly was smaller. 45 inches smaller, to be exact.

 

We Do Not Have to Live Like This

I haven’t talked to Jane about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. How do you tell a 7 year old, who loves school above all else, that 17 people went in to school one morning and never came back out? How will she ever feel safe again, once she knows the truth? I don’t feel safe. I am terrified. I feel a physical pang when I drop her off at school in the morning. I stop the ‘what ifs’ in my head, because who can live like that?

But none of us should be living like this.

I’m not one to shy away from discussing difficult topics with Jane. Racism? We talk about it. She’s appalled by it. White supremacy? She knows what it is & thinks it’s gross. Homophobia? Yeah, she thinks that’s just dumb. But gun violence? I guess that’s where our privilege really shows… we haven’t talked about it because it could directly effect her. America’s love of guns could cost my child her life. I don’t know how to broach that. Yet people of color talk to their children often & from a young age about America’s racism that could one day end their lives for no reason at all. So, yes, white privilege is wrapped up in all this, too. But really, isn’t it always.

I don’t believe we have to quietly accept racism. And I don’t believe we have to accept the status quo on guns. When I found out that Atlanta Public Schools will do active shooter drills, I immediately felt relief. Knowing how to respond could increase Jane’s chances of survival. Then that sunk in: I am concerned about increasing my child’s chances of survival AT SCHOOL. Shit. Then the second wave of realization hit: Jane will learn that if she isn’t in her classroom, she must hide. On her own. The doors will be locked. She can’t get back in. She just has to do her best to stay alive.

SHE IS SEVEN.

We have created a war zone. Here. In America. We are our own enemy. On any given day, our children might die at their own school. And we refuse to stop it. We just try to navigate around it. That is some bullshit right there.

When I posted on Facebook that, during active shooter protocol, classroom doors are locked an aren’t to be reopened until the all clear is given, I got a lot of pushback. Not from gun activists. From teachers. They said they would never leave a child out to die on their own. They would let them in.

I don’t doubt that, at all. Teachers have sacrificed their lives to save their students. But teachers aren’t soldiers. They shouldn’t have to EVER make the decision to open that door or not. The orders are given for a reason. Opening the door might save the one student, or it might end the lives of 20 others. Teachers are not combat trained, for God’s sake. How could they ever make that call effectively? Better yet, WHY SHOULD THEY HAVE TO?

We do not have to live like this.

And, to be clear, homeschooling isn’t the answer to the threat of being gunned down in school. America’s love affair with guns cannot cost us our public education system. We cannot abandon our children’s futures to the NRA. We did not allow 9/11 to stop us from traveling, living, and rebuilding. We didn’t all move to rural America in response to terrorism in one of America’s greatest cities. Make no mistake: the NRA is a terrorist organization. Abandoning public education means the terrorists win. That wasn’t an option after 9/11. It isn’t an option now.

Tonight, I will talk to Jane about the Parkland shooting. I’ll read articles about talking to kids about gun violence. I’ll pray about it. Then I’ll start the conversation. But I’ll be damned if I will resign myself to this being her normal. I will fight back with every breath I have. And, if I know my kid at all, she’ll insist on being right by my side.

Speak up. Stand up. Fight back.

We do not have to live like this.

 

 

Photo credit: Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

The Sins That Change Us

I remember her name was Chrystal*. I can remember the honey color of her hair. But I can’t recall her face at all.

Sometimes our minds take mercy on us, even when we are least deserving.

I hated myself in middle school. A boy in my sixth grade science class told me I was ugly. I believed him. A girl at the sixth grade dance told me I looked stupid dancing. I believed her. Ugly, stupid, unpopular… I accepted whatever label my peers offered me**. I never challenged them. By eleven, I believed I was worthless.

I wasn’t bullied. I had a good home life. But I still felt alone. Weird. No, not just weird… I actually believed that if anyone knew me, they would find me disgusting. Gross.

Pain and powerlessness. Self-loathing. And Chrystal.

This turned out to be a toxic mix.

I think I picked her because she seemed weaker than me, somehow. I don’t remember if we bullied Chrystal the one time or if it was ongoing. But there’s one memory that is so clear to me:

Some other girls and I were in a storage closet with Chrystal. I think we’d been sent to gather props for drama. Regardless, we got what we wanted because we had Chrystal alone. No adults anywhere to be found.

We said awful things to her. I’m sure they were awful not because I remember the exact words, but because I get a very particular feeling in the pit of my stomach when I remember it. My words were designed for maximum impact–to make her feel as insignificant and unworthy as I did. She was trapped in this closet with us, and we rained verbal abuse down on her relentlessly. I may not remember the words I said, but I do remember the thrill of power. I usually felt invisible. But right then, I felt what I was sure the popular girls felt all the time: I felt superior. Untouchable.

One of the girls in our band of bullies moved closer to Chrystal; a metal pole–like the ones used to hold up velvet theater ropes–fell on her knee. It was her tears that snapped me back into myself. Her jagged gasps for breath between sobs broke through my rage. Her tears made me human again.

Immediately, I remorse kicked in. I was sorry, but I didn’t want to admit the full extent of my transgressions. I pretended she was crying because her knee hurt. I begged for forgiveness for that hurt knee. She kept sobbing. And in between those sobs, she asked over and over again why we were so mean to her.

I didn’t have the answer then. I don’t have a good answer now. But God, do I wish I could do that 15 minutes of my life over again.

The first time I told Jane this story, she was in PreK. I re-tell it every so often. Why? Because words can hurt more than fists. Because even when we believe ourselves to be “good” we can be capable of evils–great and small.

I tell the story as a kind of penance. And as a reminder that our sins change us–and only we get to decide how. I tell Jane the story in the hopes that, if she’s ever in a similar situation, she will choose kindness instead.

*Chrystal is a fictional name. The story is real.

**I had plenty of peers who said kind things to me. But I did not, could not, hear them over my own self-loathing.

Photo Credit: Instagram-@gbarkz