Colossus, Rusted?

Colossus, Rusted?

 

When opinionated teacher problems collide head-on with transracial family subject matter, cultural angst takes over part of my brain. As a trans-racial adoptive mom, social issues are always on my mind, even when I’m teaching.

This week in tenth grade literature, we reviewed sonnets, and I chose four of my favorites to read and potentially discuss, one of which was Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus.” You may remember it as the source of the famous “Give me your poor, your tired… your yearning to breathe free,” which is engraved on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty.

Here is the full text, shared because it’s beautiful, and passionate, and brilliantly naive.

The New Colossus 
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I love those words. I love the hope and passion and courage they embody. I love that they represent the dreams and aspirations of many of my ancestors. I love that they’re in iambic pentameter in a Petrarchan sonnet on a giant statue that represents the all the good America can do. I’ve always been an idealist.

One of my students asked why the sonnet was on Lady Liberty, and without thinking, I said, “It used to be sort of a motto for our country, it kind of represented what we stood for.”LadyLib

I didn’t think about the emotional or political impact of this poem or my quick answer as it spilled out of my mouth, but I have been tossing them around in my head for a few days now.

As soon as they left my mouth, I knew those words were going to start a discussion, one I would have loved, but wasn’t prepared to have.

And it did; here’s how it played out in about 27 seconds:

Student A: “You don’t think that’s true anymore?”

Student B: “Trump sure doesn’t.”

Student C: “What do you think it changed to?”

Student D: “Now it’s ‘We’re all offended.'”

I stopped it there, saying, “Guys, I would love to have this conversation with you, but we can’t do it during class time– maybe over lunch or after school.”

General moans and groans and objections were mounted, but gradually we got back to the business of the sonnet, the grand dame of fixed form poetry.

Five years ago, I wouldn’t have given a second thought to the political ramifications of that sonnet, and clearly, 36 hours ago
I hadn’t either.  Five years ago, I didn’t have black children, and the ones I had, while slightly tinted, didn’t inspire in me the angst and introspection my three youngest do. What’s my excuse for 36 hours ago? I don’t have one.

Why can’t I have a conversation about immigration politics as exemplified by the sonnet and current events with my 9th and 10th graders? Why must I worry so much about politically offending students by asking them to support their opinions with facts?

There are two schools of thought on this; the first, that teachers must be absolutely neutral about their political leanings and beliefs so as not to inappropriately influence the students.  Our jobs are to impart facts and let the kids figure out what they think.

The other, that teachers are not automatons and that what we think and believe comes out subtly any way, so why not discuss and hash through issues with logic and respect? Our opinions, with logical and respectful conversation are foils to our students’ developing ideas about how the world should work.

I am definitely in the latter camp; I’ve tried being a neutral presence in my classroom, but I would never want or expect my students to remain neutral.  To me, neutrality is a form of cowardice; when you fail to choose a side, you are giving tacit approval to whatever you’re refusing to deal with.  Think Switzerland circa 1943.

I tell my classes at least once a semester that they have to get the fence posts outta their backsides and take a stand. I don’t care which side of the fence they choose, but choose they must because life and democracy demand it.  Persuasive writing  requires that students take a stand and defend it, and address counterclaims to their ideas.  We require our students to take stands and defend them, so why was I so hesitant to do the very thing I expect my students to do?

When student B asked me why I thought we were no longer the country that embraced the poor, dejected, and needy from other countries, I realized there is no way to respond with the necessary detail in the ten minutes we had left in class.

The ideals embraced by “The New Colossus” only applied to those of Western European descent, and then only as long as you didn’t have dark hair and eyes or speak with an Irish accent. Only two students in this particular class fit this description; heck, half of my ancestry does not fit that demographic either; Italians were too dark, noses too big, and food too smelly. And the Native American part? Let’s not go down that rabbit hole tonight.

 

And why is it so hard for me to admit that as lovely as this sonnet is, our country has never really embraced the homeless of the world, let alone the homeless within our own borders?

In my class of 27, 25 of them would not have been welcomed no matter how much they huddled or yearned, because their complexions are too dark, their hair too coarse, or their accents too thick.  A painful moment of honesty, that; and I was unwilling to have the awesome conversation we could have had because of the political implications, and my own painful sadness about what all of that implies for me, my beautiful brown-skinned babies, and all of my students.

It’s easy for me as “an old white lady” (what I often call myself when we talk about issues of current politics and cultural differences)  to spout off about how great and welcoming Ellis Island’s Immigration might have been to some of my ancestors.

Except not really. Officials at Ellis Island dropped part of one of my ancestor’s names because of its complicated spelling and pronunciation–a historic microaggression that immigration officials were kind of infamous for.

I have always considered myself a patriot. But  patriotism is difficult when painful truths about the country you love,  and its history, are staring at you with dark brown eyes waiting for you to explain what they already know: that there are unspoken parenthetical limitations in the  promises our country has made.


In case you wondered, the other three sonnets were:

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Pre-K and the Daily Behavior Report

Pre-K and the Daily Behavior Report

My husband and I struggled with the decision to put our youngest child in pre-k this year.  People who know us assure us that it’s because he’s a boy, and we’re only used to girls.  Our little boy, C. is “busy.” And busy is the nicest word we have found to describe our capricious little half-sized tornado.

I started praying for his teacher before we even knew he got into a pre-k class, because we knew teaching him is going to be a challenge.  Trust us, parenting him is no peanut butter and jelly sandwich, either.

Today, I am feeling more protective of him than usual, and defensive for him.  Read on, and I think you’ll understand.

His teacher is highly recommended, and everyone I’ve spoken with has loved her, so I know (hope, pray, expect) that it will get better.

____________________________________________

Dear Teacher,

I’m not sorry for the snarky, desperate note I scribbled on C’s daily behavior log today, but I do feel the need to explain.

I was in a hurry, and took a bad picture. My response reads, "We've been working on this since he was a baby!"
I was in a hurry, and took a bad picture. My response reads, “We’ve been working on this since he was a baby!”

That little boy right there?  He’s mine. He’s our youngest, our last, and the only boy.

He doesn’t look like me, or my husband, but his little brown hands hold our pale ones for evening prayer each night.

When I come home from work, he charges at me, with an exuberant, “Mama!” and slams into me for a fast hug, before rushing off for more playtime.

When he talks about his daddy, his bright eyes light up, and he jabbers with excitement about his daddy’s trains, his daddy’s truck, cooking with his daddy, and swimming with his daddy. He points at my husband and says, “That’s MY daddy.”

And he talks about all six of his sisters, his speech teacher, Overtime at church, his birth mom, his grandparents, coloring, dancing, the movie Home, and riding his scooter.

He loves running, dogs, driving his sisters nuts, and seeing how many things he can stuff into another random thing. He likes building and taking apart, he plays jokes, wants his boo-boos bandaged, is a pro at finding weird places to pee, and he will, at the ripe old age of four, do cannonballs off the high-dive with no life jacket, and laugh all the way down.

He has the temper of a wildfire, and the drowsy snuggliness of a decades-old quilt. He wants to be read to, but rarely can sit still past page three.

He makes the silliest faces, and in perfectly good humor, will ignore you the first 147 times you tell him to go get in his bed. And on request #148, he’ll wriggle down the hall, taunting that he doesn’t like us.  Minutes later, we hear, “Mama, Daddy!  I want YOU!”

We have to set a timer at dinner, or he will play with his food, his sister’s food, the dog, his silverware, my silverware, visit the bathroom three times, and try to go outside at least once.

Dentist’s offices don’t use as many toothbrushes as we do, because they can be used for everything, including disassembling the flush mechanisms on the toilet, brushing his hair, playing with his feet, and any number of ways to annoy his sisters. I’ve already mentioned that? Oh yeah, he’s a pro at getting them mad enough to tell like a dying Ton-Ton on the ice planet Hoth.

But in the midst of all the crazy he creates, he will stop, look up, smile, and blink charmingly at you, like the perfect little angel he could be if he never moved.

So when I get notes from you, every day, saying he needs to work on keeping his hands to himself, I have a hard time responding.

Not one day has gone by since he started walking—and he pretty much skipped crawling–that we haven’t, several times in the span of just a few minutes, told him to keep his hands to himself.   To be still.  To stop that.

He is curious, insistent, helpful, stubborn, and very, very clever. He gets bored once he’s figured something out.

We work on his sitting still skills.  We practice following directions, using routines and procedures, and staying in line. Every. Single. Day.

C. reminds me of my uncle, whose nickname he shares: athletic, really bright, fearless, and hopefully, someday, smart enough to walk the line between adventure and trouble.

I hope he continues to love to learn, and get excited about being in school like his big sisters.

And I worry that if all he hears is that he needs to stay in line, keep his hands to himself, and stop swinging his lunchbox, he will lose the exuberant joy he has when he discovers something new.

And while I know he needs to do all those things in the classroom, and I also know that he needs to hear the good he does too. So do his parents.

So, could you help a mama out, and maybe once a week, find something nice to say about my little boy?

He really is trying.

Thank you,

Mom

When White People Comment on My Transracial Family

When White People Comment on My Transracial Family

I bet that title got your attention a little.  Good. I’m glad you’re here.

Toward the end of a twenty-three hour road trip this summer, I attempted to explain to my daughters M and N that because there are very few people of any color where we were going, we were likely to have more than our usual number of stares and comments.  Because we are a white parent/black children family, we get a lot of both.

N didn’t say anything; she usually doesn’t.

M said, in her typical blunt way, “If there isn’t anyone who looks like us, why would you take us there?”  Her depth often shocks me, and that it is my job to help her use her powers for good and not evil (yeah, we’re nerds like that), is a scary venture.

Anyway.

Good question, kiddo.

This is what I told her:

  1. Because you go where your family is.
  2. The color of our skin does not dictate where we go or what we do.

I want my girls to be as intentionally culturally courageous as adults as they are unintentionally as children.  They mix and mingle with everyone, talk with ease amongst kids of all backgrounds, and I don’t want them to lose that.  So as they grow, we have conversations about race, race perceptions, culture, community, and how our family and their birth families all fit into the conversation. But that’s at home.

When we’re in public, we are very conspicuously on display.  And people who see us, and are intrigued by us, often feel compelled to communicate their feelings about us to us.  What follows is almost always an awkward “I-don’t-spend-much-time-with-minorities-but-I-feel-like-I-have-to-say-something” conversation that happens mostly with white people.

Most comments come down to three things: where we “got” them, their above-average adorableness, and the way their hair is styled.

Asking me in front of my kids, where I got my kids is like walking up to someone and asking where they bought their car.  Or asking someone with an eggplant in their grocery buggy where the vegetable section is because they’ve always wanted to try eggplant. My children are not cars we have purchased, nor are they eggplants we obtained because we were curious.  They are children with ears that work. What they can’t do is process all the nuances, assumptions, and social issues loaded into that question.

Physically, my kids are just flat adorable; two of them have never taken a bad picture, and one of them has a smile and laugh that lights up the world around them.  They all have lashes to die for, beautiful smiles, and gorgeous glowing Hershey and mahogany skin.  They are four, five, and six, so they’re even in a cute age group.

And without fail, every time we’re in public, people comment on their cuteness.  This consistency leaves me suspicious.  Are the comments truly about the epic levels of cute, or are they something else?

When a white family is out in public with their children, how often does another white person comment to them about how cute their kids are? I believe that if my kids where white, or at least looked more like my husband and me, we would get almost no comments about their physical attractiveness.  And I don’t think there’s anything malicious about this.  Hang with me, we’re almost to the theory.

Then people ask about their hair. They want to know who does it and how does it stay that way.  A side note on basic etiquette:  Please don’t touch my kids when you ask that about their hair; they are not puppies.  They have personal space and full control over who does and doesn’t get to touch them.  It’s very awkward to have a stranger walk up, touch a poof or braid, and ask who does them.

To answer that, for the most part, I do, unless it’s a style I can’t do, or am feeling lazy enough to pay someone else to do it.

But what’s behind the question?  Are you trying to make conversation to recommend a stylist, or are you just being nosy?  I’ve never seen a white person ask another white person who does their child’s hair.

It doesn’t matter how they have it styled, when we are in public, anywhere with people milling about, we get comments from random strangers about the beads, the braids, the poofs, or the ‘fro.

Here’s my theory:

This brief public interaction is not about my children or my family at all.  It is a way for the the other person to offer their recognition of our uniqueness, and to somehow validate it and offer us a sense of acceptance.

I think the comments and questions are, in part, to prove to themselves and our family that the speaker is not racist, and that they are happy to see families like ours. I see it as them wanting to offer support and acceptance, and not knowing what else to say except that our kids are cute.  I truly do appreciate the warm fuzzies.  I do.

But.

While I’m grateful that lots of people want to offer us that validation, I wish they’d just smile at us and leave it at that.

I love that people want to reach out, but the hyper-inflation of my kids’ ego is getting difficult to manage. Trust me, they know they’re cute.  And when they get tired of hearing it, sometimes it’s difficult to keep their manners in check.

During that long road trip, we went to a famous national retailer that rhymes with CallTart, and my kids quadrupled the people of color count in the store that day.

I kept count because I knew it would be a doozy.  We got:

  • eight “your girls are so pretty”
  • four “I love the bling/beads/braids/braids” in their hair
  • two randomly shared hair stories that involved mixed-race nieces and nephews
  • four hostile glances
  • four knowing smiles

By the fifth compliment, M. had had enough and pretending no one was there and that she hadn’t heard anything. N has her own set of drummers in her head, and never seems bothered about people, unless those people are her siblings, and then it’s radar-lock battle time. So she just did her own thing, sometimes smiling, sometimes doing her odd little dance.

While I understand the impulse to offer something, anything, please consider what you say, what your motivation is, and what your goal is.  It is so important to offer people whose causes we support whatever help and encouragement they need, and telling me that my kids are cute doesn’t do much to forward that agenda.

If seeing my family provides a valuable opportunity to analyze your beliefs and behaviors, that is an awesome self-evaluation time for you, and I’m glad you’re embracing it.  But none of that is truly about my children, me, or my husband. That is all you, considering your place in the world, and sorting your way through racism and dealing different cultures.  I’m betting that saying that I have cute kids isn’t really what you want to say, but it is the easiest thing to say.

(And on another side note, please, for the love of all things everywhere, don’t use words like bling, bro and girlfriend just because my kids are black.  If you use, “Hey girlfriend!” with all little girls, fine, but to bust out the slang just because my girls look different than the ones you’re used to? Insulting.)

I love that there are so many people in the world who want to share with us that they are cool with our multi-cultural, multi-generational family, and I am thankful that only on a few occasions has anyone been completely rude or thoughtless.

But after so much of the same, it is very difficult to explain to them. They understand that we look different, and they sort of get why people stare at us and comment, but they aren’t capable of understanding all the racial subtext of those interactions yet.  I dread the day they do, because those will be new levels of long difficult conversations.

A smile, a nod of affirmation, or a note slipped into my hand requesting a phone call would be AWESOME.  I might even pass you a yet-to-be-created-but-in-the-works business card leading you to an already-created-but-still-pretty-dead-Facebook group for transracial families.

And I would call you, and we’d have a fantastic conversation, in which I would thank you for both recognizing our family and respecting the boundaries we’re trying to put in place for their safe passage into adulthood.

Since adopting our three, I have learned a lot about racism and racial issues, and experienced a tiny bit of it, but it is nowhere near what my kids will experience as they grow.

The biggest thing I have learned is that unless we talk about all of it, nothing will ever be better.

And that’s why I wrote this.

Let’s talk.

Just not in front of my kids.