Saturday, March 30, 2013

Why It Matters

The baby dog starts kindergarten in the fall. This makes me want to cry, partly because she is going to love it so and that will be a joy to witness and hear about, but also because it's the natural next step of her venturing out into the world without me. We are zoned to a most impressive, blue ribbon elementary school. The kind of school where students test well and national-teacher-of-the-year awards are given and the second graders make very elegant Japanese Tea Gardens for class projects. The kind of school where on kindergarten round-up day Ava was the only face of color amongst the 100+ kids. We are #2 on a wait list to transfer her out of this school and into a very charming, groovier, still academically rigorous school where the student body happens to be 1/3 black, 1/3 hispanic, and a 1/3 white. These stats at a well-ranked school are astounding for Austin.

I find myself in a tedious loop of conversation these days in which well-meaning folk ask after where my child will go to school in the fall. We're zoned for this school, I say—immediately people start saying how great it is there, how top notch!—but we're trying to transfer out of it. But why? Because we don't want Ava to be the only black child, or a finger of a handful, at her school. But why? Because we think that matters. But why do you think that matters?, a woman whom I like demanded somewhat aggressively at a party at which Ava was the only black child. The woman explained she just has strong opinions on the issue is all and she hoped I wasn't put off by her questions but she just didn't get it. Of course she hoped she wasn't offending me by saying that.

And so I tried, willing my eyes not to turn cold or my voice hard, to break down why it mattered. But I felt stupid doing so, and thought her somewhat stupid for asking me to do so, and the conversation itself confused me. Why treat our choice with skepticism? Why do well-meaning friends want to shoo my anxiety off the topic or dismiss it wholesale? I once worried on the matter of diversity to some friends and one lovely woman said "You know what? Your girl is so beautiful, it's not going to matter. She's not going to have a problem." Well hooray for that, y'all, beauty trumps the indignity of race. And of course this normally intelligent, good woman would die if she could hear those words played back for her, but yet they were said. And I said nothing back to her, because I didn't want her to feel bad or stupid, though a part of me thinks what I should have said is "My daughter's not beautiful despite the fact that she's black, she's beautiful because of it you fucking bitch. Now get out of her house."

I was in a muddy conversation about race with some white friends once during which a woman expressed how deeply embarrassed she'd been when her young son had loudly pointed out the color of a black child in another shopping cart at Costco. She was mortified that her child had singled out his color and that the mother had heard him and it was all so uncomfortable and, she asked me, what should she have done? But I didn't understand what the problem was. Well, another friend said, maybe it'd be like if your child pointed out someone's handicap, you'd just feel uncomfortable? But a) being black isn't a handicap and b) it doesn't sound like the child was speaking with any judgment. Maybe it was my friend who was attaching judgment to the word "black"? My friend could sense my growing impatience with the conversation and she said "You know what, I'm clueless on this. Educate me." I wanted to buy her a drink, I was so grateful for her admission of ignorance and her interest in listening.

So here's what I wish I would've said to the woman at this recent party, who made me feel defensive for trying to transfer my girl out of a great school just so she wouldn't be "the only" in a room:

*I don't think it behooves any child to be as conspicuous as mine looked that morning of kindergarten round-up.

*When my child learns about America's ugly history in its treatment of black people I want there to be other kids in the room, hell, maybe even the the teacher, with skin like hers.

*I don't want sweet, goofy, careless children always petting on my daughter's kinky hair because they've never seen curls like that before. (Poor mother at the all-white gymnastics spring break camp whose daughter pointed at my daughter and said "Look at how fluffy her hair is!" The mother looked like she was going to have a stroke trying to smooth away her kid's words. "But remember how much you said you loved it?!" she hysterically demanded of her daughter. "I didn't say that," said the girl. "Yes you did, of course you did!" "I said it was fluffy and cute." All the while Ava and I just stood there waiting them out until there was a break in the conversation and we could back away slowly.)

*I don't want my daughter to ask me if she can straighten her hair because she wants to look like everyone else she sees around her.

*When people speak of my daughter, they need to be comfortable speaking of her race too. If we're all so evolved and color-blind how come most of my white friends still can't help hushing their voice when they say the word "black"? We are terrified of talking about race, we are desperate not to be thought of as racist that we daily deny our own fear and prejudice. (I include my dumb ass in this as well. I remember back in my 20s I was trying to describe Eriq LaSalle's character on E.R. and I was all "He's the aloof doctor. Pretty serious. Mustache. Um, really tall. Kinda hot but a little too uptight." He was the black guy, you idiot 20 year old self. Say it!)

*I just assume make some more friends with my daughter's friends' parents who are black. I want her to have lots of black adult role models. That matters because she doesn't get that in her immediate family and that's who she's going to grow up to be. That matters also because I like to keep interesting company. That often adds up to getting to hear new stories. I wrote a book about people living in a small town, and had rituals and traditions and daily lives nothing like mine. Getting to be the ignorant, curious person in the room is a good thing.

*Some adult adoptees have written really persuasive testaments as to why this matters. It's probably worth listening to them.

*I have a young black friend who was the only child of color in her high school. When she graduated and moved to the city she admitted that she felt some anxiety, fear even, around large groups of black people. That's tragic to me.

All of this might not matter to your family. I respect that. But this matters to mine. Please afford that some respect as well. If you don't get it, be cool when trying to have a conversation and don't tease me about these efforts, rolling your eyes at me or joking that I don't count Asians or Indians or Hispanics as diversity. That's insulting. Don't lead with skepticism or dismissiveness. I'm okay being anxious about creating diverse spaces for my daughter and you don't need to talk me out of that sense of urgency. I also don't think we're infecting our child with our concern. Be careful with your words, just as I hope to be with mine, and probably fail at often, when encountering people walking different roads than mine. (Vegetarian? Homeschooler? Christian? Republican?) When all else fails, admit ignorance and we can have a drink and talk.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Charlie & Lila

I consider it dumb luck that we never really dealt with the more intense attachment issues we were told to expect as adoptive parents. I do remember some very awkward mornings early on at a music class when mothers would sit in a circle with their babies on their laps. Ava would watch the children closely, as if studying their ways, and take cues from them. Sometimes that meant she would sit on this old gal's lap, but usually she trusted her peers' judgment and would elbow her way into some other already chosen mother's lap. That stung a little as I sat there alone badly singing "Hell-ooo everybody, so glad to see you!"—but as long as it didn't provoke a territorial fit in another child and the mother seemed suitably enamored of her unexpected load who was I to demand my baby on my lap. After a couple of months she stopped going to other women and we became her people and never has there been a more loving, affectionate, expressive 4-year-old child. 

To everyone that is except her dolls and stuffed animals. When Ava would get into her crib at night she would look aggressively at her "friends" and start picking them off one by one. "Get outta here!" she'd say like a bouncer in a dock bar as she sent each sailing across the room. "I'm tryin' to sleep." Tough love! We encouraged her to name them—"Truck?" she offered once for a little stuffed elephant in a very bored voice—and to give them a pretend life but nothing took. In May we went to my best friend's wedding in Los Angeles and stayed at a very fancy hotel. Upon check-in the concierge gifted Ava with a stuffed koala bear and she surprised us by naming it ("koala") and every couple of weeks or so would hold it fondly for a few seconds. 

A couple of weeks ago Tim and Ava were getting ready to visit his folks in Florida. Before they left Ava bundled up a little fleece blanket and told me that it was her baby. Wasn't I excited to be a Grandma! 

The baby's name was Charlie Ava told me, which is also her class hamster's name. Charlie too was adopted from Ethiopia when she was 11 months old. She misses her uncle very much but the baby loves Mum Mums and she likes to be sung lullabies as she falls asleep and she needs a bottle and would I promise to feed her and sing to her and change her diaper and tell her how loved she was while Ava was away. I solemnly promised to do all this and weirdly did find myself poking my head into Ava's room each night to make sure the blanket was still happily stuffed on top of her dresser like she had left it. I flirted with the idea of putting a diaper on it as a gag for Ava when she got home but then remembered I was 38.

Here's what a Daddy-Daughter trip looks like by the way. Hold on to your face Ava.

On their way home Tim called from the airport to say that Ava sobbed for her beloved Grandma all through security. When he put her on the phone she was in a state of grand distress. She was excited to come home to see me she wailed, but she also wanted to stay with her Grandma, and now she didn't know what to doooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo! 

When they got home later that night Ava unpacked all of her new treasures from her Grandmother. A princess book, number and word flash cards, a new stuffed animal I pictured ripped to shreds by the puppy within days. Her Grandma had won her a pink walrus from Legoland and Ava told me her name was Lila and and that she loved her loved her loved her. That night Ava surprised me by tucking Lila into bed next to her and telling Lila to be quiet during the book in a firm but loving voice.

The next morning Ava remembered Charlie and told me that I had done well by the blanket. Then she proceeded to tuck Lila in for a nap in the sun. Lucky Lila, Lucky Charlie. 

Our little girl—no longer a sociopath to the stuffed community.