Wednesday, August 28, 2013

a funny perspective on a crying five year old

So, it's no big secret that we're having mixed results with the transition to the new school year around here. On one end of the spectrum is Red, who this afternoon could be heard singing a tune she made up that consisted of one line repeated again and again, "I love homework! I love homework!" She has informed me of some compliments she's gotten from her teacher on her work (her use of the word "trance" on a homework sheet was apparently impressive). She's been asked to hand out books and papers to the class several times, so it's clear that she's following in someone's footsteps in being the teacher's pet. (Psst, that someone would be me.) She adores school, and she seems to have no trouble falling in line with all the self-control and behavioral expectations, so she's fitting into the mold of a "good" student.

On the other end of the spectrum is JAM, whose year has started off already with some academic, homework, and peer issues. I won't get into the details in this forum, but suffice it to say that middle school can be awfully hellish. Some days (like today!) he comes home with an actual smile on his face, but most days see him experiencing varying degrees of frustration, anxiety, and sadness.

Now we're at Pudge, the new kindergartener, attending public school for the first time. It's important to remember that this is not his first classroom experience, as he attended a university-based laboratory preschool for the last two years, and he was actually quite skilled at functioning in a classroom environment. He contributed regularly to class discussions, he exhibited strong self-control and positive behavior (most of the time), and he enjoyed being part of a class. However, there's a big difference between a play-based preschool setting with several adults present in the classroom where children can choose their activities from a variety of interactive educational centers, and a "traditional" public school classroom environment. And from what it sounds like, Pudge's new class is fairly "traditional," and thanks to the implementation of Common Core Standards, the expectations are what they used to be for older students. So far, he hasn't any behavioral issues, and since it's now standard practice to give every single student some sort of behavioral modification plan or chart, I can see that he's had "green" level behavior every day. (Think like a stoplight- green is good, and red is bad.) I haven't had enough interactions with his teacher yet to make a fair assessment, but I've had both positive and negative feelings about some of the stuff I've heard. As I've said, it's a mixed bag so far.

And it's been a mixed bag of emotions for him, as well. Some mornings, he's bounding out of bed with excitement and enthusiasm. The other day, though, he told me, "As we're going to school for more days, I'm starting to not like going to school anymore." Ah, the honeymoon might be coming to an end.

The other morning seemed to be going along just fine. Until the bus pulled up, that is. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Pudge began to cry. He began to shout, "I don't want to go to school! I'm scared!" Thankfully, there are quite a few children at the bus stop, so I had a minute or two to try to talk him downwhile everyone gathered backpacks, lined up, and started to board the bus. Red wasn't sure what to do, standing near us, but leaning toward lining up. I told her to get on the bus and save the spot next to her for her brother. I tried my best to calm him down while also saying that he needed to get on the bus. I almost called the house to ask Hubby to come out and give him a ride to school, but I really didn't want to set that precedent. So, I hugged him, kissed him, and put my crying five year old on the bus.

Of course, by the time I turned away from the bus, Pudge wasn't the only one crying. I donned my sunglasses and turned to wave at the bus as it pulled away. The other parents and grandparents at the bus stop offered kind words of "He'll be okay," and "Oh Mommy, it'll get easier for both of you." I appreciated the sentiments, though I wished that I felt more confident about the environment he was going into, so I could feel assured that he would be comforted and engaged when he arrived at school.

One of the adults came over to me and engaged me in what I expected to be a comforting conversation, but actually ended up being a bit confusing and surprising. It started out with the same assurances of "he'll be fine," but then went in a direction that shocked me. Here's the gist of what was said to me:
"He'll be okay, he just needs to toughen up a bit. I've seen your older son out here, too, and he's toughened up. He's now fitting in at the bus stop."
Okay... after first saying that Pudge is just five years old and that he's new to the school as a response to the "toughening up" suggestion, I asked if she had seen my oldest being inappropriate at the bus stop since I didn't know what she meant by her comment about him. She reassured me that he wasn't, but just that he didn't stand out so much anymore. I still didn't know what that all meant, especially since he's only been going to this bus stop for a year so far, but whatever, she's meaning well.

Her next comments are what surprised me.
"I know he's scared, but he'll get used to it all. You know, he's the only white kid on the bus, and these kids here are bad. They're just bad. So, he's scared, but he'll get used to it."
Say what now? I think my jaw dropped at this point, because it was clear that this was what she perceived as the core of the issue for my crying five year old. The little white kid was scared of all the bad brown kids surrounding him? I sputtered through a response that was all, "Um, I don't think that's it. He's lived in this neighborhood his entire life. He knows some of these kids from our court and plays with them. I think it's more about the transition to a new school with new experiences and expectations, and the fact that this is really the first time that he's completely away from me for the entire day since I also taught at the school where he was."

But, she went on to say that perhaps this wasn't the school for him and that we should look at other schools, that he might be happier somewhere else. All I could think was, "Is she telling me to find more kids of his "kind" to be around and that would make him happier in school?" I can only assume that she was not including her own (seemingly) African-American granddaughters in this "bad kids" grouping, since she mentioned that they are also afraid of some of the big kids at the bus stop. So maybe, just maybe, she wasn't painting with a broad brush that black=bad / white=good?

Then she got religious on me, and while I respect everyone's right to their own beliefs, I'm still not entirely comfortable telling a stranger who's suggesting that I pray for peace and comfort for my son that I'm just not that into Jesus. So, I stood and nodded and waited for a natural break so I could thank her and go about my day. When it came, I did indeed thank her for the sentiment that things would get better for my son, and I headed home.

But, I kept thinking about this conversation. Yesterday, she wasn't at the bus stop, but another grandmother who I've known as a neighborhood acquaintance since her grandson and Red were babies was there. I talked with her about the conversation, and I ended with the statement, "I just want him to be known as [Pudge], not as "the white boy" at the bus stop." She conveyed the same level of surprise at the story, and she said that as an African-American mother and grandmother, she's always valued exposing her children to diverse experiences and people.We had a refreshing brief conversation on the topic, and it always makes me happy when people are interested in talking openly about topics that most people shy away from.

I find it interesting that about a year and a half ago, I was thinking ahead to what Red's experience was going to be like when she entered the school that fall. In the post, I wondered if it was even okay for me to be questioning what it would be like for her to be in the significant racial minority. For the most part, it wasn't an issue. We talked at times about how most of her classmates had darker skin than her, but the bigger thing that she noticed was that she was the only one in her class with red hair. I'm fairly certain that she was, and is, the only child in the school of ~400 students with red hair! Otherwise, it wasn't an issue of concern for her, and her experiences were what I would expect at any school with any variety of racial makeup percentages. Some kids were mean, some were nice. She found some friends she liked to play with and there were others she learned to avoid. She didn't receive any messages that she didn't fit in, at least that I know of, and I tried to be very open with our conversations throughout the year.

As a result, I went into this school year without thinking much at all about Pudge's potential experience in racial terms. When he's had crying jags about not wanting to go to school, the idea that he was in the racial minority never ever occurred to me as reason.

I've lived in our county for sixteen years now, the longest-- by far-- I've ever lived in one area in my entire life. I've become accustomed to the racial make-up of my community and my place in it. I'm happy to be raising my children in a much, much more diverse region than I grew up in, though I would be lying if I didn't say that I've seen some effects of cultural differences at times, but I'd rather that than live in a community where everyone has exactly the same cultural background and racial identity.

On this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I'd like to think that we're still moving toward the time when race won't be the first thing that we judge a person on. The content of my son's character is fun-loving and kind. And when he's crying because he doesn't want to go to school, it has nothing to do with the level of melanin in the skin of his schoolmates.

Red at the bus stop before her friends arrived. Sure, she and Pudge are the palest ones there, but is that really the issue?

Always reflecting,