They're everywhere

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

If only everyone thought this way

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Said by a six year old girl to me, in response to the information that we had moved from the United States:

"United States? I don't know what that is. Is it like a really, really tall building?"

Beautiful dreamer

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

This was a piece I wrote in January of 2006. It has sat, completed, in my draft blog file for quite a while. I think I am ready to share it now.

I have had a series of very odd dreams the past three nights. People I have long forgotten, or consciously banished, have been strolling through my subconscious waving at me.

Being a very tightly controlled external person has meant that I have always had vivid and specific dreams. Some will tell you that they can't remember anything they dream. I almost always remember - down to the transitions between dreams.

I get out alot of aggression in these dreams. I scream. I yell, I tackle people. I beat them up. They were much worse before I started therapy many years ago. You don't need to be Freud to figure out why that was. Those were the years of the nightmares. Being pursued, always by the shadow man, who - if he caught me brought terrible things. Much worse than death. The shadow thing hasn't shown up in many many years. But my father showed up last night. I woke up panicked and startled this morning.

I assume that my father was the shadow man for the many years I dreamed of that archetype. My flight in the face of that unknown evil was understandable. As I got older and began to name - out loud- my experiences with my father, the Shadow man disappeared. I had robbed it of it's anonymity. He had a face. That face was my father.

My recovery has come in fits and starts. I do some work, I rest. I do some more work, I rest. As all of you who have been in therapy know, the evolution of understanding is not a straight path. There is no pre-defined time limit to unlocking the reasons you do the things you do. As much as the HMO's would like to say that Depression can be fixed in 12 visits, it isn't true. As much as the pharmaceutical companies would like you to believe that their drug will fix you, that also isn't true. Prozac has helped me tremendously in straightening out my lousy brain chemistry, but Prozac has never resolved any of my family issues. That was done all on my own, with very patient therapists.

In writing about my brother last week, I was inviting some of these memories to come out of their closets and play in my subconscious. I believe that I did this knowing that the wave would come and wash over me within the next few days. It has.

Today I have recalled a couple of very specific incidents. I write these down as a way to exercise them from the silence of my mind. I have only spoken of them in therapy a couple of times. In my determination to never be seen as a victim, I rarely allow these to come to the surface. In my determination to be a professional, a mother, a wife and a woman who has her shit together, I have rarely allowed time for these memories. It is clear from my dreams the past several days that they demand to be heard.

It must have been 1973 or maybe 1974. I can't recall if my brother was born or not, but I do know that we were living in a Trailer in Ohio. I was picking up the pasta my father had cooked ( plain just butter) with my fingers and eating them. Hardly something that a 3 or 4 year old would not be expected to do. My father warned me. He said "stop eating like an animal". He left the kitchen. I promptly started eating with my fingers again. He returned and caught me eating with my fingers. He said "If you're going to eat like an animal, you can eat with the animals." He dumped out the dog food from the bowls on the floor and put my pasta in the dog's bowl. He stood over me and demanded that I eat like a dog. I did it. I was afraid.

He later shot these dogs in the winter because they were howling at night. After warning my mother to do something about those dogs before he did something about them, he ran outside and shot them both with his shotgun. My mother called the police who said that he had a right to do that if he wanted. She had to clean up the bodies and the blood before I discovered them.

The next memory is from 1979 or so. My mother had left my father but he had my brother and I for 4 to 6 weeks in the summer. I suspect he did not want to see us so much as give my mother the proverbial finger. He was in the Marines and he was also dealing a great deal of a variety of drugs. He left us home alone every day while he went to work. I was 9, Donnie was 5.

One night, he woke us up and told me that he had to go see a friend. We had to come with him. He bundled our sleepy selves into his car and drove. I fell back to sleep. When we got to wherever we were going, he woke us both up and had us stand together, holding hands. He walked with us in front of him. He walked us into this apartment and introduced us as his kids. The man in the apartment lifted the top off of the coffee table and displayed a dazzling assortment of drugs. I recall the colors. My father purchased his goods and walked us back out into the car. Many years later, as I pieced this memory together, I realized that my father had used my brother and I as a human shield. He was afraid the guy was going to rob him.

I do not tell these stories to gain a sympathetic response. I do not tell these stories to be told how strong I am, or how I survived things which - for many - may be unsurvivable.


I tell these stories because they are mine to tell and because when I do the invisible power that the memory of my father can still exert dissipates like glittery fog. It is in the telling of these bits and pieces of my childhood that I regain ownership and control of who I am today. That this is one more band-aid I don't need and can let that skin breathe out in the light.

Too much time on our hands

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

I walk into the living room, minutes ago. I look at the television. I look at my husband sitting on the couch

Dawn to Terrance:

"You know how I know you're gay? You're watching The Lake House by yourself."

and walk out.


Monday, September 10, 2007

If, from my first moments with my parents, I learned to read and react to the adults in my life, it was in the schools I attended that I hones these skills. As the child of a Marine, we moved frequently. By the time I was in fourth grade, I had attended eight schools.

Being the new kid – almost constantly – was both deeply unsettling and oddly predictable. I would arrive at some point in the school year. I would be introduced to the class. I would watch. I would observe and conform to the rituals of the school in which I was now living. I would gauge the reaction to me and decide how much to reveal of who I was, how smart I was ( or wasn't) , how girls acted in this school. I watched to see what I needed to become in order to fit in the best way I could.

While every classroom had certain givens – desks, chalkboards, teachers desk – it was the world of my new peers which was unpredictable. In fact, I recall few of the actual children. Names and faces occasionally float through my memories, but I can tell you the lay out of almost every classroom from memory. I attached, as became my custom, to the physical layout of an area.

When we moved to Vermont, I was in 4th grade. My parents had separated and my mother moved us to a small city far away from anyone she knew. I stood in the front of the room, in my school dress. I was introduced and my voice came out – a slow, Southern drawl – which took my classmates completely by surprise. This was not a land where little girls wore dresses to school and had Southern accents. This was a school where little girls wore jeans and sneakers and played kickball in the yard.

Being in the same school for a full year for the first time in my life, it didn't take them long to figure out that I was smart. Smarter than I generally let on. I began to test out of reading groups like crazy. Until I realized that this was not helping my place in the group. Little New girls did not come in and take over other peoples pre-set places in groups. I was continually reminded by my peers that I was the new girl. I learned to shade and shadow my actions in order to not draw additional attention to myself.

Flash forward to my pre-adult life, I found myself working with children. Not with intention, to be sure. I wasn't sure that I even Liked kids, let alone making work with them my vocation. I had to volunteer for the end of my high school honor society requirements. I chose the local parent child center, where they needed a volunteer to assist with the teaching of a parent class during the evenings. Most adults in the class were court ordered to attend this class either due to child protection issues or divorce proceedings. The adults were in their own room, and the children were in another. The “lessons” mirrored one another in the two groups.

I was to help with the young children. So I did what I did best. I sat down on the floor and watched. I didn't tell them what to do. I didn't sit in a chair above them. I sat down on the ground and simply observed. This led to the most curious thing.... Children, who had experienced various abuses and neglect, began to crawl into my lap. Quiet. Still.

I didn't lean in to hug them. I stayed still. The wildest little boy in the group proceeded to attach himself to me, crawling into my lap, and to the surprise of all involved....Fell asleep. It was as if a puma had walked out of the forest, sat in my lap and curled up.

What became clearer as the weeks went on was that there was something about me that these young children found consistent. Safe. Trustworthy. This allowed me to observe them more closely, and tuck my observations into conversations with the teacher leading the class. Observations about motivations or the actions of children which would take the teacher by surprise. I mean – who was I? 17? A Volunteer?

Later, after I acquiesced to Education as my career, I found that I retained that ability to stay still and observe. I found that this made me good teacher who quickly could read the mood of my classroom as well as see behind the words of the parents as they talked with me. For I was an old hand at hearing the meaning behind the words being said. Sensing the subtle differences between anger or fear.

I learned that I didn't have to entertain a child. I didn't have to impress a parent with my book knowledge. If I simply observed the child...made myself available to the child on the terms of the child, while still not relinquishing the aura of being a safe and capable adult, then the child would melt into me much like that first three year old boy. I learned that showing a parent that I KNEW their child – in intimate ways like knowing what Hannah did ( rub the back of her head) when she was tired, or how James needed to have a private reminder in his ear when it was time for him to use the bathroom - proved my knowledge and caring in ways that I could never vocalize.

Of course teaching with people who did not observe children as closely... I found it odd. I mean, didn't they know how much easier it would all be if they just watched? Didn't they understand that their lesson planning would be solved – I mean – the children were telling you what they wanted, how they learned best. To patently choose to ignore the depth of information being provided by the children seemed ....Silly.

So, to bring these two pieces to my research, I believe that these are reasons why I became a teacher of young children. Not for romantic ideation's of “Teacher” - but because I understood the position of young children. The duality of power and powerlessness implicit in childhood. I was the watcher – because I had no choice. It was the only way I could navigate the waters of my life. However, this skill made me an astute and powerful observer of young children. It also made me aware that there is much more than adults may be cognizant of in the inner lives of their children. I believe that they understand and process social events on a higher level perhaps then previously considered. I know that I did.

White like me

Thursday, September 06, 2007

** This is the end of the thesis I wrote about White privilege and my journey as a Teacher and Parent. I've been thinking about my experience in Canada - especially around race, culture and issues of language ( a huge issue in Quebec. I suspect you'll see that in a while****

I should have noticed the signs that something had occurred. Emily began verbally identifying herself as a “black girl” to her father and myself. She began to express that she wished she were “white and have straight hair like you, Mama”. When talking about a play date at a friends house, Emily told the little girls mother, “But you’ll have a black girl in your house”, looking for a reaction.

Each of these things rippled uncomfortably across my awareness. It was nearly a week later that I finally pieced together the puzzle. As we lay in bed reading together, the light bulb made a blinding flash in my head. “Did someone at school say something to you about being black?” I asked her. I waited for her answer, knowing that with all my professional and personal work, I was woefully unready for her response.

The answer, of course, was yes. Another little girl had told Emily that “She was black and had no friends, but that Alexander is black and he has lots of friends”. Emily took this to mean that it was undesirable to be a black girl and her expressions of desire to be “white like Mom” began.

With all my professional and personal preparation, my first instinct was to wrap her in my arms and cry. However, I didn’t do that. What I did do was call her father into the bedroom and explain the situation so we could have a family conversation about being black, being white and being bi-racial. In order to offer Emily some strategies to handle these situations, we talked at length about truth. Was it true she is black? Yes. Was it true that she has no friends? No. Was it true that Alexander is black? No, he is of South American heritage and has very dark skin, but is not black. Does he also have friends? Yes.

After Emily was settled into bed, Terrance and I talked at length about what to do. Should I speak with the teachers? While Terrance did not think this was necessary, I could not allow this to pass without comment. For Terrance, his reluctance sprang not from a desire to keep this issue quiet, but from the knowledge of the resistance that we would face. He, after all, has dealt with being black in New England for twenty years.

Simultaneously, I could feel my deep gut embarrassment at having to address this issue with these teachers and other parents. Polite white people do not discuss racist remarks. My entire socialization as a liberal White woman demanded that I look away from this incident as distasteful, or simply the words of a child who didn’t know better. As in the other arenas, these were well-educated people whom I liked and respected. How could I walk in and tell these white people that racism is in their midst! Why didn’t they already know it?

I quickly realized that as Emily’s mother and a White person who is committed to the work of Anti-Bias, my socialized embarrassment could not stop me from doing what the situation demanded. For Emily’s sake, I needed to be proactive and address the issue of these remarks to the teachers. I needed Emily to see that her White mother would never be embarrassed to defend and protect her, regardless of my own internal discomfort.

The next morning, I called the teacher aside and explained what I had learned. She was appropriately horrified. What should she do? Should she have a group meeting? Should she call the other child’s parents? Her panic indicated that she too had never thought through having to deal with the issue of racism in this private school setting.

I began to talk with her about what I knew about children and racism. I brought her resources I copied from the book Beyond Heroes and Holiday’s. I asked her to be prepared to support Emily in conversations about race. I explained to her that being black in a White dominant culture was apparent to all the children and it was natural for them to notice and discuss it.

However, it was when I began to talk about the privileges of being white in New Hampshire that I realized that I had never talked to her, or many other white people about this issue. Polite white people don’t point out racism to other polite white people, especially those in the upper middle class. Polite white mothers don’t tell the teacher that the other children are saying hurtful remarks. Polite white mothers don’t notice such things.

I don’t think that the teacher fully understood what I was saying, but she was willing to listen. The Head of School and the teachers met, and planned a course of action to respond to this issue with both the children and families. While not yet fully resolved, I am satisfied with the way the school is beginning their journey.

Some parents are avoiding me now; some are overextending themselves to be friendly. White guilt is a funny thing. One little girl involved in the incident told Emily that if she didn’t stop telling me about the things she was saying, the little girl would get kicked out of school. Emily promptly told me this when I picked her up that afternoon. Working through my discomfort has offered my daughter the strength to actively begin her own journey in the work of anti-bias.

It has become clear to me through this experience and this journey into Anti-Bias curriculum that part of the important work that I am called to do is being that White person who talks about the impolite issues of race and culture. It occurs to me that for some White people that I may be the first White person to call attention to the elephant of racism in the room.

Invisible = White

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

*** I started my TA position in Multicultural education today. I had forgotten how much I love this topic, but it came rushing back today as we started simply talking about some of the words and meanings.

This was from the first part of a thesis I wrote for my Master's degree. As I have said before this was a very, very long exploration from several angles - teacher, parent, citizen, wife and mother. This piece is about white privilege and learning to "see" that I had benefited in my culture simply from being white. I thought it was a good day to re-publish this piece, in honor of my journey beginning again.

As an Early Childhood educator, I recognized the importance of this work on behalf of the children and families we serve. Without an exploration of our internal bias and recognition of the privileges that come from being white in a white society, how can we hope to welcome all families and children into the classroom? If, as a White college educated woman, I cannot recognize and be aware of the advantage that I am automatically granted as a member of the dominant culture, how can I truly advocate for all families and children? How can these families feel welcomed in a classroom in which I teach?

My mother-in-law in Detroit will often tell me that white people are crazy. I used to assume this was a kind of funny endearment. When I asked my husband about this, his response was “White People are crazy. She means it”. I have come to understand the meaning of this phrase, not as an endearment, but as an extremely serious statement.

I am fortunate. I am the white member of a black family from Detroit. They love me as a member of their family and I am afforded a unique view into a family from a race and culture other than my own. They view my questions and inquiries about these obvious issues with patience and love. The white culture in which I was raised did not openly address these topics and I am asking things to find out. I want to know because they are my family too, and because I am the mother of a bi-racial daughter, who will have to navigate these unsteady racial waters in ways that I never was required to think about.

When my mother in law says this phrase “White people are crazy” this is what she means. White People are the dominant culture in the United States. They are the holders of nearly all the political, social and economic power in our society. They design and control our government, our schools, and our legal system. White people control most of the media outlets – radio, television, and newspaper and book publishers. White people have designed a total system that grants them implicit favors and privileges as they navigate these systems. Yet, they blatantly, as a group, deny this. White people point to a select few of other racial heritage that have been successful as examples of the equality and fair treatment afforded to all Americans. White people will tell you how all of that discrimination “stuff” was in the past, that they had nothing to do with that. Most of the White people who say these things truly believe them. However, for American persons of other non-white heritage, this is a glaring un-truth. To co-opt a phrase from a twelve-step group – The elephant is in the room and only the white people can’t see it.

For my mother in law and husband, the refusal to “see” on the part of white people makes them crazy and untrustworthy. Terrance’s wife, her daughter in law and mother of her granddaughter is one of these white people. I am a white person and admit that I spent most of my life not seeing the elephant.

For my journey into the issues of anti-bias curriculum, the beginning came with my relationship with my husband. While there had been no overt statements of racial or other bias in my family, I was taken aback by the vehemence of my mother’s reaction when I announced my relationship with Terrance. The stream of racist and hateful language that flowed from my mother shocked and horrified me. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that if I was to go out with him that day, I could find another place to live and finance the rest of my college education. The threat was unveiled and clear. Walk away from the black man, or walk away from your comfortable life.

In those moments, I made a decision that would influence the rest of my life. I uncovered my mother as racist. I consciously walked away from the privileges of my white family. This action solidified my emerging sense that issues of race and culture were to be a crucial part of my personal and professional life. However, my liberal education and background was shaken to the core. My white liberal Democratic people were not supposed to react like this when confronted with issues of race. I was ashamed and embarrassed that my family behaved this way.

When I discovered the Anti Bias Curriculum shortly after my graduation from college in 1992, I felt as if it were a professional revelation. This was what I had been looking for! While the topic of “multi-cultural education” was broached during my teacher education at the University of Vermont, it was not a central part of the education of emerging teachers. Preparing white teachers in Vermont did not seem to necessitate the discussion of issues of race and culture in society. We were, on the whole, upper middle class white students, preparing to teach white students.

During this time, I was also falling in love with a man not of my racial heritage. I was experiencing, for the first time, the obviousness of race in an all white environment. Walking into restaurants or stores, I noticed other white people noticing us. My invisibility in my culture, of which I had never been aware, was no longer afforded to me when I walked beside Terrance. I had crossed over a line that I previously did not know existed.

With time, my assimilation into a dual cultural role became as second nature. I stopped noticing because life consumed my attention. A career, a marriage and then a new baby shifted my focus from issues of race and culture to those of every day life. Occasionally, I would be jolted from complacence into thinking about this uncomfortable topic. From the elderly white woman who approached me with my infant daughter inquiring when I “got” her to the white father who loudly inquired to me why the child care center was closed for Civil Rights Day when there were no black people here; these incidents were always unexpected and left me speechless. I had forgotten that as a white woman, without my husband nearby, I visibly re-integrated back into the dominant white culture. This invisibility seemed a tacit permission, allowing other white people to say things in my presence that they would not dare speak of with my husband at my side.

As an educator, I had done a fair amount of exploration into the topic of Anti-Bias curriculum while teaching in my own classrooms. In pursuing accreditation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, it was a criterion to be integrated into the mission and philosophy of the child care center. As the director of this center, I led the conversations of this topic in order to infuse everything we planned with an awareness of the messages we were sending to all families. As a mother of a bi-racial infant daughter, I became more aware of the urgency of the message of Anti-Bias curriculum on the part of the families we served.

These were not always pleasant conversations with teachers or parents. I was accused of being Anti-Christian, Racist, a promoter of Homosexuality, and even told I was a person looking to psychologically damage young children by removing holidays from our center curriculum. I preserved. My personal agenda to make that child care center a place of welcome and support for all families and children became a consuming work. Those staff that did not agree with my vision of anti-bias curriculum eventually left and I found others who shared a similar vision and were willing to commit to it.

Our NAEYC validation visit was scheduled on Halloween of 1999. The validator remarked that she had never seen such a calm, peaceful child care center on Halloween in her career. There were no costumes or candy. There were no excluded children due to religious beliefs. While not perfection, we were living much closer to the intent of Louise Derman Sparks work in Anti Bias Curriculum. We were not standing on the traditions of “we’ve always done it this way”, but rather examining the motives behind our traditions. We asked, “Is this good for children and families?” and let the answers guide our curriculum and policies.
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