The nightly “cleaning o’ the backpack” ritual ensues.
Pulling papers out of my 8-year-old daughter’s backpack, I say,
“I see you learned about Martin Luther King, Jr., at school today.”
“Yeah,” she agrees nonchalantly. “We did.”
“So, what can you tell me about him?”
I sign a form and tuck it into the “Return to School” side of her folder. I look over a spelling test and some math homework, both 100%. I see she still carries a copy of Mrs. Pigglewiggle to read on the fifteen-minute bus between home and school. Putting everything back where it belongs in her bag, I realize she still hasn’t answered my question, so I look up at my daughter expectantly.
Nobody loves a pop quiz, Mom.
“Well? What can you tell me about Martin Luther King, Jr.? This shouldn’t be difficult — you JUST learned about him!”
“But that was YESTERDAY. You expect me to remember all that from YESTERDAY?”
Her eyes are big and filling with tears, the natural defensive stance of a child who clearly wasn’t paying attention to a lesson, but who would die before admitting that. To my eight-year-old child’s mind, it is better that I think she’s a forgetful dingbat than that she was goofing off at school.
“Um, yes. I actually DO expect you to remember things you learned yesterday. Come on. Help me out here. Martin Luther King, Jr. Kind of a big deal. Very important person. You really need to know this guy’s name and why he is so respected.”
Nothing. Sound of crickets. The ice-maker in our freezer unloads itself and it is so quiet we can hear it all the way at the opposite end of the house, where we’re sitting on the couch in the living room.
“Do you know what he DID? Or what he LOOKED LIKE? Or what HAPPENED to him? Anything?”
The Story of a Liberal FAIL:
I’m waving her handwritten notes in the air like the words will magically jump from the page into her memory. I’m starting to get annoyed, but I can’t figure out exactly why. I mean, she’s only eight. How much SHOULD she be expected to recall about a situation that, to her young mind, makes no sense and has no context to her life? And it isn’t fair to be irritated with the school, because obviously they covered the topic with students.
Maybe I’m annoyed with myself, for not having explained this sort of stuff to her already. Or maybe I’m annoyed with the world, for being so fucked up that I have to explain racism to my daughter. Or maybe I’m annoyed with the state of our politics, because a large percentage of ONE party is still pretty god damn messed up when it comes to skin color. Or maybe I just have white guilt and am embarrassed about the whole thing and wish it wasn’t a part of American history.
Probably YES — a nice healthy mixture of all of the above.
My daughter just keeps looking at me, round eyes following the paper I’m still waving around.
“I don’t know.”
Face plant. I take a deep breath and calm myself down.
“Okay, well, is he famous for going to the circus and riding an elephant?”
That gets giggles as she shakes her head.
“Did he build a spaceship and go to the moon?”
“No,” she says. “He did speeches and things.”
“Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. Do you know anything about his speeches? Wasn’t there a really famous one? Something about…?” No response. “Was it about a car? Nooo. Was it about a book? Nooo. Was it about a dream…?”
“Yes! He had a dream!”
She is very excited now. I’ve given her the answer, but from her demeanor you would never guess that she hadn’t come up with the correct response all on her own.
“And his dream was about…?”
We’re both getting tired of this game and pretty soon she’s going to give up completely, because she clearly doesn’t know the answers. So I quit trying to lead her to remember something she just didn’t retain, and answer my own question.
“Equality. His dream was about equality. Do you know what that word means?”
“Like, equal or something? Because equal is, you know, kind of like the word equality.”
“Yes,” I say. “It’s very much like that. It means that, no matter what you look like, or what your parents look like, or where you come from on the planet, you should always be treated the same. Like, people shouldn’t be mean to you just because you don’t look the way they want you to.”
I’ve lost her again. She has no freaking clue what I’m getting at. I’m filled with dread. I don’t want this conversation. I don’t. I really don’t. I hate this conversation and it stirs the beast within. Stupid fucking planet.
“Okay, try to imagine this. You know how you ride the bus to school? Yes? Well, imagine if a new family moved to town, and they were black, and their kid wanted to ride the bus to school, too. That’s cool, right? We don’t care who rides the bus to school. Everybody can ride the bus to school! Right?”
“Well, except for the big kids. They can’t ride on our bus. Because they have their own bus.”
Complications. We split people by age, not color. Which makes sense. But she is eight, and I have to help her understand that sometimes people are cruel and they suck.
“Okay, yeah, so the big kids get their own bus. But as long as the kids are in elementary school with you, it doesn’t matter what they look like. Everybody in your school can ride the bus. Right?”
She looks at me like I’m stupid. Like, “Why WOULDN’T everyone be allowed to ride the bus? Duh, Mom. You’re not making any sense. Can I go play Skylanders on the Wii now?” I see all this cross her face. But now I’m getting to the good bit.
“Just pretend for a minute that a couple kids on your bus were all like, ‘No way! You’re black! You can’t get on our bus! Get your own bus! Blah!’ That would be mean, right?”
She gets all earnest and protective.
“If someone said that, I would tell the bus driver on them, and I would get them to stop. We aren’t allowed to yell at each other on the bus.”
Then I drop the bomb.
“What if the bus driver AGREED WITH THOSE MEAN KIDS?”
I see the thought move through her brain. My daughter the hero says,
“I would tell them all to be quiet, and I would let those other kids share my seat anyway.”
I can’t press on any further. This “what if” game strikes too close to home, a reminder of how my half-Hispanic son was treated in high school before he joined the wrestling team. It’s also too close to the school shootings that recently happened. Granted, those weren’t race related, but I’m not going to ask my child to imagine an angry bus crowd situation.
“You are sweet, and I’m glad you would share your seat. That’s the right thing to do. We should always be nice to ALL people. Doesn’t matter what they look like.”
“I know that, Mom.”
A sudden thought strikes me.
“Are there any black kids at your school?”
“How am I supposed to know? I’m only in second grade. I haven’t been in ALL the classes yet!”
I’m thinking, probably not, then. We live in an all-white, highly Republican area. My hubz grew up here. We’re not staying forever. It doesn’t fit our philosophy, our world view. It’s stifling. My hubz didn’t realize it until we moved here with the kids. I don’t blame him. He’s better than his background. We all are.
I tell my daughter,
“Your cousins go to a mixed school where the kids aren’t all white. They’re like, every color. What do you think about that? Wouldn’t that be cool? All kinds of different people!”
“All the colors? Even blue and purple?”
I laugh at her innocent question.
“I don’t think there is such a thing as blue and purple people. But if there were, could they ride on your bus?”
“Yes! Especially the blue kid, because that’s my favorite color! But the purple kid is nice, too.”
“Well,” I summarize our lesson, “Martin Luther King, Jr., gave speeches about how he dreamed of a world where all the colors would be nice to each other, where we could all ride the bus together, where everyone is equal.”
“Yes, baby, even the blue kids.”