Family Reading Night

At the end of February, I was given the opportunity to speak at a Family Reading Night at my son’s elementary school. I spoke for about 20 minutes about different types of book genres and my writing process. I showed the kids (and their parents) examples of the books I’ve written. The kids were great listeners and asked really smart questions at the end.

 

Before the second session started, I asked my son Ezra, who was born in Africa and added to our family almost 2 years ago, to pass out bookmarks I had brought for all of the kids in attendance. Three elementary-aged girls—two younger white girls and one older black girl—sitting at my feet, waiting for my talk to begin, noticed my black son calling a white woman “mom,” so they asked me about it.

 

“Is he your son?” asked the older girl, probably a 5th grader.

 

When you have an adopted child of a different race, this is a normal question and, in my experience, not usually meant unkindly, so I’ve found it’s best to just answer honestly and without a lot of details. You can always elaborate if they need more information.

 

“Yes,” I answered.

 

“He looks different than you, like you’re light and he’s dark,” one of the younger girls, a 1st grader, commented.

 

“He was born in a different country, but he’s in our family now.” I wondered if they would ask the uncomfortable question: what happened to his real mom? That’s the one that makes my chest tighten up and causes me to scan the room to see if Ezra heard the question, so I can read his face. As a rule, adopted parents prefer to be considered real (It’s not like I’m invisible or anything), but I have been around the block enough to know that vocabulary sometimes fails us, and what people say isn’t always what they mean. In other words, it’s not helpful to assume people are judging the whole adoption/race thing and get yourself all worked up.

 

But these girls didn’t ask the dreaded question, so I didn’t have to talk about the sad events in Ezra’s life with perfect strangers. Instead, these precious leaders of tomorrow had this discussion:

 

1st grade girl: Did you know that a long time ago dark-skinned people couldn’t go to school with light-skinned people? But Dr. King told them that was wrong.

 

5th grade girl: Yeah, Dr. King wasn’t president but he was still really important. He told us that we’re all the same.

 

1st grade girl: That’s why it doesn’t matter if your son looks different than you.

 

5th grade girl: You can love everybody.

 

The other girl who had been silently listening to this enlightened discussion finally spoke. She said, “I’m excited about your talk but I feel like I’ve already learned a lot from you guys.”

 

I jotted down the words they said before I left the school, because…come on. That’s amazing. When you start thinking we adults have really made a mess of everything, say a prayer of thanks for the kids at John Pittard Elementary School.

 

We can get along. We can talk it out. We can learn from the mistakes of those who came before us. When kids are shown loving, mature examples of empathy and given a chance to spend time together in this kind of atmosphere, they will figure out how to make the world a better place.

In the absence of hate

I feel sick. The constant news cycle. The pictures and videos. The soundbites. The unequivocal, unapologetic, urgent call for hatred of people whose skin is a different color.

 

I think I’ve always been bothered by the unfair treatment of people who aren’t white. I was raised on Sesame Street-style diversity and after-school specials that called out bullies and bigots. But now that I’m a mother to a beautiful, brown-skinned boy, I can’t just turn off the TV and stay in my white privilege bubble.

 

Though you could argue I should’ve felt this strongly all along, for me, there’s a new reality to the recent violence. With the addition of our son to our family, I now replace every mistreated, overlooked, belittled black person with his face, his eyes, his tears, and I am undone. When I see a picture of a torch-bearing white supremacist, I can’t help but think of how this man hates my son, even though they’ve never met.

 

How to keep him safe? How to teach him when to stand up and when to stand down? How to keep moving forward when there seems to be so much hate? I can’t think of what to do except to go out and love on people.

 

Yesterday in the parking lot of Sam’s Club, I watched an older white man approach a black mother of four small kids. I held my breath. I braced myself. Then I heard him say that her children are beautiful and a blessing and can he get her a shopping cart? It was commonplace and magnificent, all at once. It was regular kindness, a step towards healing.

 

Kindness promotes trust. Trust makes room for understanding. Understanding creates empathy. And once we get to empathy it’s a lot harder to hate complete strangers.

 

In that same parking lot, I saw a different white man, feet planted widely apart with hands on his hips, stare down a woman wearing an Islamic headscarf. Maybe he had lost his car. Maybe he was elderly and confused. I’m still not sure, but my senses were on high alert. I picked up my pace to walk closer to the woman, wondering what I would do if he said something unkind. Nothing happened. It was probably a scene created mostly by my imagination, but I was ready because I’m tired of letting others do the talking for me. I’m tired of all this hate.

 

There’s no shortage of opinions when it comes to the recent events in Charlottesville. Everyone seems to have lots to say. I’m not in any way certified to speak about race relations, but I can’t say nothing at all. We can fight against racism. We can stand up for what’s right. In the space of one generation, we went from whites-only water fountains to an African-American president. Anything is possible.

 

As long as there are people willing to call out bullies and bigots, there’s hope. I will not be silent. Let’s see the glory that remains where there’s an absence of hate.

Olympics Withdrawal

I’m suffering from Olympics Withdrawal. For those two precious weeks, my family sat around the TV like it was the 1950’s. We marveled at the swimmers and the gymnasts. We asked lots of questions, like is trampoline jumping really a sport (answer: yes) and where is the nation of Grenada (answer: the Caribbean) and what is “dressage” anyway (answer: horse dancing, I think)?

I teared up during medal ceremonies and full-out cried when they showed the back stories of some of the athletes who beat the odds just to make it to the games. The addition of the Refugee Team was a heartbreaking reminder of how so much of the world suffers in order to survive and find a home. For instance, Yusra Mardini, the Syrian athlete who, along with her sister, swam/pushed a boat for 3 hours towards land saving the 18 people onboard who were escaping from Syria. She showed strength enough to win a hundred gold medals in my book.

 

There were extraordinary moments of kindness during the games, too. When U.S. runner Abbey D’Agostino and New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin collided during the women’s 5000m race, they stopped and helped each other to the finish line. Selflessness replaced competitiveness. The drive to help won over the drive to win.

Now that the medals have been awarded and all the athletes have gone home, I’ll look to other athletes (like my kids’ teams) to find more examples of good sportsmanship:

One of my favorite things about school swim meets is watching swimmers from competing teams cheer each other on. I love the notion that the swimmers who have finished should stay in their lanes, remaining in the water until everyone is done. Such a simple yet profound act of courtesy. And even if the last swimmer has been lapped by his opponents three times over, when he finally reaches the wall the swimmers and the crowd cheer as if he had won.

There is so much to learn from team sports and soccer is a favorite in my family. One phrase that pops up a lot, especially with younger soccer players is: “Same team!” When players stop talking to each other on the field—letting each other know they’re available or in need of assistance—and start thinking only in terms of themselves they forget to act like a team. Then everything falls apart. They inadvertently take the ball from a teammate or attempt a shot even if they could pass the ball to someone in a better position for scoring. That’s when you start to hear the parents and coaches remind the players, “Same team!”

Even though the Olympics creates a country versus country situation, I like that it also gives us a “Same team!” vibe. People from all over the globe who might not share a lot of common experiences find a place to compete. We find that though we may be different, in the end—as when the athletes file into the closing ceremonies, waving and smiling and joining the large throng of people—we’re all on the same team.